ALF Carpenter has swum through much of his 100 years on earth.
He learnt to swim in the Murrumbidgee River as a boy in Wagga Wagga. During the Second World War, while serving in the Middle East, he was founder of the Gaza Beach Lifesaving Patrol. Then, while swimming for his life away from a bullet-riddled barge after a Japanese attack off Papua New Guinea, he struck up a conversation with a digger from Newcastle.
“I knew where it was on the map, but I didn’t know the possibilities of it, except that it had a steelworks,” recalls Mr Carpenter.
After the war, Alf Carpenter moved to Lake Macquarie to begin a general store with that digger he’d met during the war.
He may have changed location, but Mr Carpenter kept swimming through the years. He loved being in the ocean and swimming at Merewether Ocean Baths. He declares the water in the baths is a lot cleaner now - “You don’t have turds from the [Burwood Beach] treatment works washing down on the wrong tides these days” - and he remembers being able to prise oysters off the walls and eating them.
When the Merewether Mackerels winter swimming club began in 1972, he joined. And as those brave souls line up on the white concrete blocks and dive in each Sunday morning between May and September, Alf Carpenter is among them.
Even if it’s cold, with the winds howling, “you can hold your breath and dash for 50 metres”. Not that Alf does much dashing.
“I’ve got that bloody slow, my speed in swimming is now in reverse thrust,” he chuckles.
Still, he reckons that cold water has helped him lead a long and healthy life. That, and the camaraderie of the Mackerels. While swimming is a solitary pursuit, the community of swimmers brings joy to Alf Carpenter’s life. And you can see that in his home.
In his lounge room is an arrangement of gifts and mementos from his 100th birthday. On one wall is the congratulatory letter from the Queen, and above that is a photo of Alf the swimmer, with the frame signed by his Mackerel mates.
He also has another group of mates at Merewether Surf Life Saving Club, where he served for many years, and he even formed a “Dad’s Army Patrol” from Mackerel members.
While there is a string of beautiful places to swim around Newcastle, that’s not what makes this place for Alf Carpenter: “It’s the people I know who make Newcastle.”
“They’re a great lot of people,” he says of the Mackerels, which has about 60 members, men and women.
“Life’s so sweet because of the people you meet and those who really care.”
The Mackerels think Alf is pretty special as well.
“He’s just the backbone of the club,” says secretary Billie Holmes-Fairfull.
This winter, Alf Carpenter has been starting races, rather than competing, as he has been shaking off pneumonia. But he’s determined to swim into his second century. For to him, swimming is one of the joys of life.
“I don’t have any troubles on my mind,” he says. “I just swim.”