“Good morning Rebecca, this is the Australian Federal Police, can you please confirm your location?”
It was 5.45am, on Thursday 4th February, 2021 and I can officially say, that this was possibly the worst wakeup call I had ever received. I was in Perth having begun my 2 weeks of self-isolation in order to make the cut-off to still swim the 20km Perth to Rottnest Island.
The event is the equivalent of swimming from the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Manly return, just over 60% of the English Channel (35km), while the running translation is 80km.
There are only 400 people who complete the swim as a soloist like myself, and 2000 relayers. There is a 60-80% success rate on the day itself due to many variables many of which are outside of your control:
- Your team: You have to find a boat and kayaker to accompany you for both safety and feeding. There are always a handful of boats that breakdown on the day, as well as kayakers who forfeit due to exhaustion or seasickness – it really is luck of the draw.
- Hypothermia: If you spend long enough in warm water, you still get cold. There is a hypothermia medical tent at the end to give a glimpse into how many people do suffer from it. The only strategy to manage this, is to put on as much body fat as you can, to starve off the cold. The other is to wear a full body suit (wetsuits are not permitted).
- Nutrition: We generally eat every 30 minutes and the food is highly sugar based as your body needs to burn carbs for these types of endurance events – which is a shock to me as a paleo person of 5 years. My swim diet includes strawberry yoghurt, coke and lollies.
- Swimmer-induced oedema: This is when the lungs fill with fluid and need draining.
- Tongue swell: When the tongue swells and blocks the throat due to exposure from salt water.
- Timing cut-off: There are markers at the 10k, 15km, 18km marks in the swim, each with times allocated to them – ie if you don’t meet the 15km mark by 2pm, you get disqualified from the swim. Although the timings seem lenient on paper, the weather conditions really determine your timing and performance on the day.
- Currents: Swimming against a current, feels like pushing against a brick wall (literally), and when you stop to feed, you can get pushed hundreds of metres backwards in seconds. This is why it can take hours to move just 1km instead of the standard 20 minutes.
- The Fremantle Doctor: No, he’s not actually a doctor, but he’s a famous wind. This wind is generally 25 knots (a light breeze is about 5 knots) and as the wind intensifies the waves get bigger, you then need to swim under water and wait to be pulled to the top of the wave to get a chance to breath (without the risk of inhaling too much water).
Suffice to say, there are a lot of factors to consider and risks to train for. Most people who undertake this swim, have about 15+ years’ swimming experience underneath their belt and generally weigh about 110kgs.
In my case, I had less than 2 years’ experience, with only 2km as my longest swim, recent aortic valve sparing surgery (courtesy of Professor Bannon) and I weighed 55kgs. I’m sure we can all agree, I had a lot of catching up to do. So instead of undertaking a 3-month training program to prepare for the 20km swim, I had to triple it, with a 9-month training regimen.
I began simulating what solo swimming feels like – just me, swimming alongside a kayaker (or a boat) – from June last year, and we’ve had several experiences on this steep learning curve, dealing with 48 knot winds, sharks, 30 bluebottle stings to name just a few.
I’m very pleased to share, that I completed the Rottnest swim after 9 hours and 42 minutes of swimming on the 20th February this year.