Shiver me timbers

By Andrea Rowe Photos Yanni

A soft stripe of orange draws a line of morning across the bay. Choppy waves lap at the ankles of a gutsy group who gather at dawn. They call themselves Swim Club. 

Track-suited adults and children trickle in through the darkness, dropping towels and clothes about them in a messy pile. At this hour, a line of beach boxes is the only witnesses to their gathering.

The group swells to 30 – young and old, employed and lockdown limited, retired folks and change seekers – all standing at the shoreline, shivering as the sun rises. 

A shout goes out, and Swim Club takes the plunge with happy hollering as the shock of cold water hits them. 

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that starting our days in nature brings a sense of healing. Swim Club’s ‘Accidental Founder’ Nix Stephens, is one of many returning to the ocean for self-care rituals. 

The Mornington Peninsula has seen an uprising of cold-water swimmers during slow-down times. 35 year-old Nix, an architecture and real estate photographer and videographer, has led the charge for local dawn swimmers taking to cold water for improved wellbeing.

When her nutritionist friend Emma Park started cold ocean swimming to confront fears, Nix was inspired to take the plunge too. 

“I’d told myself a story that I hate mornings and hate being cold. The stories we tell ourselves are only stories and we’re allowed to challenge them. I went swimming with Emma and then I kept going.”

“I was hesitant about getting into cold water, but it’s so good for the cardiovascular system, and for mindfulness. It shocks the system and once you adapt to calming your body, it’s a great way to start your day. I think that’s why others are attracted to Swim Club; it’s super authentic.” 

Whitecliffs Foreshore is Swim Club’s watering hole of choice, with water depth and easy carpark access. “You don’t have to wade out forever to be able to swim, and when we come out, there’s easy access to the shower and our warm cars!” says Nix. 

It’s less about a swim for some, and more about a plunge and grin! 

The brave stride in first, a plunge of shoulders immersing further into the senses-shocking depths. The smaller children hang back, darting like hooded plovers along the shoreline before being coaxed in further. The group chat and laugh, occasionally breaking away to face the sunrise and float like penguins. 

There’s relaxed accountability amongst the members, though there’s no official membership. If you turn up and dip you toe in, consider yourself a part of Swim Club. For the regulars, Nix has nurtured the community and contributed her love of design and merchandise creation, hand making and selling Swim Club hoodies. An Instagram account documents the group’s philosophies and fun-loving swims, giving shout-outs to those who join them and meaningful quotes. 

“Some regulars meet daily; others go when they can and report back in on Messenger. It’s enough to get out there when it works for you. Some have been scared of the water and come to confront those fears, while others want to make big changes. ” Nix says. 

“I come here each day for my mental health,” says Bek Stephens. “I love how it helps me start my day with energy.” One of Swim Club’s youngest swimmer’s 10-year-old Charlie celebrated his 50th swim in July, with breakfast cupcakes shared to mark the occasion. By August of this year Nix herself had completed over 150 consecutive cold-water swims. 

Growing up in Blairgowrie, Nix’s childhood was all about oceanic immersion. Her parents ran a dolphin swimming and fishing trips charter boat. Nix spent considerable time on the vessel and in the water until her parents sold the business.

“It was a pretty cruisy Peninsula childhood, and I surfed on and off with mates till Year 12.”

Leaving the region as a high school graduate, Nix loved in Northcotte, Kyneton, Brunswick and Woodend.

“There wasn’t a lot down here for the queer community growing up, and moving beyond here gave me opportunities to find different parts of myself, and grow in confidence.” 

Pandemic impacts brought Nix back to the Peninsula. Moving from her bush base to a city apartment, she realised being alone in town might not be the best way to ride out lockdowns. Nix shifted plans and moved back home to Rye. 

“Coming back in lockdown, I knew I needed to stare at something much bigger than my own four walls and myself to gain some perspective. Starting every day in the ocean is really addictive once you change your mind about it, and it helps with anxiety too. To embrace that feeling is really like a release.”

“Each day helped me surrender further and letting go of thoughts that never really helped me. I’m more mindful now, and have effectively retrained my nervous system.”

“I’m an introvert by nature so it’s actually become a  really lovely social outlet; as well I’ve made new friends and reconnected with old schoolmates too.” 

“When you look at what we’ve all been forced to deal with in recent times, everything else is stripped away and we can focus on what really matters and makes us feel whole. Connecting with people and nature are a baseline way of surviving and thriving for so many.” 

Nix found her swim tribe, and by default, a way of contributing to her community. 

“I feel like I’m doing things from a more genuine place now. People tell me I’m inspiring and I struggled with how everyone was expecting me to be a leader at first; I’d simply put the call out for others to come join me. But it’s been humbling helping others find their way to morning swims too, and I’ve worked through accepting thank yous from others. I just think everyone else is just as inspiring too.” 

“Since lockdowns, ocean swimming has been easier to commit to: all you need is a towel and time at the nearest beach. In the water, everyone is equal. No-one is judging, everyone’s enjoying their own vibe. No-one ever gets in the water and regrets it.” 

Follow Swim Club
Insta: @swimclubswimclub
Story and photos done pre current restrictions. The group has several informal chapters along the Southern Peninsula. 

Peninsula Essence – September 2021