Bondi Lifesaver Cyril Baldock And The Phone Call to “King Of The Channel” Des Renford That Changed His Life

Cyril Baldock in surf at Bondi
HONOURED: Bondi Lifesaver and English Channel swimmer Cyril Baldock OAM honoured for services to Surf Life Saving. Photo Courtesy Sydney Morning Herald Archives.

Australia’s two-time English Channel conqueror Cyril Baldock will never forget the day he rang the man they called “The King Of The Channel Des Renford – a phone call that changed his life forever.

Baldock, now 76, was this week awarded an OAM in the Queens Birthday Honours List for his services to Surf Life Saving – an institution in Australian life.

The phone call to Renford, himself awarded the MBE back in 1977 was made back in 1984, and came after a South Australian swimmer under Renford’s guidance had withdrawn from a planned 1985 Channel attempt.

Cyril Baldock and Des Renford

DOUBLE CROSSING: “The King” Des Renford with “The Prince” Cyril Baldock. Photo Courtesy: Sydney Morning Herald Archives.

Baldock this week reflected on “that phone call” and a continuous career of swimming, surf lifesaving and triathlon that has seen him honoured and inducted into the annals of swimming and lifesaving in a country that is steeped in traditions of extraordinary swimming feats.

“There was an article in the Sydney Daily Telegraph back in ’84 wouldn’t believe it…Des was coaching this South Australian swimmer to take on the English Channel the next year and he had pulled out,” recalled Baldock.

“And I actually knew Des from around the traps in the Eastern Suburbs (of Sydney)…so I rang him and said ‘Des I need a goal…what do you reckon?’

“So he said come down to Coogee tomorrow and I’ll have a look at you and the mileage wasn’t much more than I was doing now anyway so I said ‘Let’s Go!. And I took up the booking (for the crossing) and away we went…’

Baldock had already spent the first part of his life as a Bondi Lifesaver and a celebrated career on Australia’s most famous stretch of beach.

Bondi junior R and R 1960

Photo Courtesy: Bondi Surf Bathers Life Saving Club.

He was 41 and had been a member of Bondi’s prestigious R and R teams – under legendary surf-swim coach Harry “Salty” Nightingale – winning Premiership flags as a junior in 1960 and in 1972 in Harry’s final year in coaching –as part of the Senior Premiership winning team for the first time since 1940, when Nightingale himself was part of the Bondi squad.

Baldock had been under Harry’s spell for most of his competitive career – indoctrinated into his culture of “discipline, commitment, loyalty and team ship.”

And when the time came for Baldock to make that phone call to Renford – he knew deep down he was ready to tackle the biggest challenge of his life – “Salty” – the man who guided Pat Norton to the 1936 Berlin Olympics – had seen to that.

Only four Australians – 1964 Olympian Linda McGill, Manly lifesaver John Koorey, Queensland teen Jenny Anderson and Maroubra’s Channel King himself Renford had ever conquered the English Channel.

By that stage Renford had made 19 unanswered crossings – earning his rightful moniker as “The King.”

Cyril Baldock in the Bath

BONDI ICE BREAKER: Cyril Baldock puts the icing on his Channel Crossing preparations with an ice bath. Photo Courtesy: Sydney Morning Herald Archives.

Baldock wanted to become the fifth – come hell or high water and the 27-foot Spring tide that would christen his Channel debut.

“I had just gone back to swimming and was searching for goals; I had nothing to aim for after suffering a bad ankle injury doing triathlons and I couldn’t do anything; it is so hard to train with no goal,” recalled Baldock.

“It was enormous to have Des in my corner; he was the man; he was “King of the Channel” had done it 19 times; Des knew everyone and everything; he had the best pilot; he knew the conditions he just knew it all…and in that day and age it was like having Don Talbot as your coach and not just your brother…!!!

“I trained in Manly Dam, at Bondi and I broke Des’ record for swimming 50 laps of Bondi Beach which was one of our training swims and I broke his record by an hour and a half a couple of months before we went.

“I was also swimming with the late Terry Buck (1964 Olympic swimmer and National Head Coach) in his squad at Heffron Park with all the young triathletes (a pool which is now named The Des Renford Aquatic Centre) and also in Clovelly Bay over a 200m course.

