LAST year, Matt Stewart rode along the Yarra every morning, from his home in South Yarra to his work at Melbourne University. As he pedalled, he wondered about the condition of our river. Could it be improved?
He began researching the Yarra’s urban history. “I found a story from 1932 which spoke about an iconic race where 100,000 people lined the banks,” he says. “It was the biggest open water swimming event in the world.”
With a group of friends, Stewart resolved to revive the “Race to Prince’s Bridge”.
Their organisation, Yarra Swim Co, is aiming for the race to begin again next year. “It’s ambitious,” he says. “We want to inspire people to see the river as a place for recreation, where we can swim permanently in the future.”
The 3-mile swim was first held in 1913, from the Twickenham Ferry – now the site of the MacRobertson Bridge, in Burnley – to (the then) Prince’s Bridge, near Flinders Street Station.
Coburg swimming club members who took part in the 3-mile swim, c1937. Coburg Historical Society.
In 1929, it set a world record for the number of competitors and 100,000 people lined the banks to watch.
Footage of the 1932 race is on YouTube: a reporter asks the female winner of the race – “Miss Gill, of Hawthorn” – how she found the Yarra. “Pretty dirty!” she laughed.
The Race to Prince’s Bridge ran annually until 1963, when it was cancelled because of concerns about water quality. The race was revived, and then canned again, in the late 80s.
During summer, the EPA and Melbourne Water monitor water quality in the river and display the results on the Yarra Watch website. This week the water was suitable for swimming at Kew, Warrandyte and Launching Place in the Upper Yarra. It is illegal to swim in the Yarra downstream of Gipps Street, in Abbotsford.
For the last three years, Dr David McCarthy, from Monash University, has been studying the microbes in the river that could affect human health. His research won’t be complete for another year, but he says water quality deteriorates after rain, when stormwater flows into the river, bringing contaminants from our streets. In very heavy rains, the sewer system overflows into the waterways.
Dr McCarthy says one long-term solution to poor water quality is better stormwater treatment – to capture and treat rainfall where it lands, before it is released into the environment.
The Labor government has proposed new legislation, the Yarra River Protection Act, to guard against overdevelopment along the river’s banks.
Yarra Riverkeeper Andrew Kelly says the new approach must be broader than planning alone. “The river falls on the edge of many people’s responsibilities but not right in the centre for anyone.”
He is hopeful that the new wave of interest in the river will help the Yarra’s cause. On Facebook, 13,000 people have promised to take part in an “inflatable regatta” on the last Saturday of March. The blow-up boats will launch at Abbotsford and land at Bridge Road in Richmond.