Monday, 19 March 2007

Rottnest Channel Swim

The Rottnest Channel Swim is one of the largest open water swimming competitions in the world. From 2001-2005 I either swam or paddled for a team in this event.

The first year we entered was 2001. The Clean Skins team (number 410) consisted of Brett Rodgers, Helen Anderson, John Brookes, and myself, and took 6:28:51 to complete the 19.2 km, finishing in 68th place, out of the 177 teams competing (16th out of the 46 mixed 150+ teams).

In 2002 Leon and I paddled for Clean Skins (team 404), this year consisting of John Brookes, Kate Maslen, Brett Rodgers, and Robbie Strahan. The team finished in 7:12:00 (109th out of 186 mixed teams and 54th out of 92 in the 100+ mixed category).

In 2003, I stupidly decided that I could do the swim as a duo with John Brookes. This was a mistake (see below).

In 2004, I paddled for John, who bravely did the solo swim to Rottnest. He finished in 107th place out of 149 solo competitors in a time of 7:13:09. My shoulders were sore for weeks afterwards and I swore that I would never do this again.

By late 2004 the trauma of both 2003 and 2004 was forgotten and it was decided to enter a team for the 2005 race that would be capable of breaking 6 hours. This year Clean Skins (team 553) consisted of John Brookes, Kerry Kane, Cathy McIntyre, and myself. Our time was 5:58:42 (58th out of 199 mixed teams and 9th out of 65 teams in the Mixed 150+ category). My photos are here.

So, finally, here is the story of the 2003 swim (by John Brookes):

Rottnest Channel Swim, 2003, a Duo's Tale

OK. The chances of this story getting properly written are slim, but lets get started anyway.

One usually tells a story with the benefit of hindsight, and its pretty well impossible not to after the event, but I'll try to fill in the background information as though I didn't know what was going to happen.

Paul & I were training for the Rottnest Channel Swim. It's a 21km swim from Cottesloe beach to Rottnest Island (otherwise known as heaven). Its been held every year for the past 13 or so years, starting as an event for a few brave solo swimmers and building into a field of 2000, some solo, some duo's and most in teams of 4. Paul & I had both swum in teams of 4 in previous years, and had (recklessly) decided that doing it as a duo would be more of a challenge. We'd trained pretty hard, ending up doing nearly 20km per week, most of it in 20 minute bursts, as we aimed to take 20 minute turns on the day. Our best estimate was that we'd each be doing 9, maybe 10, such legs to reach Rotto, or more particularly, the finishing line directly in front of the Quokka Arms.

On the day, each swimmer must be accompanied by a ski paddler, and a support boat. The ski paddler joins the swimmer after a few hundred metres, and their job is to guide the swimmer, and protect them from the fleet of rubber ducks, motorboats and yachts all dashing here and there. We had seconded two friends, Curt and Paddles as our ski paddlers. Paddles, despite his name, was a novice on a ski, as was Curt. The four of us did a few training sessions in the sea. Paddles had a little trouble with his balance, while Curt's lower back troubled him after 10 minutes on the ski, but these seemed like trifling worries, as we were expecting a typical February day for the swim, which meant that the ski paddler's main problem was holding themselves back as the easterly wind tried to blow them to Rotto. The support boat was a yacht, Enigma, which we'd used the previous year. We'd planned to use a rubber duck to ferry the non-swimming swimmer to and from Enigma, but this fell apart when Trev, our duck man of the past two years decided to crew for his school team instead. "Never mind" we thought, "We'll just change straight onto the yacht". The first swimmer, having met his ski paddler, is obliged to meet up with his support boat before he gets 1.5km off Cottesloe, or face disqualification.

Entries for the event opened in November, and I received the entry form in the mail. I filled it in, and got Paul to sign it. He asked a couple of times if I'd put it in, but I hadn't, as there didn't seem any rush. After all, it had taken 3 months for entries to close the previous year. Not this time. I was having coffee one morning, when my phone rang. Paddles had a copy of todays West Australian, which said that, 12 days after opening, the race was full. I sprung into action, phoning the organisers. They would accept entries onto a waiting list, to be accepted in the event of cancellations. Should I post it in? No, the official seemed to think I should come down straight away, so I did, and we were thirteenth in line. Two months later we were advised that we were in. It wasn't an auspicious start to our campaign, and it very accurately foreshadowed what was to come.

