A magical day at the Rottnest Channel Swim

Yesterday my husband and son (Child No 1) did the Rottnest Swim as a duo. The Rottnest Channel Swim is an annual 19.7 kilometre swim from Cottesloe Beach near Perth to Rottnest Island. It can be swum solo, as a duo or a team of four. Each team or solo swimmer has to have a support boat and paddler which assists them on the day providing sustenance, making sure they follow the course and they don’t get hypothermia. Team swimmers are only allowed on the boat once they’ve tagged the next swimmer in the water, whose been waiting on the boat in the meantime. Solo swimmers aren’t allowed on their support boats at all. No swimmers are allowed to touch the kayak.

The conditions were absolutely perfect for the swim yesterday. There was hardly any wind for the most part and the sea looked like a dam, which made for an easy crossing. (I say easy with the utmost respect and admiration to all the swimmers who were out there yesterday, knowing full well I will never be able to do it.) Last year when my husband did it as a solo swimmer the conditions were very tough and it was his first solo swim. It was nail biting, waiting for him on the island and watching him slow down on the tracker, worried about whether he’d make it, get hypothermia or simply run out of time. It would have been gut wrenching after all the hours of dedicated training for something to go wrong. (I wrote about last year’s swim here.)


View towards the mainland from the ferry. Perth city is visible towards the right

This year Ironman wasn’t going to do the swim. My son and a friend were going to do it in a duo but our friend was offered a great opportunity in a gap year program which meant she wasn’t able to do the swim anymore. They deliberated for a little while who they could ask to take her place. It took my (relatively swimming unfit at that stage but always ready for a challenge) husband only about half an hour to decide that he’d step up and be our son’s teammate. With about 5 weeks to go before the swim he started swim training again rigorously and had to admit that he was actually quite excited about doing this duo swim with his son.

We left home at 4:30am to drop Child No 1 at the start while my husband made his way to where the support boat was being launched. The support boats have to wait for their swimmer about 1 kilometre from the start and the paddlers about 500 metres. After he’d registered and we’d lathered him with zinc against sunburn and sheep fat against stingers (stinging jellyfish) their wave started at 6:35am. The girls and I then made our way to the ferry to go across to the island and wait for them there.


Early morning at the start at Cottesloe beach


Paddlers and support boats waiting for their swimmers with Rottnest Island in the background


Taken at Cottesloe beach just after sunrise. The visibility was amazing with the island and one of the lighthouses clearly visible

Rottnest was at its best. It was hot and wind still but that meant the water was even clearer than we’re used to seeing it. It was packed with people waiting for their swimmers to arrive, as well as the usual tourists. We cycled to The Basin (a beach close to The Settlement where the finish line was and all the ferries arrive and depart from), and had a lovely refreshing swim before Child No 3 and I cycled to the little airport where we took a scenic flight over the island and the swimmers. It was breathtakingly beautiful. My amateur photos with reflections from the windows can’t do it justice but my memories of yesterday will always stand out. Even the pilot (who does that sort of flight daily and sometimes a few times per day) said: “It’s insane(ly beautiful).” I’m immensely grateful to call a place with such exquisite natural beauty home and for the opportunity to experience it the way we did.

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Rottnest Island taken from the west. The mainland can be seen in the background.


Thomsons Bay and the eastern tip of the island.


View of the swimmers and support boats and kayaks. The mainland is in the background.


The swimmers, support boats and kayaks. Taken towards the island.

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One of the last photos taken from the air. My camera was playing up at this stage and the trusty iphone did the trick.

Afterwards we made our way to the popular bakery and Child No 2 joined us for some lunch and all the while the poor swimmers were slogging it out. When we stood at the finish line waiting for our boys we watched all the different emotions of the finishers. Joy, elation, relief and pure exhaustion for some. I was once again in absolute awe of especially the solo swimmers whose feet had last felt anything solid underneath them 19.7 kilometres away on the mainland and who’d got themselves across the channel through hours of sheer hard work and determination to set foot proudly on the island after a gutsy effort. I take my hat off to all of them and I’m very proud of our boys.


The finishing channel


Lots of support kayaks at the finish line.

None of it would of course have been possible without the support crews who very generously gave up their time and helped the swimmers. Thanks guys, it’s much appreciated. And then there’s the volunteers as well, who help make the event happen and the day a success. At the end of a long day in the sun there was “debriefing” (ie sharing funny tales about the day) over a beer with the support team and a day like this wouldn’t be complete without the scene being set for the next challenge. Ironman and his triathlon and Rottnest swim mate are already challenging each other for the next event.

Ironmen and Mad Fish (The Art of Spectating)

Hello 3am, we should stop meeting like this. Although we don’t do it all that often. Being a spectator at a running race or triathlon is something the kids and I have down to a fine art. It could be Perth, Rottnest Island, Buller Gorge or Broome Marathons, Two Oceans Ultra-Marathon, Busselton Ironman or 70.3, Albany Half, Three Peaks Race or the Jüngfrau Marathon, each has its own set of challenges and rewards for supporters and spectators.

