The Rottnest Channel swim in Western Australia is one of the world’s great open water swims. The Rotto, as everyone in Perth calls it, is a gem of a swim which is raced across 19.7K of the crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean. This is a significant challenge which attracts thousands of swimmers including hundreds of soloists, as well as two and four person teams.
Rottnest has also become an established landmark for many swimmers who are working towards a solo attempt on the English Channel. At close to 20K it is a little over half the distance of the English Channel. It is also held at a perfect time of year for wannabe EC soloists to assess the progress of their training. My coach, Marcel van der Togt, and I agreed that given Perth’s relative proximity to Abu Dhabi, Rottnest would be a great challenge ahead of my Channel slot.
A channel with history
The first recorded crossing of Rottnest was by a German immigrant to Australia, Gerd von Dincklage, who in 1956 had a bar room bet with a journalist friend that he could swim from the Quokka Arms on the island to Cottesloe on the mainland. Unlike most drunken challenges this was one that Gerd saw through - a few days later a boat had been arranged and after 9 hours 45 minutes of swimming von Dinklage completed the first recorded swim of the channel.
Later that year nine swimmers raced across Rotto with four of them making it. It wasn’t until 1991 that the first race sanctioned by the Rottnest Channel Swimming Association was held. Since then the swim has grown into the largest mass participation channel swim in the world. This year - 60 years after the first recorded crossing - more than three hundred soloists started as well as more than 2,500 swimmers in teams.
My start was at the relatively respectable time of 6.15 in the morning as part of the fourth wave after the elite “Champions of the Channel” and two other groups of soloists. The conditions were as good as they get in the channel - sunshine and pretty much no wind, which meant that the sea was as flat as a pancake. The start was calm mainly because I focused on avoiding the crowd, saving me the panic attacks that can come from getting caught up with the hustle and bustle of a hectic start.
All Rotto swimmers must be accompanied by at least one paddler and a support boat. You start the swim on your own and then find your paddler between 500m-1km. The team then has from 1-1.5km to rendezvous with their support boat. At 1.5km rising above the water is the Leeuwin tall ship, named after a seventeenth century Dutch galleon which ‘discovered’ parts of south-west Australia.
The modern Leeuwin serves as an icon vessel for the Rotto and it is the last marker for swimmers before a buoy more than half way across the channel (10KM).
From the start I swam at the northern edge of the pack and stayed there for much of the swim. Northerly winds were scheduled for later in the day and we wanted to ensure that I was pushed towards the centre of the pack, rather than away from them.
After a steady swim out it took a while to find the first of my fabulous paddlers, Jane Scott, who was distinguishable by the U.A.E. flags that were flying on her canoe. Once we had met up with each other there was a fair bit of faffing about until we found the boat with husband and wife team, Scottie and Kath Pilcher. (You can read much more about my wonderful paddlers Kath and Jane, as well as top class skipper Scottie in my next post).
After the rendezvous we all settled into a good rhythm. The water was beautiful - clear and clean - and the weeds on the bottom were visible for pretty much the whole swim. The first half of the race was uneventful aside from some encounters with the local marine life. I was convinced at around the 7KM mark that I had swum over a small shark, which was thankfully heading in the opposite direction (by small I mean smaller than me, c. 2m). There were also plenty of jellyfish although most were well below the water surface and I was only stung a couple of times during the swim.
By 9.5KM the wind had begun to rise a little (to 17 knots) and the fast swimmers who had set off later than me were passing on a regular basis. The increased wind and boat traffic led to a choppy spell for 3-4KM, which coincided with a muscle strain in my right arm. This was the toughest stage of the swim and it took a couple of Nurofen, as well as a stint of breaststroke for me to break through this difficult patch.
But the greatest challenge of the day was completely beyond my control. Some 14KM into the swim I noticed that the support boat was missing. After a chat with Jane it emerged that it had broken down a good kilometre beforehand and it was only thanks to some fast talking by the team and the backup of a couple of sea rescue folks on jet skis, that we were still going on with the swim. In the meantime Kath and Scott were desperately trying to repair the boat. We kept swimming with the support of sea rescue while a message was sent out on the radio appealing for nearby boats to allow me to swim with them.
2016 was the first time that tandem solos were allowed in the Rotto meaning that two swimmers (each accompanied by a paddler) can now share a boat as long as they stay within 25m of each other for the entire swim. This was a Godsend. A boat supporting another soloist agreed to allow me to buddy up with them for the rest of the swim. I had to tread water for around 20 minutes at the 15KM buoy but was then able to join the swimmer all the way to the final stretch of the swim. The final quarter of the swim was at a slower pace set by my new companion. This allowed me to enjoy the view of the sands of the sea bed, which emerged as we approached Rottnest Island complete with stingrays gracefully going about their business.
As we drew closer to the island the wind picked up again and this time it was a stronger 20 knots headwind. This made for a choppy final stretch and both Kath & I had to work hard to push through to the finish. But finish I did in a time that was considerably slower than my target but given the events of the day I was delighted to have become a Rottnest Channel soloist.
All in all a wonderful swim that I hope I have the privilege to take part in again.
ROTTNEST CHANNEL SOLO VITAL STATS
- 19.7 KM
- 8 hours 17 minutes
- 27 February 2016, 06:15
- Perth, Australia