Once you get close to the swim, you start to worry about the weather. Roughly speaking, Perth weather at the end of February (the swim is held on the last Saturday in February) can be classified as follows. One day in three is glorious, with calm seas and easterly winds until at least noon, by which time you should be happily celebrating on Rotto. One day in three is ok. The sea breeze might come in a little early, giving you a nice start, but a bit of trouble beating into south westerly winds and chop for the latter part of the race. One day in three is a disaster, with onshore winds from the start, with a swell to compound the chop the wind makes. If the weather on the day is too bad, the race is cancelled, but that hasn't happened since the event started in its modern form. In my two previous swims, I'd had two glorious days. The sort of day when nothing would seem half as much fun as swimming to Rottnest. Paul had swum with me on one of those times, and paddled for our team on the other.

About a week out from the race, the weather did not look promising. As the days progressed, the outlook did not improve. By Wednesday, the day was going to be "mild, with south westerly winds". By Friday, the winds were going to be north westerly, turning south westerly, with a morning shower. A weak cold front was expected to cross the coast around 7am. Still, as we sat in a coffee shop in Fremantle, eating dinner on a balmy Friday evening, on a day where the sea had been dead-flat all day, it was hard to take the bureau's forecast seriously. At least it was, until my wife, Donna, called from Rottnest to tell me that a great big band of grey cloud had appeared across the north western sky. I dropped my gear on the boat, and headed home, where I ate until I felt sick (carbo loading), and then tidied the house a bit. I went to bed and tried to sleep, but couldn't stop my mind racing. I finally managed to go to sleep by convincing myself that the race had been cancelled, and I could sleep in late the next day.

At 3am I woke to a very disturbing sound - the sound of the wind in the trees. At 3:45, my alarm clock went off, and I got up and went outside. There was a nor-wester blowing, not too hard, but any illusions of a nice day were gone. It was cloudy and spitting too. I ate a big breakfast, packed my gear (very little!) and headed over to Paddles house. His wife Jill drove us to Cottesloe beach, while her mum baby sat the kids.

Now I've seen the start of the race a couple of times, on absolutely beautiful days, and the sight of a vast flotilla of boats sparkling off Cottesloe in the pre-dawn dark is pretty special. On the beach in previous years were several hundred eager excited swimmers, with many more spectators. This year, the grey skies, onshore winds and choppy seas took the gloss off the spectacle. I registered, took my Dramamine (for sea sickness) and went to the toilet. Queues at toilet cubicles are an almost exclusively female experience, but not at Cottesloe beach on the morning of the swim. I joined a queue of 10 or so guys waiting their turn to shit. The place stank. No one cared. I went outside, expecting to catch the start of the race for solo swimmers, who were scheduled to leave at 5:45. Nothing was happening. I bumped into my mum and dad who'd come down to watch (aren't parents wonderful!). I saw a couple of solo swimmers I knew, fully decked out in sun screen, zinc and grease. An announcement came over the PA that a decision on whether to hold the race would be made by 6am. I rang Paul on the boat, and let him know. Mobile phone reception was terrible. At 6am, they said "We go", to half-hearted cheers from the crowd. I rang the boat several times, finally getting through. Solo swimmers left at 6:15, and duo's (me) left at 6:45. Just as the solo competitors took off, the heavens opened as the cold front hit the cost. Damn accurate, those meteorologists. By 6:30 the squall had past, and the sky in the west was clearing. I helped Paddles take his ski to a sheltered part of the beach, and we wrapped our belongings in a couple of plastic bags, and attached them firmly to the ski with duck tape. Paddles set off to wait for me on the north side of the course, and I headed over to the start line.

Paul, Curt, Curt's wife Leonie and Paddle's eight year old daughter Meg had slept on Enigma the night before. Rob, the skipper was adamant the boat needed to leave by 5am to reach the start of the race on time. Paul woke and had breakfast, and rang Rob when he hadn't turned up on time. Rob was on his way when Paul called, but they were running late. For some reason, Enigma's motor was only capable of two thirds of its normal speed, and it seemed to take forever to clear North Moll and head off up the coast to Cottesloe. So maybe there was some luck in the start of the race being delayed. Meg (who normally has the constitution of an ox) was feeling sea sick, as was Leonie. Paul was a bit queasy, but not too bad. Curt and Rob were both fine. 