Having a husband and dad who is fanatic about running and endurance sport, who’ll get up well before 5am most days to train, trains nearly every day whether it rains or whether it’s over 35°C, spends up to 20 hours per week dedicatedly training if he’s training for an Ironman, who is forever setting himself new goals and (what would be insurmountable to me) challenges and falls asleep before the rest of us most nights means that it’s part of our lifestyle to have several different sports GPS’s in the house, to see him update his training spreadsheets daily and to watch him go for a second run or swim for the day so he’ll reach his target kilometres for the month. With more than 80 marathons and over 20 ultra-marathons under the belt it goes without saying that the kids and I have spent a fair bit of time watching and waiting at finish lines of races. When the kids were little it was a bit harder – try explaining to a crawling baby or toddler with a short attention span that you just have to hang around a little while longer waiting for dad – but since they’ve got a bit older we’ve been going to more and more events. Another change has been in that he started doing triathlons as well, and added half-ironmans (or Ironman 70.3 to be technical) and Ironman to his repertoire which usually meant a weekend away for the family watching these events which could take anything between 5 and 15 hours.

Watching running races aren’t really the kids’ favourite pastime as with a lot of races you only see your athlete at the start and finish of the race but if it involves a weekend away such as for the Rottnest Marathon, they’re quite good at supporting their dad. An out-and-back race means hanging around at the start/finish line and depending on how energetic I feel on the day, maybe hopping in my car and waiting for him somewhere along the course and snapping some pics before going back to wait at the finish line. However if it’s a course with a couple or more laps it means we’ll see him a few times during the race but that means timing each lap according to how long he predicted he’ll take and making sure we’re there at the right time and haven’t wandered off to go and get a coffee or something at that exact time. It also means that if he comes in faster or slower than expected we wonder if everything is still going according to plan because there is always a race plan.

Thanks to his never ending energy we’ve watched races in some breathtaking places. Being there when he did the Jüngfrau Marathon in Switzerland was unforgettable.  The two of us went to Switzerland and were tourists for a week and then he ran the marathon, starting at Interlaken and tackling the nearly 1500m ascent for 42km via Lauterbrunnen all the way to the finish at Kleine Scheidegg while I hopped on and off the little train going up the mountain at various points to wait for him in a very civilised way perfectly suited to a spectator and supporter. By the time we reached the finish line it was snowing. A marathon in all sorts of conditions with the most spectacular scenery and views of the Swiss Alps.

Buller Gorge Marathon in New Zealand with its South Island rainforest beauty was another great experience; at the Two Oceans (ultra) Marathon in Cape Town we were only able to wait at the finish line but knowing the course and the spectacular Chapman’s Peak it goes over meant we could still appreciate the magical scenery in our minds’ eye but at the Broome Marathon on Cable Beach the kids pulled out all the stops to help support Ironman and one of his friends. Child No 2 ran her first 11km race that day but Child No 1 and Child No 3 walked about 2.5km to the south of Cable Beach Club to give their dad water there and since it turned out to be a 34°C day in mid July (winter) and the entire race was run on the beach it was slow going and Child No 3 ended up walking alongside her dad all the way back to Cable Beach while I walked about 2.5km to the north to give them water there and passed the nudist beach on my way! All in a day’s work for a spectator.

Buller Gorge, start of the Buller Gorge Marathon

Buller Gorge, start of the Buller Gorge Marathon

Start of the Broome Marathon on Cable Beach

Start of the Broome Marathon on Cable Beach

Runners spread out along Cable Beach in the Broome Marathon

Runners spread out along Cable Beach in the Broome Marathon

When the opportunity arose for Ironman to do the Three Peaks Race in Tasmania we knew it would be a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience for all of us and it turned out to be exactly that and more.  The race involved 2 runners, 4 sailors, a yacht, 335 nautical miles of sailing around the east coast of Tasmania and 3 runs over 3 peaks in 3 days covering 131km, in some places scrambling like mountain goats. Epic is the only word to describe the experience, even for us as spectators. It was so different to anything we’ve experienced before, for Ironman and his friend who sailed from run to run and had to run together for safety reasons (some of the runs started in the middle of the night) and for the kids and I who drove to different spots in Tasmania to see them, and also to meet the four great guys who were taking care of the sailing, the cameraman who went along and their families. Unlike standard running races this was a team effort between sailors and runners like no other. The untouched natural beauty of Tassie blew us away and made us want to go back for an extended tour one day. All of us have incredibly fond memories of this trip, made even more special by the lovely people we met.

