Charlie Richards: A dogged and wonderful competitor

With Little else in common but competitive open water swimming, Charlie and I really got each other – and we became friends through swimming races during the last fifteen years.

The most memorable race was early on in our friendly rivalry. It was the 2007 George Copley Challenge – the 5,000 metres race which starts north of Port Augusta ands swims into the dock at the Sailing Club. 

We were driven by bus 5k up the very much thinning out Gulf St Vincent. Where we entered the not crystal-clear water and swum against the tide for a quite a while. I want to describe part of this race in a little detail. I think Charlie he wouldn’t mind you spending a minute or two reliving this race. We often talked about it in the following years. I chose this race for reasons that become obvious. We were the best two male swimmers in this longer race on that year. And there was a big Trophy for first man across the line – as well as the age championship and a hug from the then Mayor the engaging Joy Baluch AM. 

We lost each other in the first 3k. Charlie liked to swim by himself as he was a very good navigator and he didn’t like me letting him do all the work. Anyway, I thought I had burned him off when we got to the 3K buoy – but we nearly ran into each other as we converged on this marker. The race was on – but there was a very long way to go.

We swam neck and neck for a long time – eyeballing each other occasionally – and there was a bit of an inner smile – but it was really on. Each of us tried little bursts of speed but we never lost touch and the other would soon catch up.

With about 200m to go I really challenged him – but he was up for it. He stayed with me – 200m was a bit soon to sustain any sprint finish. So, we then fell back into eyeing each other off – we almost always swam side by side. If we did drag on each other’s feet the other would kick the other in the face – in a friendly way of course.

At this point I have to mention – and Charlie would agree with me if he were here – that I had  better swimming style than him. I was trained as a pool swimmer as a boy. I like to look good. Charlie once suggested that I was the swimming equivalent of a show pony that prances round an arena; whereas he was very happy to be a fit bush brumby running in a large paddock. Charlie was a gutsy sort of open water swimmer and he was a thrashing machine with a high stroke rate. 

Anyway, back to the race. Charlie thought he would surprise me by making his own challenge – which he did – but I was able to stay with him – thinking he would give up any moment – he couldn’t keep up that stroke rate and pace. Charlie didn’t know when to stop – the words ‘giving-up’ were not in his vocabulary. He simply kept up this relentless sprint for the last 100 or more meters. 

Now it should be further mentioned that the tide was very strong in our favour by now – so we were moving much, much faster than anyone should at the end of a 5kilometre race. For that last 50meters we were still neck and neck neither giving an inch to the other and both flat out – even if I did look better we were not separated by even an inch.

To beat him by the slightest of touches, I swam recklessly into the finishing wall at sailing club injuring my hand considerably – it took over a year to heal. We couldn’t tell who won and it didn’t matter. Charlie didn’t know I’d hurt my right hand and he shook vigorously. There was nothing to hold onto, I awkwardly man-hugged him in the process – not Charlie’s cup of tea the man-hug. At least not som much 13 years ago. He nearly drowned me. 

I also remember him saying something like “I didn’t think the show pony could stay with me” – and the truth is I should not have tried. This race was the moment we really got to know and respect each other. 

Charlie was a great competitor. He beat me in most choppy swims – he seemed to enjoy swimming against the wind – he loved that. Last year he whipped me. 

I was really looking forward to this year’s race – but now I will have to swim the Jetty to Jetty for him – with a black-armband – instead of swimming against him.

So what of the future of our swimming friendship?

 I look forward to swimming again with Charlie in some race, in some ocean, on some planet, in some universe, at some time in the mysterious future – to which Charlie has gone.

I am convinced that we will swim together again – or engage in some equivalent of open-water swimming. That’s my hopeful theory anyway – and I’m sticking with it. 

As I see it Charlie can’t really have died – his vigorous swimming spirit of adventure will surely swim on – doggedly and wonderfully. 

Dr. Stephen J Carthew (friendly competitor for about 15 years).