Rob had a rubber duck, which we thought we might need in an emergency. When he went to get it out of the shed on Friday night, it wasn't there. Never mind, we thought. We hadn't planned on using a duck anyway, once we'd gotten used to the idea of Trev not being there.

All that I've related so far is matter of fact, setting the scene. Nothing, as far as we were concerned, apart from the weather, had actually gone wrong yet. Maybe things had not gone as planned, but everything was still fine. That was about to change.

The race for the duo's started and in we dived. Some people rushed down to the water and dived in, swimming furiously. 21 km. Why bother? I started at an easy pace, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I could see Paddles, sitting on his orange ski, with a big sombrero on. I had a fluoro armband on, so that he could pick me out in a crowd. The view under the water was great. The visibility was superb. The water soon reached a depth of 7 metres or so, but the sea bed was still clearly visible. Even the chop and swell didn't seem nearly as bad once I was in the water. After a while, I looked around for Paddles. Nowhere. I looked back towards the beach, and spotted him. I waved. He waved back, a sort of resigned, hang-dog wave. Something wasn't right. I kept swimming. Every now and then I'd look back, to find Paddles further behind, until one time I couldn't see him at all. I kept swimming, aware that sooner or later I'd need to find Enigma. Curt had a second ski, so he and Paul could go off on their own while we rescued Paddles. Every now and then I'd stop and ask a nearby ski paddler, or the crew of a rubber duck if they could see a yacht with a big blue sail cover on the boom, but they all seemed too concerned about their own problems to help me. I hoped someone would help Paddles, but no one did. Finally, I stopped and looked around, and off to the north about 60 metres away was Enigma. I waved and shouted, and they spotted me. I started swimming towards them. Coming along side the boat, I explained that I'd lost Paddles, and that Curt and Paul should get going, while we went back for Paddles. The transition went well, except that Enigma's ladder was on the other side of the boat, so I had to swim round her, and then catch up. We had to do that at every change!

Once on board, the mood there struck me as decidedly down beat. Meg was below deck being sick, and Leo was on deck, feeling sick, and bemoaning the fact that she'd forgotten her Kwells (sea sickness tablets), and had taken Dramamine instead. We had a bit of trouble getting Paddles onto the boat. I threw him a line, which missed, so Leo threw him one, which he caught. With a bit of a struggle we got him and his ski on board (with me slipping and bruising my left buttock in the process), and headed off in pursuit of Paul & Curt. We had barely got started when the boats engine cut out. Rob realised almost instantly what had happened. The rope I'd thrown to Paddles was wrapped around the propeller. I jumped overboard and tried to unwrap it. I got a few loops off, but ran into a knot. Figuring that I shouldn't tire myself out if I wanted to get to Rotto, I asked Paddles to have a try, but he couldn't do it either. As we were now drifting aimlessly and dangerously amidst a Dunkirk sized flotilla of small boats, Rob hoisted some sail, and headed north, away from the fleet. This was a bit of a problem, as Paddles was still in the water, and couldn't keep up with the boat. A bit of manoeuvring, and another rope over the side, and we had Paddles again. He went below to see how Meg was. Paddles wanted to cut the rope, but I think that Rob would have walked over broken glass before he cut a good rope. Once we were clear of the fleet, he gave the wheel to Leo, stripped to his jocks and went over. He'd cleverly undone the other end of the offending rope, and had it free in no time. Back on board, he methodically reattached the rope while we continued to sail slowly away from the fleet. Drama over, I noticed two things. First, Rob and I were bleeding from cuts sustained from barnacles under the boat, and second, I was starting to get sea sick. Mental note: Dramamine doesn't really work.

