Sunday, 21 February 2010

Rottnest Channel Swim 20th Feb 2010

I woke on the hour with monotonous regularity the night before Rotto. During one of my fitful sleeps I dreamt I had over slept and awoken past the start time. In my dream I rang one of the paddlers in a panic to be told they had changed their minds and didn't want to accompany me after all. When I did wake I was haunted by memories of the English Channel and how unpleasant I had found it. I was starting to dread the idea of plunging into the Indian Ocean in the early hours of the morning to swim the 20km across to Rottnest Island. It was however the post English Channel restlessness that had motivated me to sign up for Rotto. After the channel whenever I was asked 'what next' I would quip 'something shorter and warmer'. In my head I was thinking 50m in a swimming pool but I had had aspirations of doing Rotto for some time and as it ticked both of those boxes (being 13km shorter and 4-5degrees warmer) I found myself signing up almost on a whim when the entries opened some 2 months after the channel.They say the hardest part of Rotto is getting a support boat and so Ifound out over the next 2 months as my various swimming and Perth contacts all amounted to nothing. I was starting to think that my entry fee was probably lost when a work colleague's, partner's, father (Don Johnson!) came good on the vague offer of a boat. The connection was as tenuous as it sounds but the same colleague also put me in contact with two paddlers (Paul and Richard) and with about 3 weeks to go I finally had a boat, paddlers and no excuse not to do another long open water swim.When my alarm finally ended my restless night at 3am I found myself in an uncomfortable mix of nerves, anxiety and doubt. The fact that I had previously swum further, longer and in much colder water was of little consolation as the combination of pre-race jitters and all the unknowns of such a novel event were weighing heavily on my mind.The Rotto swim is famous as the largest participation long distance swim of its’ kind and with 250 soloists, about 800 teams and something like 1400 boats on the water (never mind all the paddlers/kayakers) it is a massive event. It was the logistics of swimmer, finding paddler, finding boat in the dawning light amongst the mass of water activity that had me most concerned. When I spoke to past competitors my fears were not calmed as one swimmer told me how he had to tread water for 30min one year calling out in desperation for his paddler. The safety rules at Rotto are understandably rigid with swimmers without accompanying boat stopped and disqualified at the 1500m mark.At 5.30am I was giving my paddler, Paul, final instructions and desperately hoping I would be able to find him in the melĂ©e at the start. At 5.45am, with the sun threatening to creep above the horizon, the siren sounded and I plunged into the Indian ocean. The start was as frenetic and crowded as a typical ocean race with the first 100 swimmers including the fastest swimmers off en masse. Although I knew I had hours of swimming ahead of me I pushed to the front to hopefully give me a clear line of sight to the paddlers who had to wait several 100metres off shore before they could meet up with their swimmers. As I clung to the left hand side of the swimming channel I could see dozens of paddlers lined up trying to identify their competitor. Some swimmers had coloured their arms with bright zinc paint to make them more recogniseable and many of the paddlers had likewise gone with the colourful tops, hats and even flags to stand out from the crowd, all good ideas that I noted ruefully for next time. My only plan had involved being near the front of the pack and hoping by some miracle that Paul and I would spot each other. As it happened as I swam past the lines of paddlers I suddenly recognized Paul's black and red flotation vest and as I gave him a quick wave of recognition he quickly came along side of me. So that was part one - paddler found, now all we had to do was find the boat before the 1.5km mark. Paul and I were making good progress, there was only a handful of swimmers around us but the boats that were supposed to be staying back until their swimmer's waves started seemed all over the place. I could see Paul looking around and thought he might have waved once but from the water I couldn't make out our boat. Our boat was certainly not unique, a white 6m boat with a blue canopy probably fitted the description of about 800 of the boats on the water that morning, the only defining feature was the name - "Waving Looney" written in big letters on the side! The 1500m point however was obvious for the very large sailing boat anchored at this point and I could see it looming. The prospect of treading water or even a DSQ seemed quite possible, I briefly contemplated whether we could somehow sneak passed the checkpoint but the chance of Don and his boat finding us as we ploughed on out to sea would rapidly recede. But then just as I pulled level with the 1500m point I looked up to see Waving Looney churning up along side us and aboard my cheering support crew. So 20min into the race I had my boat and paddler, the sun had risen above the Perth shoreline and we were heading rapidly out to sea, I actually started to feel quite cheerful. Apart from a couple of very sharp blue bottle stings (I still have welts 48hrs later) it was very pleasant. This was a very different start to the English Channel, the sun was shining, the water was crystal clear and most importantly my teeth weren't chattering. I settled into a steady rhythm and tried not to think too much about how far I had to swim. I hear lots of long distance swimmers describe how they can zone out and slip into some sort of meditative state. I am yet to master this art. As much as I have grown to enjoy long distance swimming my mind invariably starts to contemplate how long I will be swimming for, how my body will start to tire long before I finish and how much more pleasant it would be to simply get out. I overheard one swimmer at the end remarking how he had secretly wished he had seen a shark so he could legitimately get out of the water. Strangely sharks were not something I worried about. Although Australian waters are infamous overseas for sharks and attacks do very occasionally happen, to my knowledge in the history of Rottnest swims it's never been an issue and I suspect (and hope) that the mass of water activity that occurs with Rotto is a good shark deterrent.For the first hour and a half of the swim I was able to enjoy myself, I felt good in the water, we had managed to break away from most of the pack with only a few boats ahead and several more level with us but some distance away. I didn't feel nauseous or cold. Paul and Richard rotated paddling duties. Over the next hour I started to feel a bit of fatigue but still quite strong and just before the 2 and 1/2 hour mark we reached the 10km buoy. Pace wise I was hoping to maintain 4km an hour so it was pleasing to be on track at the half way point. The chop and waves were steadily building as the swim progressed. Every 2km point from then on was marked by a buoy which enabled me to keep an eye of my pace. I could start to feel myself flagging though and the time between buoys was getting steadily longer. I couldn't help but start to imagine how much nicer a ride in the boat would be. I could also start to feel my body getting slightly cooler, I wasn't cold like I had been in English waters but it was no longer entirely pleasant. I had been hanging out for the 16km buoy as I knew this would signal the last hour but as I passed it I could see over my shoulder a couple of boats slowly closing in on me. I had no real idea of what position I was in, I had believed I was capable of a top 10 finish and hoped for a top 5. The thought of being edged out in the closing stages was frustrating but I didn't think I had much ability to speed up at that stage, I was tired and aching. I had a quick drink and Paul informed me that the nearest boat behind was a female swimmer and if I didn't want to get 'chicked' I better pick up the pace! I dug in for a final effort and started to kick harder, my arm strength was coming and going in waves. I passed the 18km mark and knew I had only 30 min left. Another boat was catching me suprisingly quickly and I wondered, correctly if it might be a relay team. As they came alongside I tried to use them to spur me on. There were buoys every 250m then and the Rottnest shore was getting rapidly closer. I felt I had enough to push on and I was determined not to leave myself wondering if I could have gone any quicker at the end ("never save anything for the swim back"). I gave my all in the last 500m and ran across the line in 5 hrs 5 min (1.5min ahead of the first female!). I was 6th overall. I felt I had given it my all and was very pleased with the swim. Above all I really felt that I had mostly enjoyed it! Sure it was long and hard work but it had all worked out at the start, the water was lovely and clear and warm, and unlike the English Channel I am already contemplating doing it again.