Two weeks ago I participated in the Rottnest Channel Swim, an epic 20 km ocean swim from Cottesloe beach in Perth to Rottnest Island - famous for its spectacular nature and the happiest animal in the world. It was easily the most challenging swim of my life and this is my story.
The famous why question is quite hard to answer. I thought about it a lot and was not able to come up with a simple reason that pinpoints why I wanted to attempt this swim. Everybody who ever had to work hard for something and finally reached their goal probably knows about this great feeling of achievement that you get. That sensational feeling alone is definitely one big part of the answer. But there are other aspects to it. Intangible things like the need for a bit of adventure, the time you spend in nature and the passion for swimming in open water but also very practical things like the rewarding feeling when you fundraise for something that you think is good or the healthy effect for my diabetes - these are some of the other elements that might help answer the why.
A little bit of history
When I came to Australia five years ago I had actually lost a bit of interest for swimming. I only did it to stay fit and because it helped me manage my diabetes. But then I discovered the world of ocean swimming. It definitely sparked my interest in swimming again. At first I started with the shorter distances wearing a wetsuit. Hell, the water was so much colder than in the comfy pool! But things gradually changed over the years. I lost interest in the competitive element of the sport altogether and it became much more about simply spending time in the best element in the world - water.
When you think about it, lap swimming is actually a pretty dumb thing to do. In fact in Germany we call ourselves „tile munchers“ for a reason. But it’s very different when you swim in the ocean. Every time you enter the water you see and experience something different: Different waves, different currents, different temperatures, different marine life. That makes ocean swimming very attractive and a lot less boring then endlessly swimming your laps in a stinky pool. Don’t get me wrong, I still train a lot in a pool as it also allows you to focus on other things like your swimming technique but I really look forward to every session that I can do in the open water.
So every year I stepped up the distances a bit. I soon did the 2.5 km swims and in the third year I started doing the 5 km swims on a regular basis. Last year I stopped wearing a wetsuit when the water temperature hit 18° and I did my first marathon swim in the bay (the most common definition of a marathon swim is the distance you would spend running on land divided by four - so technically a marathon swim starts at around 10.5 km). That’s when I realised that I should now be able to tackle the big one: The infamous Rottnest Channel Swim. I heard about that swim about four years ago and back then I was saying to myself that one day I’d do it solo - only that I thought I was joking. But when I came out of the water after my first 10 km swim I still had some energy left and I knew that I’d be able to double the distance with just a little bit of extra training. And so it began.
The logistics around organising the Rotto swim are actually almost as hard as the physical training itself. Every swimmer needs a support boat and a support kayak - and you have to organise it yourself. Not being from WA made this very hard for me. But I was lucky.
Last year I met Peter, a passionate ocean swimmer (and Total Immersion coach) who wanted to help people from the Melbourne area with the logistics for the Rotto swim this year. We ended up being a group of about 20 bay swimmers and Peter helped us organise support boats, skippers, kayaks, paddlers and generally helped us prepare for the swim. Fortunately I didn’t need a stranger as a paddler - Christine agreed to paddle for me! A huge advantage as we know how to communicate and we could practice everything properly before the race. What a relief!
But it doesn’t stop there. Obviously you need to swim heaps of kilometres every week (in the last weeks before the race I did around 30 km per week) but you also need to train other things: Communication & navigation with your paddler, feeding during the swim, mouthwash during the swim and for me as a bonus I also had to find out how I best manage my diabetes in the open sea. Marathon swims here in the bay are relatively easy to manage as you usually swim laps and go through a feeding station every few kilometres. But the Rotto swim is different. You swim in one direction, can’t touch your paddler, kayak and surely not your support boat. Definitely a challenge when you want to measure your blood glucose levels or inject insulin whilst swimming.
