OPINION: When the doomed ship Rena began spewing oil into the ocean near Mt Maunganui about three weeks ago, the armchair experts reckoned no-one would be swimming on this coast for a very long time, maybe not even by Christmas.
They've been proved wrong because of the heroic and painstaking efforts of the salvage crews and beach cleanup brigade.
Although the Rena saga is not over, and the submerged starboard fuel tank will be difficult to access for pumping, I'm happy to report that I swam at the Mount's Tay St beach at Labour Weekend.
There were no signs prohibiting this, the area had just reopened. Although a few people were out walking, I was the only person in the water at 10am last Saturday.
It felt good to be there. Like something had been reclaimed from calamity.
It was actually more of a dip than a swim because the water was damn freezing.
But the sweeping stretch of sand and sea at Tay St is one of my most favourite places in the world, so for a few minutes I forgot the cares of everyday life, floated on the gentle, crystal-clear waves, and tried to pretend that the large blot on the horizon was a funny-shaped island rather than a dodgy container ship grounded on Astrolabe Reef.
Afterwards, I walked across the road to Tay St Dairy to get a takeaway coffee to warm up with. I mentioned to Pete, the affable owner, that I'd braved the water.
"So you're not covered in oil then?" Pete asked. "No, not at all," I said, "just turned a bit blue but not a drop of oil to be seen."
"Well try telling that to the media, they might be surprised," he said. "Um, I am the media," I replied.
Pete looked momentarily baffled, then he remembered that I work for the Waikato Times, which he thoughtfully stocks in his dairy.
It turned out it wasn't us Pete's annoyed with, but he and others have been upset by television reports that the oil situation is worse at the Mount than it actually is. He took particular issue with a television story last week praising pristine Whangamata as the place to be at Labour Weekend rather than the apparently ill-fated Mt Maunganui.
By Monday morning, though, Pete would have been a happier man.
The word had clearly got out that the Mount beach had opened as far as Tay St, the weather was glorious, the crowds descended to enjoy the public holiday and welcome the summer.
MY SALUTE to summer is always to swim in the ocean at Labour Weekend, and I like to stretch the aquatic season out to Easter if I can.
Water temperatures can be shocking at times, literally and physically, and this where a little extra flesh comes in handy to withstand the pain.
But there is something amazingly wonderful about being in the sea; floating on your back on quiet surf days, battling the high rollers on bigger days. Being dumped, getting up gasping, laughing, going back for more.
The sea is a tricky place, though, and I had a near-death experience at Tay St about a decade or more ago when I got caught in a rip. I quickly became exhausted, was dragged out beyond my depth, and there were very few people around to yell out to for help.
My husband Bill was body-surfing much further away and by chance he caught a wave that pitched him up quite near me. He came into the rip, and talked me through our slow, seemingly impossible progress back to shore.
This episode made me more careful of the waves but it didn't put me off. Way in the future I fancy myself as an old-lady-who-swims-in-the-sea-all-year-round, tottering down to the water come rain or shine for a bracing dip.
In days gone by there was a legendary group of such women at Tay St beach, about three or four of them who donned their swimming togs and rubber caps in all weathers. Their inspiration lingers.
I had a trial run some time back on holiday at Mangawhai Heads, north of Auckland, when I swam on a glittering July morning.
Bill tried to talk me out of it, then gave up and snapped a couple of photos for posterity. My toes were like iceblocks when I got out.
Meanwhile, back to the topic of the Rena: I want to reiterate how grateful I am to the workers on land and sea who are saving the Bay of Plenty from a situation that could have been much worse than it already is.
Although there was widespread criticism of the slowness of authorities to act in the first few days after the ship ran aground, this has surely been mitigated by subsequent efforts.
Sincere thanks to everyone involved in making a difference. And I hope Pete at Tay St Dairy is happy with this positive media coverage.
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