This was probably the low point of the swim. Paddles was upset about the paddling debacle (he just couldn't keep up with me), and also about Meg being sick. Meg doesn't complain normally, but she looked like death. Paddles was feeling nauseous, especially when he went below deck. Leo was feeling very sick. I got Paddles to get me a banana and a bread roll. The bread roll was too dry. I ate the banana. I went below deck and found a small amount of weak Powerade. Back on deck I threw up. A few minutes later, as we headed back to the fleet, I threw up lots. I felt better, but my confidence in finishing the swim was diminishing. None of the support crew were capable of being supportive! I was supposed (in my mind) to be able to ask them to locate my food, to get the towelling dressing gown I'd borrowed from Helen, to get sun screen, to have the Powerade on deck. But what were they doing? Sitting still, trying not to throw up, and looking miserable. I couldn't wait to get back in the water. But even then I wouldn't have a paddler. Things looked pretty grim.

Luckily, we found Paul & Curt without too much difficulty. However, Paul had been in the water for nearly an hour, and he is susceptible to the cold. Apparently, they had stopped a few times and discussed what had happened to us. Luckily Paul had applied the simple principle that we had agreed to stick to the north side of the course, and they would do just that. If it got to the point where he couldn't swim any more, they'd approach a boat and get rescued. Very sensible. When we met up, I jumped back in the water, tagged Paul, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that my nausea was abating, and even swallowing several mouthfuls of salt water did not upset me unduly. However, as Curt was too tired/sore to paddle further, I had to swim without a boat or paddler for a while (but I was getting used to it), while Curt and his ski were hauled aboard. After my 20 minutes, I hopped out, and ventured an apple. It stayed down, and while I was still a little queasy, things were looking up. Except that we didn't seem very far from Cottesloe, and the support crew still looked pretty glum.

My mind is a bit vague about the next bit of the swim. We may have had a paddler for some of it, but I don't remember one. Paddles started feeling better, and took charge of timing our legs, and getting things like food etc. I ate a jam and butter roll, which felt so good that I had another. Leo got my dressing gown, I put sun screen on, and it all looked ok. Except that we were too close to Cottesloe. After we'd done about 6 legs each, we were convinced we were over half way, until we hit the 10km buoy that is. Around that time we rang the girls on Rotto, and said that they shouldn't bother coming down to the finishing line until 2pm.

I looked at Rotto, and decided that now we were swimming straight, with no major problems, we probably needed six more 20 minute swims each to get there. Unfortunately, I didn't take into account Paul's sore shoulders, and both of our growing fatigue. As time went by, my left arm was no longer doing what I asked it to. The only way I could get into a rhythm was to swim without breathing, so I'd try three strokes with good breaths, followed by a few strokes without breathing. Each 20 minutes seemed to take forever, but as my mind wandered while I swam, it didn't really bother me. I was starting to worry about Paul though. Paddles said that Paul wasn't eating much, and was feeling the cold. Between swims he'd hop on the boat, go below deck an not say much. My favourite break was the one where I had a Coffee Chill and piece of Great Aunt Ruth's fruit cake. It was a bit much, and I was full for a while afterwards, but at least I felt normal. Even Meggie perked up. Leo bought out some Glucodin, which tasted nice, and supposedly gave energy. On the third of my six more 20 minute swims, I even got a burst of energy, and swam probably the fastest leg of the whole race.

There were some problems still. Change overs weren't working that well. Even though we'd try and make them quick, you still had to swim on your own for a while until the boat caught up to you, and it was easy to swim off course during that time. Also, Rob seemed to have a strange idea of what heading north meant. I'd keep trying to aim him at the tearooms on Rotto, and he'd keep trying to point to Natural Jetty. Given that we'd ended up over a kilometre south of Philip Rock the previous year with him steering (and that you had to go north of Philip Rock), I didn't trust Rob at the helm, and was much happier when Curt was steering. I kept telling him to aim for the tearooms roof, and he kept doing it, my kind of skipper. Rob was good at one thing, which was figuring out where we were. Based on this, we rang the girls at Rotto, and told them to expect us around 3pm.

A funny thing started to happen after four of our 6 swims. The field behind us started to thin out. They'd put their swimmer and paddler on their boat, and head off to Rotto at a good rate. We'd yell at them if it looked as if they'd run over Paul, who was pretty invisible in the water, without a paddler next to him. What was happening was the people who were obviously not going to reach Rottnest by the 4pm cut off time were being ordered by race officials to pull out. We didn't have our radio on, so we don't know if they told us to get out. After 6 swims we still weren't at Rotto. We did a calculation, which said that we'd be arriving around 4:10. There were now almost no boats behind us, though there were quite a few level with us to the north. 