Last year Bec from the Telethon Type 1 Diabetes Family Centre also attempted the Rotto swim and she is a type 1 as well. I got in touch with her and she was a huge help. I ended up using a similar strategy as she did: The FreeStyle Libre is a continuous glucose monitoring system that works by attaching a sensor to your arm that constantly measures your blood glucose levels under your skin. You can obtain a reading by swiping over the sensor with a special device. The sensor itself is waterproof for 30 minutes but by protecting it with additional waterproof tape and putting the reader in a waterproof bag it’s actually relatively easy to use in choppy conditions. The values are not 100% accurate but they tell you enough to figure out a trend and manage your carbs intake accordingly.
Being still on a diet with carbs and based on my experiences years ago when I did a 24hrs swim in a safe pool environment I was faced with another challenge: I knew that at some point I might have to take insulin. Another dare in choppy saltwater. I’m not on a pump so I had to find a way to inject insulin with a pen during the swim. During practice swims I usually got away with taking a bit more long-acting insulin a few hours before the activity but as every diabetic will tell you, your disease might behave differently when you don’t expect it. So I ended up building a little floating device out of two pool noodles. Christine would carry it for me on the kayak and if I’d need to inject insulin, I would simply pop it under my back and would be able to take an injection with a relatively stable body position. It worked during the practice swims but I was really hoping that I would not have to do it during the actual crossing…
Each time I did a swim that I thought was a bit crazy (oh boy, how perspectives change) I also decided to do some fundraising along the way. This one wasn’t any different and Christine & I decided to collect some money for Sea Shepherd Australia. We knew that this could be a bit polarising for some people but we thought of this as an extreme swim and we wanted to support an organisation that actually also was a bit extreme. Initially we wanted to collect about $1,000 but we soon realised that we could do more. We ended up raising $2,055 - and you can still donate if you want. We are absolutely over the moon with this result and want to thank everyone who supported us again at this stage. You guys bloody rock and with each little donation our motivation went up a little more. It really means a lot to us.
The last days before the swim
We arrived in Cottesloe three days before the swim and spent these days mostly with some last, crucial preparations. There were some acclimatisation swims with our group to get used to the swell, the water temperatures and stings from the local jellyfish (of course I didn’t get stung once during the practice swims). Two days before the swim we also finally got to meet our skipper: Jason was a very experienced guy, he actually skippered for a few other swimmers before and he was very calm and relaxed - and he was a diabetic, too! We both came with a swimming plan to the meet&greet and it was almost identical. I felt like we were in good hands as he clearly knew what he was doing and what to expect from the swim.
One day before the race we got our kayaks which was great for Christine as she could think about how she would arrange all the things she’d carry with her. Also on the day before was the official race briefing - everything became very real now and you could clearly feel how the energy (and nervousness) was building up within the group.
Unfortunately I also had one last shock moment during that day. It turned out that Abbott (the company that owns the FreeStyle Libre) is yet another money hungry medical organisation that doesn’t really think much about the real needs of their already handicapped customers. My German reading device that is using the German units (because you cannot simply change units on their devices) was not compatible with the Australian sensors. So far I only tested it with German sensors and there were no indicators or logical reasons whatsoever why the Australian ones should be any different. After a heated debate with the customer support hotline and some hectic research I fortunately found a third party app for my phone that would allow me to read out the data from my sensor with my smartphone - and convert it into the right unit. I simply had to put my smartphone in the waterproof bag instead of the reading device and everything would work as expected. Fingers crossed that the waterproof bag would in fact remain waterproof during the swim, otherwise things would become quite costly for me. At this point a huge fuck you very much to Abbott and a huge thank you very much to Marcel Klug who created the third party app Liapp for my smartphone - you saved my swim this day!
The night before the swim I then became extremely nervous and didn’t get much more than 5 hours sleep. I don’t know why - everything was well prepared, I was in good form, the forecast was looking good… but I somehow felt like a little child before Christmas.
Saturday morning, 4am, my alarm bell rang. I was sort of waiting for this moment the whole night so I got up straight away. In fact, I already got up at 12am before to take a 120% dose of my long-acting insulin that I was hoping would bring me through the swim. The forecast confirmed that we’d have a strong easterly wind and a 2 m swell for the majority of the day. Now, tailwind is great but I didn’t have the opportunity to train in a swell like this before, so that was a bit of an unknown for me. After putting on my special watersports sunscreen I coated my armpits and neck in a thick layer of grease. At 4:30am I called Jason the first time to confirm that he heard his alarm and that the boat was underway. They planned to sleep on the boat the night before and he told me that they had to change their position during the night as the swell became too heavy. Not really music to my ears but at least I was a little bit prepared for what was awaiting out there.
