Personally, I think swimming is a wonderful way to cool down on a hot day but it’s been many years since I swam any sort of distance without the aid of a flotation device and most of those swims were involuntary ones chasing capsized sailing dinghies that I had just fallen out of. I was total failure at primary school swimming lessons and didn’t progress beyond my confidence certificate while my more talented classmates were already collecting their Super Life Saver medallions for rescuing keys from the bottom of the diving pool while blindfolded and wearing a tuxedo.
My inability to swim never stopped me from being ‘selected’ to represent my school faction (I believe the rest of the world calls them school houses) at the annual school swimming competition. Somehow the other boys in my year would get wind that it was selection day and skip sports class so that my year’s swimming team usually comprised the three boys who actually could swim plus me doing the events they didn’t want to do, provided this didn’t involve my swimming further than up to the end of the swimming pool and back again. I suspect the teacher in charge kept me out of the longer events not for fear I might drown but for the damage my slow time would do to the day’s schedule. And of course on race day you can imagine my teenaged pleasure at allowing the girls to compare my flabby, pasty white torso with that of the tanned, muscular boys on the start line who were destined to finish before I was even half-way across the swimming pool.
These are among the many reasons why I will never be a triathlete but I have conquered my emotions to the extent that I no longer resent people who can swim well so when my friend Dimitri emailed to ask if I would help out on the boat while he swam to Rottnest Island, I was delighted to offer my assistance.
The Rottnest Island Channel Swim is an annual event in which people swim the 20km from Cottesloe Beach to Rottnest Island. The more insane entrants swim the distance solo, the fairly mental do it in teams of two and the only moderately loopy do it in teams of four. Dimitri is still on good speaking terms with all his faculties so you can deduce I was helping out a four-person team. The Lovebirds team featured two lovely couples: Dimitri and Emily; and Bas and Katie.
The logistics of the swim is that one swimmer from each team starts the race from Cottesloe Beach. Once a short distance from the beach, that swimmer meets up with the team’s paddler who paddles some sort of ocean kayak and leads the way for the swimmers all the way to Rottnest. Further out, the swimmer and paddler make contact with a motor boat containing the rest of the team.
The Lovebirds team was in the last group of swimmers to leave the beach at 7.30am. For me, this meant getting up early and riding my bike to Dimitri’s place to leave there by 5.40am, collecting Kirstie, who was also helping on the boat, and driving to the river at East Fremantle where we would meet Jim, who was kindly providing and steering his boat for the day, and Katie. We would then take the boat out of the river and up the coast to Cottesloe where we would wait for the start and meet up with Dana, who was paddling, and Bas, who was the team’s first swimmer.
It was such a warm night that I woke up at 2:30am and couldn’t get back to sleep but at least this meant I got to Dimitri’s early enough to steal a cup of coffee off him. Even at 5am it was already pretty warm and humid outside. At East Fremantle we wandered about looking a bit lost:
Until Dimitri got on the phone to Jim and we were able to make the rendezvous.
Our plan to make it easier to find us at the start was to display this distinctive Tweety bird balloon which Katie is standing in front of.
It was a beautiful morning but already obvious that it was going to be a hot day in Perth, so I was pretty happy to be out on the water for the day.
There was quite an armada at the start line and I wondered how we would be able to find our swimmer and paddler at all.
But suddenly there was Dana with Tweety on her paddle, leading the way for Bas, who had just done the first one and a half kilometres on his own.
It was a bit crowded at the initial meeting point and I think we were all pretty happy once the field started spreading out a bit.
Perth’s pain was our pleasure so although the weather made for a hot city, the calm water made for easy swimming and there was just enough wind to keep a bit cool. Past Rottnest swims have been done into a fierce headwind with very large swell.
We soon got into a rhythm with the swimmers taking five-minute turns in the water. My job was to throw a rope to each swimmer after they had tagged the next swimmer and hau them back on board. Hardly pressing work and much better than spending the day melting on the sofa. My only concern was making sure I had plenty of sun cream on.
Every five minutes, I was roused from my chair to pull another swimmer in and the hours ticked by splendidly. The radio was turned up and I believe it was Bas who initiated the on-boat dancing. These sort of antics on board a motor boat make me nervous ever since I saw Apocalypse Now but luckily no one thought to crack open a purple flare so we all survived intact. We did get a bit of a hurry on when a race official’s boat came over and told us we needed to speed up to make sure we reached the 18th kilometre before the cut-off time. I think we were pretty safe but appeared slower because we were among the last batch of swimmers to leave the beach but we got a hurry on and easily got past the 18th and 19th kilometre markers within the time limit.
Impressively, no one in the team was looking particularly tired at all. Eventually we kicked them off the boat to swim the last few hundred metres together.
Once they were finished we met them on the jetty and walked over to the Rottnest pub for a victory drink. On the way there, we stopped at the finish line where the last swimmer of the day was finishing. She was a solo swimmer who took 11 hours and something to finish. I can’t even begin to imagine spending that amount of time in the water, moving forward at a swimming pace. At least when I cycle, I can stop pedalling but still be moving forward. The fastest swim of the day was also done by a solo swimmer who took just over four hours to finish. The Lovebirds team got home in the comfortable time of about eight and a half hours. I believe there is already some talk among them of doing it again next year.
And then we piled back on to Jim’s boat and headed home at a rather faster pace than got there at. We got back to Fremantle just in time to catch a nice sunset behind the Maritime Museum.