This summer I did the backstroke And you know that's not all I did the breast stroke and the butterfly And the old Australian crawl, the old Australian crawl. The Swimming Song, Loudon Wainwright III
[Publishers Note: Many years ago a friend sent me a book called Waterlog by Roger Deakin who swam around Britain; well not exactly swim around, but he did swim in a lot of places including the fens and the Irish sea. I love to swim in the sea and in the river so I thought other swimmers might like to have a look at this story that appeared recently in the AGE. [Thnx Mary] Ian Curr, Mar 2015].
Last year, Matt Stewart pedalled beside the Yarra every morning.
From his home in South Yarra to his work at Melbourne University, he wondered about the condition of our river. Could it be improved?
He began researching the Yarra River’s urban history.
Matt Stewart takes a dip in the Yarra Photo: Simon Schluter
“I found a story from 1932 which spoke about an iconic race where 100,000 people lined the banks,” he says. “It was the biggest open water swimming event in the world.”
With a group of friends, Stewart resolved to revive the “Race to Prince’s Bridge”.
Their organisation, Yarra Swim Co, aims to restart the event next year.
“It’s ambitious,” he says. “We want to inspire people to see the river as a place for recreation, where we can swim permanently in the future.”
The three-mile swim was first held in 1913, from the Twickenham Ferry – now the site of the MacRobertson Bridge in Burnley – to (the then) Prince’s Bridge near Flinders Street Station.
In 1929, it set a world record for the number of competitors and 100,000 people lined the banks to watch.
Footage of the 1932 race is on YouTube. A reporter asks the female winner of the race – “Miss Gill, of Hawthorn” – how she found the Yarra?
“Pretty dirty!” she laughed.
The Race to Prince’s Bridge was held annually until 1963, when it was cancelled because of concerns about the water quality. The race was revived, and then canned again, in the late 1980s.
During summer, the Environment Protection Authority and Melbourne Water monitor water quality and display the results on the “Yarra Watch” website. This week, the water was suitable for swimming at Kew, Warrandyte and Launching Place in the Upper Yarra. It is illegal to swim in the Yarra downstream of Gipps Street in Abbotsford.
For the past three years, Dr David McCarthy, from Monash University, has been studying the microbes in the river that could affect human health.
While his research won’t be complete for another year, he says the water quality deteriorates after rain, when stormwater flows into the river, bringing contaminants from the streets.
In very heavy rainfall, the sewer system overflows into the waterways.
Dr McCarthy says one long-term solution to poor water quality is better stormwater treatment; to capture and treat rainfall where it lands before it is released into the environment.
The Labor government has proposed legislation, the Yarra River Protection Act, to guard against overdevelopment on the river’s banks.
However, Yarra riverkeeper Andrew Kelly says the new approach must be broader than planning alone.
“The river falls on the edge of many people’s responsibilities but not right in the centre for anyone.”
He hopes the new wave of interest in the river will help the Yarra’s cause.
On Facebook, 13,000 people have promised to take part in an “inflatable regatta” on the last Saturday of March. The blow-up boats will launch at Abbotsford and land at Bridge Road in Richmond.