Was it getting harder? Well lets say that its lucky that Paul & I couldn't talk to each other, because a few negative words would probably have been enough to get us out of the water. In fantasising about the race before the event, I'd imagined Paul pulling out with 3km to go, and myself heroically finishing the race. All such delusions were now gone. If Paul had pulled out, even with just 1.5km to go, I wouldn't have continued on my own.

At least when you get close to Rottnest the bottom of the ocean gets interesting, with rocks and fish. At once stage I was looking straight down, swimming over some bare sand, which was about 6 metres below me. "What If I fell?" I mused, "I could hurt myself badly falling from this height." No, I wasn't hallucinating, just letting my mind wander to relieve boredom. I prepared for a seventh swim, and told the guys on the boat to tell Paul that his next swim would be just 10 minutes, by which time I'd take over and swim the last leg to the beach. Paul's seventh swim turned out to be pretty close to 20 minutes, but telling him it was only going to be 10 minutes was a good psychological ploy. Finally, with about 300 metres to go, the sea became calmer in the lee of the island, and swimming itself became more enjoyable. Curt was paddling with me now, and things looked good. We knew it was after 4pm (I'd dived in at about 3 minutes before 4pm), but thought that maybe the finishing time had been extended. After a while, I swam near a boat. I shouldn't have, as there was a clear channel marked for swimmers. I looked up. "Where the hell are we?" I yelled (tact is not always my strong point). Someone on a boat pointed left and shouted encouragement. Curt, even on the ski, had followed my instructions and was heading for the tearooms! I swam back to the marked channel, out sprinted a tired looking solo swimmer and strode happily ashore, to cheers from Donna, Cam, Jill, Helen, Karen, Pia and Katya. The officials took no interest in our finish. The race deadline of 4pm had passed, they'd disconnected the timing equipment, they weren't recording numbers. It was 4:22pm. We'd started 9 hours 37 minutes ago. It had been fun. I grabbed a bottle of water, and chatted to everyone. Then, figuring I had some sort of prerogative, decided that I wanted a coffee at the Dome. I set off with Cam (my 9 year old son), and Don arrived later. I sat therein my speedo's, holding my cap and goggles, and had a large macchiatto, with a florentine and a piece of fudge. Heaven.

It was great to have finished, if a little disappointing to have no official recognition. Paul & I had trained under the assumption we'd do nine, twenty minute swims each, and finish in around 6 hours. In the end, we did the equivalent of over 14 twenty minute swims each. That is the same as three quarters of the way to Rotto (each) on a good day.

It turns out that around a third of solo swimmers finished in regulation time, about half the duos and two fifths of the 4 person teams.

A little later, we went out to Enigma to get our gear. I went below deck for the second time that day, and saw, framed on the wall, Drakes Prayer. The wording was slightly different to this version, but the meaning was definitely the same:

When thou givest to thy servants
to endeavour any great matter
Grant us also to know that it is not the beginning
but the continuing of the same unto the end
until it be thoroughly finished

Best Photos of 2006

I've just uploaded my best photos of 2006 to Picasa.

Freeway Bike Hike

In 2005 I did the Freeway Bike Hike on a dual-suspension mountain bike in around 48 minutes. In 2006 I did it in 44:14 on a borrowed bike. This year it was a bit faster: 42:08 on my new (well, second-hand) Guerciotti.

Although it was again an excellent event I made the following two suggestions to the organisers:

[1] The A division cut-off time of 55 minutes is too generous, and so this group is too large. I'm not a great cyclist but have managed to beat 45 minutes for the last two years. I suggest that the A division be split into a number of approximately even-sized groups based on timings from last year (since timing was not an option this year). By way of comparison, the start of the Great Perth Bike Ride was smoother, and there were less chaotic groupings during the race.

[2] The idea of having Cyclo Sportif teams is good, but can I suggest that the teams, who are planning to ride together, start before the A division. This would also be an incentive for people to form and ride in teams, as the start of the A division is slow and chaotic.