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Trouble on the beach

By Peter West - posted Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Sydney has lots of beaches. But lately, we Sydneysiders are having trouble getting a swim in the ocean. What's going on?

Australians love going to the beach. Beaches are part of any summertime in our cities, including Perth, Brisbane, the Gold Coast, and Adelaide. And most of all: in Sydney. There are stretches of beach up and down the coast between Cairns and Melbourne which are beloved by day trippers, body surfers, board riders and sun-bakers. In normal times we could make a number of easy generalisations like this: Australians go to the beach; beach-going is a common Australian pastime. And there would be barely anyone who would bother to correct or qualify what we said, in normal times.

I had better state clearly that I write as someone who's often been at the beach. I write from Sydney's eastern suburbs, the site of what are called 'iconic' beaches- at least, famous ones, I suppose, like Bondi and Maroubra and Tamarama. My focus in this piece is Sydney's east coast beaches. Readers will please note that the eastern suburbs are much more crowded now than they were five or six years ago. We have apartments springing up almost everywhere in the area, and persistent demands from developers to build more and more. Readers in other places may wish to comment on what's happening on beaches in Florida, Brazil, Tasmania or Hawaii.


Incidents on the beach

At times, there have been incidents on Sydney's beaches. Many have been eager to make a big deal of the events on Cronulla Beach in December, 2005. A few arguments between lifesavers and others were seized on by shock jocks and made much of. The shock jocks suggested to listeners that they go down to the beach and protest. The ensuing events were described as the 'Cronulla Riots' and spoken of as if violent attacks occurred on a weekly basis at our beaches. Our eyewitness account argued that the events at Cronulla began quietly but accelerated under the influence of alcohol and crowd mania. Some Australians from a number of places yelled at foreign-looking people, and injured some of them. A police report found that the miscreants were stirred up by shock-jocks and alarmist media. There will always be people eager to try to prove that these and other incidents are evidence of racism: sociologists and commentators always like to turn a spotlight onto such events because that provides a reason for their existence. But this is arguable. Of course, the events were disgraceful and the offenders should have been punished.

Other countries have racial problems at or close to beaches. Students of US history would be well aware that US beaches were segregatedfor many years. There have been 'negro beaches' set aside in some areas of the USA, usually where whites didn't want to swim. And there were race riots day after day in Chicago in 1919. Other incidents have occurred in other US cities. Racial tensions and many injustices around racial differences have gone on in many countries.

Don't stand so close

In this time of Covid-19 or Coronavirus, governments have decreed that people must practise social distancing. This is hard enough to do in many places. There have been complaints about crowded pathways and parksin social media and the Sydney papers. Almost all of us want to move in our own way and not be constrained by a knots of kids on tricycles, people on bicycles, mothers with large prams, or groups of giggling adolescents. Shopping in supermarkets bring their own complications about what is appropriate social distancing. I feel people are always looking at me and my companions and wondering "who are you? Should you be so close to him (or her)?"

In regard to closeness, the beach presents particular issues. How do I stop people lying near me, swimming past me or brushing past me? None of that is clear. To ask another question: why do people come to the beach? The answer is complicated. Some actually come to swim. Some want to swim and lie on the sand, and then swim again. Teenage girls want to dawdle in the water, scream as each wave hits them, and attract the attention of boys. Boys want to yell and shout and attract girls' eyes. Some want to check out other people in skimpy swim togs. And these days many people seem to like wearing very skimpy togs - what Brazilians call, amusingly, 'dental floss'. Some people want to lie and read. In Sydney's cool evenings, beaches are populated by Latin Americans and Samoans singing around barbecues - when things are normal. The amazing thing is that so many groups gather at and around the beach, yet trouble occurs fairly rarely.


All this has changed in the time of the virus. Sydney's beaches are now being watched and patrolled. The Guardian covered some of these events here.Police are moving people on if they are not 'exercising'. That word needs definition. Police and council officers complain some are merely splashing in the water. Or lolling on the sand, and so on. Some have been given a hefty fine. Over the Anzac Day Weekend ( 25 to 27 April) beaches were closed, then opened for certain purposes, and then closed again. There has been a lot of discussion - wherever discussion can take place in such circumstances. There have been pleas from the disabled to be able to swim. And many denizens cooped up in Sydney's apartment buildings are begging to be allowed to go for a swim in 'our' beaches.

Big issues remain

There are a tangle of issues all together. What are beaches for? Who are they for: intrepid swimmers who brave the ocean year-round? Little old ladies who want to dangle their toes in the water? Kids who want to run in the water and jump and play and make sandcastles? Young men on their surfboards? There have also been strong tensions between 'locals' and 'visitors' (I don't want to start defining those terms). Surprisingly, most people have done as the authorities told them to. We haven't had the protests against lockdownthat have happened in the USA and Germany.

Journalists love to survey complex issues and finish with "Whatever happens, one thing is clear". In this case it's far from clear where these issues will go. Cold temperatures and biting winds will clear Sydney's beaches soon.

Most people can't stand it when the cold water goes over their Speedos - it gives them a shrinking feeling. As for other places, I can't say. And I wouldn't dare predict where we'll be by the time we're back to warmer days. That's anyone's guess.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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