“When we arrived in England I actually swam in the English Long Distance Championships over 21 miles (33 kilometres) and I had already turned 41…and it was two laps of Lake Windermere and I really stuffed myself – my shoulders were gone – but I won it and broke the British record for 21 miles…

“I was lucky enough in some ways that the Channel crossing was put off for a week but it put it into a Spring tide and I still did it in a reasonable time…but it made me think I could do a real good swim one day if I ever got the tide right…

Cyril Baldock imnto the Bondi breakers

BONDI BATHERS: Cyril Baldock braves the Bondi breakers in his famous Bondi bathers. Photo Courtesy: Sydney Morning Herald Archives.

“It was (amazingly enough) 27 foot between high and low tide…. so the last few miles were tough…. it was an unbelievable amount of water… I actually travelled 54 kilometres and Des jumped in and swam the last couple of kilometres with me and I could hardly keep up with him…. it was really tough…it was a long way and a little bit of surf but so much water running up and down the Channel.

“But when the going gets tough everything is focused on you and that helps keep you motivated not to give in; you have your support crew, the boat captain, you just can’t give up and there is a big difference to racing and swimming from point A to point B than racing…you just have to keep going.

“You have to understand the coastline and the tides, keep hanging in and when the tide changes you just go bang, straight down.”

Fast-forward almost a decade into 1993 and Baldock was again heading to London for another rendezvous with the Channel.

This time with a team of “younger fellas” – including Renford’s son Michael “Murph” Renford (who would conquer the Channel individually himself in 2007) Baden Green (who had achieved an extraordinary sub-9 hour individual crossing in 1991) and his fellow champion Cronulla lifesavers Peter Tibbitts, Greg Stewart and Kevin Nielsen – with Des Renford as the team manager.

“We actually created history with the first four way crossing and it took 43 hours, swimming for an hour every six hours and towards the last few hours the surf got really big.

“I was 10 years older than the rest of the boys and I was pretty fit but they were all tremendously fit; it was a substantial team and we only just missed the one way record, broke the two and three way records and then created the four way crossing record…it was something else. And a great experience.”


CHANNEL OUTLOOK: Cyril Baldock plots his Channel course. Photo Courtesy: Cyril Baldock Collection.

But Cyril wasn’t done with the Channel just yet…and decided to do another solo crossing in 2014 – preparing his attempt some four years earlier – and this time he knew the perfect preparation would see him achieve the milestone as the oldest ever to make the crossing.

A promise he had made to the legendary Renford, who had died in 1999, revealing that “The King” himself had planned a 20th crossing that would have seen him become the oldest man to have crossed the channel in a solo swim at 59.

But he never got the chance to achieve the feat held by another legendary swimming man – former US Olympic and Indiana Head Coach; the innovative James “Doc” Counsilman who became the oldest in 1977 aged 58.

‘To get a good neat tide…for a good swimmer and to get a good pilot you have to book three years in advance, you have to be organised..although you can’t control the weather…. the weather is still a risk of course….you may have the perfect tide, the best skipper but the conditions might be that bad you cant go anyway. A real lottery….,” said Baldock.

“When Des dived in and swam with me (in 1985)…he’d had a few heart murmurs and he probably shouldn’t have done it because not long after we came home he had his massive heart attack and he could never swim long distances again.

“I was one of the few people that knew he planned to do the 20th swim but I made a vow that when I got to an age to become the oldest I’d do it.

“I said to Des ‘I know you wanted an Australian to become the oldest so I will’ and eventually it got to that stage and I did make that promise and no one knew and would have known.


SOLO CROSSING: Cyril Baldock alone in the Channel. Photo Courtesy: Cyril Baldock Collection.

‘I rang young ‘Murph’ and said you don’t know about this but I made this promise to your father…and other than that I’d like to do it and so ‘Murph’ said you’ve got my full support and I’ll come with you…. I trained for three half hard years then and made my second crossing, this time from England to France.”

Baldock was 71 and became the oldest swimmer to make the Crossing (a record that has since been broken).

He is now 76 and is he done yet?

“I haven’t given up on it. I may, you never know, “said Baldock.

A man thankful to Harry Nightingale and Des Renford, a man who last week was also bestowed the honour as the Patron of his beloved Bondi Surf Bathers Life Saving Club.

Marking 60 years since he won that first major R and R title in big seas off Newcastle’s Merewether Beach in 1960….nnd you get the feeling Cycil Baldock ain’t done with..yet.


DRAPED IN GLORY: Proud Australian Cyril Baldock wrapped in the Aussie flag. Photo Courtesy: Cyril Baldock Collection.

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