Start of the Three Peaks Race, Tamar River, Beauty Point

Start of the Three Peaks Race, Tamar River, Beauty Point

The Hazards, Freycinet National Park, Tasmania (two of these peaks are traversed in one of the 3 runs in the race)

The Hazards, Freycinet National Park, Tasmania (two of these peaks are traversed in one of the 3 runs in the race)

Magic Miles dropping her sail as she's approaching Constitution Dock up the Derwent River in Hobart to drop the two runners off for the last leg of running (up Mount Wellington and back)

Magic Miles dropping her sail as she’s approaching Constitution Dock up the Derwent River in Hobart to drop the two runners off for the last leg of running (up Mount Wellington and back)

Triathlon support has different requirements for spectators. Efficient support means setting up camp early in the morning in a spot where you’re most likely to see the most action. We’re old hands at this and have our spot in Busselton to watch the Ironman and Ironman 70.3 events, and in Albany where we watch the Albany Half from. In Busselton we go onto the 1.9km jetty to watch the start of the swim, walk to the end of the jetty to see our athlete as he goes around the end of the jetty and then walk back to see him at the swim exit. Then it’s a case of timing how long we have until we go to see him on the bike in a different spot and repeating that, depending on the number of laps, and then it’s rushing to see him come back into transition after the bike and before the run, and then back to base to watch the run. Albany Half and Mandurah 70.3 have their own (slightly different) routines. A full Ironman event being one that starts around 6am and takes some hours to complete we’re usually up around 3am to be at the start in time and it can end up being a very long day of worry if your poor athlete struggles with nausea or something else like ours did the first time, but he persisted and finished well after sunset. Watching these events and the competitors each push through their own individual boundaries and limitations to reach their goals while soaking up the amazingly supportive vibe and camaraderie all around is another unforgettable experience. The overwhelming sense of relief, pride and joy as your ironman crosses the finish line after you’ve waved them off around sunrise and they’ve constantly been going all day to finish after sunset and the commentator says their name followed by: “You are an Ironman” is pretty special.  We made new friends and everyone supports everyone else as it’s all about reaching that finish line, one way or another and I admire all the Ironman competitors and finishers. When our Ironman got injured last year and wasn’t able to do the full Busselton Ironman event I thought I’d be relieved not to spend a 20-hour day – from when we have to wake up to when we get to bed again that night – at the event but I was surprised to feel a strange, empty, sad feeling not being there and really missed the atmosphere and the whole experience.

Ironman Busselton competitors during the 3.8km swim around the jetty

Ironman Busselton competitors during the 3.8km swim around the jetty

And then my man became serious about doing the Rottnest Channel Swim. He’d said for a while that he wanted to do it but the run-debilitating injury put it into fast forward and so the rigorous and relentless training for yet another different type of endurance event kicked off with a new set of challenges. He came home after swim training one morning complaining that he was cold (while the rest of us were quite warm) to which I replied that the rest of us hadn’t been swimming in the (Swan) river like mad fish all morning! This swim was going to throw our tried and tested spectating recipe out the window and I had to rethink my strategy. It’s a bit hard for a spectator to watch this open water swim other than from a boat and his crew boat had no space for nervous wives so I was just going to have to watch the start, hop on a ferry to Rottnest Island and wait at the other end, which I preferred anyway.

Leading up to an event such as this there’s always much talk in the family about the training requirements, schedule, and equipment in the preceding months and as the day draws closer the attention is focused on race-day logistics, nutrition, race briefings, protection against the cold (no wetsuits are allowed), long-term weather forecasts and wind predictions – an on shore wind could make for a terrible day out. Then tapering starts and final planning and preparations are done. This was going to be another mammoth team effort with the swimmer having to cross the 19.7km stretch of ocean between mainland WA and Rottnest Island with the aid of a paddler and support boat keeping them on course, feeding them and judging whether or not they show signs of hypothermia. It’s like the Comrades (marathon) of swimming. The skipper of my man’s support boat wrote a tracking website on which we could follow his progress and all was set for our Ironman turned (mad) fish to tick another event off his list. The weather turned out to be far from ideal and the resulting rough and choppy water meant it was a much slower swim for most swimmers, and the post-race analyses (detail weather data, tracking data on Google Maps and graphs) and recounting and recapitulating thereof in several indabas proved it. As this event was in a discipline that was new to us we realised again how dependant your athlete is on their support team and there will be many stories to tell in years to come. The kids and I managed to go on a scenic flight from the island to get a closer (yet very far away) look at the swimmers and waited the rest of the time out back on the island. Knowing that the weather was wreaking havoc with his estimated time, the best news I received all day was when his support team let me know that he was at the 18km mark (which meant that the worst of the rough water was behind him) and the best sight all day was when he came swimming into the finishing channel.

Swimmers and support boats and paddlers in the Rottnest Channel Swim

Swimmers and support boats and paddlers in the Rottnest Channel Swim

A few days before the event he told me the now familiar chorus: “I’ll never do this again”. I’ve heard it before and know by now that once the bug has bitten there’s no letting go and I don’t really get taken by surprise much anymore but I still hoped as this one was stressful for us as spectators, and the day after the event it had changed to: “I’ll never do it again in conditions like that”, and so the door has been left wide open again. But the way I see it is that if I had to hold him to all his nervous and jittery pre-race promises the kids and I will also miss out on some pretty memorable spectating experiences, but every now and then when 3am comes around I wouldn’t mind a bit of tapering for us spectators as well.