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2019 Scotland Island dog swimming race welcomes wild card entrant!

The Scotland Island dog swimming race is a relatively unknown spectacle that takes place every Christmas Eve in Pittwater (north of Sydney). 

In its 45th year, it is a quirky and quintessentially Australian event: where else but Australia would entrants compete for a prize of dog food and beer?

Going to the dogs

The Scotland Island dog swimming race has been held every Christmas Eve since 1974, when two Pittwater ferry captains insisted that their respective vessels were faster than the other. This friendly rivalry escalated to a brag that each captain’s dog - one a German Shepherd named Connie, the other a black Kelpie named Diesel - was a faster swimmer than the other, ultimately resulting in a challenge to prove it. 

The rivals decided the best way to settle the score was a doggy-paddle race from Bells Wharf on Scotland Island to Church Point, some 550 metres across Pittwater. 
And so a tradition was born, with 14 entrants in the inaugural year as others joined the friendly rivalry, curious to see if their dog could better Connie and Diesel (Connie beat Diesel, which failed to finish, although she was not the ultimate winner). 

Since then, the event has been modified, with dog owners paddling a range of water craft in front of their pets to entice them forward, significantly safer than the propeller-driven dinghies of yesteryear. 

Entry fee consists of a long-necked beer bottle and a large tin of dog meat, which are pooled and then divvied up between winners of the three respective dog size categories. 

Big water dogs, such as Labradors and other Retrievers, predictably fare best overall (a black lab named Cooper won five years in succession from 2005-2010), but the prizes are divided between the first three finishers in big and small dog categories. 

Swimming cat’s dogmatic appeal 
A Tonkinese cat is competing in the Scotland Island dog swimming race on Xmas Eve. Photo: Alec Smart
However, a ‘wild card’ entrant has announced its intention to compete in the forthcoming race and this is raising a few hackles. We can let the cat out of the bag to reveal it’s an 11-month-old Tonkinese named Gus.

Tonkinese are a domestic cat breed, a cross between Siamese and Burmese, and are typically very lively and playful. Named after the Tonkin region of north-east Vietnam, from which they have no historical connection, they are lithe and muscular and not shy of water, like most domestic cat breeds. 

Gus, who enjoys waterborne adventures including kayaking, stand-up paddle-boarding and swimming with his owner, Glenn Druery, spends much of his time on – and immersed in - Middle Harbour, Sydney. 

“With Gus, it’s one watery adventure after another!”- Photo (supplied)

Druery explained how his cat’s introduction to swimming in seawater was the result of a simple miscalculation.

“Gus’ first swim was an accident. My partner and I were at the wharf where we berth our boat and I was getting into a kayak. Gus was so keen to join me he jumped with such enthusiasm from the wharf that he missed the kayak completely and landed in Sydney Harbour!

He wasn’t stressed and swam around a bit. I fished him out and hosed him off but he hasn’t shied away from the water and since then it’s been one watery adventure after another!

He loves the kayak and paddle-board, but I often take him mountain biking where he rests on my shoulders, or across to Manly in a dinghy on shopping trips. He’s relaxed in rainy weather too, the complete opposite of most cats.”

Druery is no stranger to the annual dog race. His black border collie, Bob, competed twice, finishing third on its first attempt in 2014 and in 2015 was overall race winner, breaking the 10-minute record for the fastest crossing. However, on that occasion Bob nearly came second because, upon reaching the sandy shoreline of Church Point, in a moment’s confusion he re-entered the water and started swimming back to the island before he was coaxed out and over the finishing line, winning by a whisker.

Sadly, a few months later Bob deteriorated rapidly and it was discovered he was stricken with incurable cancer. “We were heartbroken,” Druery recalled. “I still have the large bottle of beer Bob won in the race, which remains unopened. Perhaps we’ll open it after this year’s race to toast his memory.”

2018 Scotland Island Dog Swimming Race - Bolt first place small dog, the only island dog to have also placed last!

A category apart 

When it comes to entering a cat in a race against up to 70 dogs, Druery asserts Gus won’t panic. “We’ll be very aware of dogs in the water. Besides, most dogs know to stay away from the swiping range of a cat’s paw. I’ll be swimming right next to Gus, so if there’s any problems he’ll climb straight onto my shoulders. Gus’ safety is foremost, I’m confident he’ll be okay.”

Nevertheless, others have expressed concerns about what could be seen as a rogue competitor. Toby Jay, who co-manages a barge service around Scotland island, said, “It is my opinion that it should be kept as a DOG Race! With 50 - 60 dogs, all pretty excited, I would fear for the cat’s safety. The "Scotland Island Animal Race” just doesn’t sound right.” 

Sam Collins, owner of a mischievous ‘Groodle’ (Golden Retriever X Poodle) named Murphy, twice-winner of the prestigious Diesel Trophy awarded to the fastest dog living on Scotland Island, is not keen on Gus entering the race. 

“However great a story this is I don’t think it’s in the best interest of any of the animals,” he said. “There are roughly 70 dogs in an excited state and I can only think that bringing a cat along would be cruel to the cat. It definitely could be attacked. It could also cause owners to lose control of their dogs. 

This happened some years ago when some **** let off fireworks. With all the chaos, dogs were lost and many owners spent Xmas eve roaming the streets looking for their dogs.

Lastly, this event is run through the goodwill of old-time community members. Should something go amiss.. then it could spell the end for the race. It sounds like a great story, but as an animal lover and local custodian of this event It sounds like a bad idea.”

However, Pittwater Unleashed, a group campaigning for off-leash dog areas around the Northern Beaches, which contest the race with their mascot, a boxer named Ivy, were more sanguine about the floating feline.

“If we’re going to relax the rules to allow a cat to race across, we’d better let it out of the bag first… or there’s sure to be a steward’s inquiry. If it wins, it still only gets a can of dog food as the prize!”

The Diesel Award
2018 Scotland Island Dog Swimming Race - Turbo the Kelpie was the first dog to cross the finish line

The Diesel Award - a stainless steel letter ‘D’ trophy named after a multiple-winning dog called Diesel King that dominated in the 1990s - is presented to the fastest dog resident on Scotland Island. Current title holder is the aforementioned Murphy, a charismatic white Groodle popular among islanders.

The winning mainland dog receives the Bradley Bowl (named after a local vet), although the whereabouts of the bowl itself is in contention.

The race is a wonderful social event that brings the community together in festive spirit, arguably more fun than a wet dog shaking itself dry on your grandmother. Although outsiders sometimes question the safety of swimming across open water, those sharp-toothed dorsal-finned opportunists, synonymous with Australian waters, are respectful enough to stay away and not spoil the revelry.

Credit: story and images by Alex Smart, December 2019

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