Swimming once saved Jewele McLeod’s life. So the octogenarian who’s been swimming daily for three decades is elated to be out of lockdown and back in the sea. 

Just shy of her 88th birthday, Jewele McLeod has been swimming at Kohimarama Beach on Auckland’s eastern shores for 60 years.

For the past 30 of those, she’s tried to swim every day – regardless of the weather or the temperature of the Waitemata Harbour; always heading out towards Rangitoto Island. And never in a wetsuit.

For the five weeks she was in lockdown, Jewele looked out to Rangitoto from the shore, paddling her feet in the shallows as she walked the length of the beach each day. They were five long weeks, she says.

“I was sorely tempted many times,” she says. “We had weather like I’ve never seen before – such a long period of great sunshine and warmth. And without any boats in it, the water was crystal clear.

“I noticed so many more small fish by the shore line, and I even saw a stingray. Such wonderful creatures – though when I see them while I’m swimming, it’s a bit alarming.

“I watched a man who was in the water when he shouldn’t have been. And a police officer was standing on the beach waiting for him. I thought it was almost worth breaking the rules, going swimming, and being told off. But I didn’t.”

Last week, when Level 4 dropped down to 3 and Jewele was allowed to, she headed out towards Rangitoto again.

The Psychrolutes

There has been just a handful of years in her life when Jewele McLeod hasn’t lived by the sea. She grew up on the Petone Esplanade, on the very edge of Wellington Harbour.

“My whole childhood was spent on the beach; I was always in the water. Mum used to call us in for meals,” she says.

“I was never given any great swimming training. I just walked into the water and did my best.”

She spent a lot of her time beneath the surface, diving for her mother’s precious buttons.

“My father bought a little canoe, and we used to paddle it out and anchor it. My mother had a tin of her very favourite buttons; they were her pride and joy. But we used to sneak the tin out on the boat, then drop the buttons down to the sea floor and dive for them.

“Not all of them came back.”

Swimmers dived straight back into the waters of the Waitemata as soon as Level 4 lifted. Photo: Getty Images. 

When she married, Jewele moved inland and spent two years in Stokes Valley. “We used to call it Nappy Valley. It was a place where young newly-married couples could afford a house. It was a mass of clotheslines filled with white nappies.”

When her family moved to Auckland 60 years ago, they settled in Kohimarama, in a house 10 minutes’ walk from the beach. “What a happy situation to find myself back by the water again,” Jewele says. She returned to the sea, and her children learned to swim too.

Three decades ago, Jewele began swimming at the beach every day, year round. Simply because she could, she says.

“I don’t know if there was any better reason than that. I was in a situation where time allowed me to do it.” 

The tide calendar is her bible, she says. “Ask any of the swimmers down there. I like to swim on an incoming tide.”

There’s a shoal of them, the hardy souls who usually chat outside the bathing shed, before stroking out to the white or yellow buoys offshore. There’s no race, no competition.     

“We’re not a club, we’re just a loose group of people – of very interesting people too – who like to swim,” she says. Author C.K. Stead is often among them.

“There’s only about a half a dozen of us who swim all year, without a wetsuit. Apparently, there’s a name for us though; people who enjoy swimming in cold water. We’re ‘Psychrolutes’.” 

It’s the name adopted by the society of outdoor winter swimmers at England’s Eton College in the 1820s – who believed cold-water swimming would strengthen the body and keep impure thoughts away. (Psychrolutes is also the scientific name of the bizarre-looking blobfish, found in the deep, cold seas around New Zealand).

Eleven degrees Celsius is the coolest water temperature in Auckland’s harbour that Jewele has swum in. “It normally hovers around 12 degrees in winter, and you can tell the difference even in a one-degree drop,” she says.

When she re-entered the water last Tuesday morning – the day restrictions on swimming in the ocean were lifted at Level 3 – the water was still a relatively balmy 19 degrees.

She’s never been tempted to pull on a wetsuit for warmth. “Quite frankly, I can’t imagine swimming in one – the whole joy of swimming is feeling the water against your skin. And they seem to have a lot of trouble getting in and out of them,” she says.

Lucky to be alive

Nowdays, Jewele tends to swim out to the white buoy, 150m out from the shore (“I always swim towards Rangitoto; swimming along the beach is boring.”) In the summer when she’s up to it, she ventures out to the yellow marker at 300m. 

Her daughter, Lynne, a recently retired librarian, is also an avid sea swimmer, who goes the longer distance.

“At times we swim together – well, we walk into the water together, but once we’re in, she takes off. I’m a very slow swimmer at my age,” says Jewele, who prefers to take her time gliding through the water by breaststroke.

Jewele McLeod almost lost her leg to a flesh-eating bacteria. Photo: Tim Murphy

Although she tries to swim year-round without fail, there was a time, three years ago, when Jewele was out of the water for eight months.

She’d been getting changed to go swimming, when the zip of her jeans nicked her leg. A flesh-eating bacteria found its way into the wound and she was hospitalised for five weeks. It was a tropical disease rarely seen in New Zealand waters, she says.

“I know I’m lucky. My surgeon says I was lucky to still have my leg, and lucky to have my life,” she says. “But they think I was so fit from my swimming that I survived and recovered.

“The irony is that swimming gave me the infection, but it was swimming that saved my life.”

In the big scheme of things, Jewele knows five weeks out of the water this time wasn’t a huge sacrifice. She completely understood and supported the reason she wasn’t allowed to swim. She says she’s concerned about the coronavirus, but she’s not afraid of it.

“I’m doing my bit to keep myself safe.  We keep a good distance apart on the beach and in the water, and we still can’t use the bathing sheds,” she says.

“There weren’t many of us down at the beach on that first day, which was good. And it was the greatest feeling to be back in the sea. The sun was sparkling on the water, and it felt so good on my skin.

“It was like normal transmission had finally resumed.”

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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