Those who abided by the organiser’s plea of “not to swim” walk up the stairs at Main Beach at Byron Bay.
Those who abided by the organiser’s plea of “not to swim” walk up the stairs at Main Beach at Byron Bay. Marc Stapelberg

Swimmers defy ban

YESTERDAY'S Byron Bay Winter Whales Ocean Swim Classic ended in a massive surf rescue in rough conditions between Wategos and The Pass at Byron Bay.

The main event was cancelled after conditions proved to be dangerous during the junior swim in which young competitors had to be rescued.

Shortly before 10am organisers told the 2000 competitors the main event would not go ahead.

However, as many as 600 ignored the direction and took to the water to undertake the 2.2km swim.

"F*** it. I'm swimming," one keen swimmer was heard to say.

As the throng of swimmers dived into the water one of the bewildered organisers said, "What can I do? I'm not Moses."

The swimmers set off from Wategos but began to get into trouble as they headed north toward Little Wategos.

Some of the swimmers who made it around the headland were rescued in waters off The Pass.

Rubber duckies and jet-skis were deployed to pluck those who were struggling from the water and ferry them to shore while hundreds of people watched on.

Reports on the number of people rescued varied greatly.

Organiser Rob Elvy said between 40 to 50 people were rescued, while Byron Bay Surf Life Saving Club President Neil Cameron said 20 to 25 swimmers were rescued.

One of the people involved in the rescue said 60 people were pulled from the surf.

A surfer who had been in the water during the rescue described the scene as carnage.

Bizzy Butterworth, 41, of Melbourne, was one of many who travelled a great distance for the event and was determined to swim.

"The current was really fast, especially when you got close to shore.

"You had to swim really far out to get around the first buoy," Ms Butterworth.

"Kids had to be rescued in the juniors.

"At the end of their race I saw quite a few kids looking emotional and upset.

"One kid got swept 60 metres down shore when he tried to get out at the end of the race."

"I completely understand why they cancelled it. It was a good call."

"I saw at least four life guards out there on their boards.

"One of them was guiding us away from the reef because waves were really smashing down heavily on it and because we had to swim deeper, we got quite close to it."

"I do a lot of open water swimming down in Victoria but we have nothing like these conditions.

"I went out with a group and we probably stopped four times to re-group and make sure we were all still together.

"It was really hard to tell what direction you were going in."

The earlier Westpac Mini Swim was won by nine-year-old Nicholas Mounic, of Lennox Head, with a time of 21.03 minutes.

Emily Annandale, of Ocean Shores, won the female assisted division, while Chris Cooney, of Mullumbimby, won the male assisted division.

The main swim event has now been rescheduled for June 3.

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