At 5am we collected the kayak and headed off to the beach. Fortunately we had an apartment 2 minutes away from the starting line, so we didn’t have any parking dramas and if we’d forgotten anything we could very quickly go back and pick it up - very reassuring. But boy oh boy, the beach was absolutely packed! Cars, swimmers & kayaks everywhere and it was still pitch-black. We met a couple of people from our group during the morning which helped calm my nerves a little bit. I picked up my timing chip, drank my iced coffee and ate a muffin to push my blood glucose level while Christine prepared the kayak. The ocean looked pretty calm to us, so at least the start shouldn’t be a problem. At 5:30am Christine called Jason the second time to confirm that we’re all set and ready to go. We carried the kayak to the southern departure point and then it was time to separate - my wave would start at 5:55am.
Jackie from our group was starting in the same wave, so we both made our way to the starting line together. Brenda - who’s btw going to swim the English channel in a few months and is doing a massive fundraising campaign, too - was starting in the 5:45am wave and Jackie and I tried to cheer her up from the outside. Unfortunately we couldn’t see her but we just yelled at the group anyway. And off they went. Now things got real. We walked into the starting area and I realised that I forgot to grease my groin area. So I took some grease from my armpits and put it down there while I was walking through the entrance arc - not realising that I was being filmed doing that… well, Jackie had a good laugh and at least I was slightly distracted from the butterflies a bit. I was just hoping that this hadn’t been shown on the livestream!
Then everything happened very quickly. Daylight was rising and you could see the armada of boats and kayaks on the horizon. An incredible picture that will be stuck in my mind forever. Now I was pumped. Excited. Jittery. And then the whistle blew and my wave of 100 swimmers dived in. The first 1,500m were very messy and confusing. I was wearing my mirrored goggles and it was still a bit too dark to see things properly. Also I was a bit concerned that other swimmers might accidentally knock my sensor off my arm, so I took it easy. I stopped at the 500m mark and had to take off the goggles in order to see what was happening around me. I was surrounded by swimmers and paddlers and got very nervous again. Did everything go well with Christine? Is she already here somewhere? We agreed that if I couldn’t see her at the 500m mark straight away I should try the 1 km mark. So I just kept on swimming and hoped for the best. It was really busy in the water and the icon vessel at the 1.5 km mark got closer and closer. But the moment I stopped at the 1 km buoy, a massive bag of relief fell of my shoulders. Christine was right next to me, she spotted me immediately and she told me that she already found Jason’s boat and in fact already spoke to him. I almost cried. It was still pure chaos in the water with swimmers, kayaks and boats everywhere. Lifeguards were shooting through the water in their rescue boats trying to link up swimmers with their skippers, people were yelling everywhere, I just wanted to get out of here as quickly as possible.
After 2.5 km it was time to check my blood glucose levels for the first time. It turned out to be very difficult - the chop made it very hard for Christine to hand anything to me. Also it was super hard for me to hold my smartphone steady for just a few seconds to read out the data from the sensor. It worked out eventually and the reading was „very high“. This was according to plan and I kept on swimming. Now I also got stung a couple of times but it wasn’t as bad as I expected. In fact I started to enjoy the constant stings a little as they sort of woke me up and kept me warm a bit.
The first 5 kilometres went on without any big dramas. The chop was picking up though and the second stop became very fiddly and time-consuming. At each stop the plan was to measure my blood glucose level, eat something, drink something and do a mouthwash. The waves made it very hard, Christine was constantly pushed away from me by the wind and it was very difficult for me to hand anything back to her. The reading was „high“ which again was according to plan.
At kilometre 8 we did the third stop and decided to not measure my blood glucose level as it was extremely choppy now. I felt good though and everything was going well. Jason did an awesome job navigating us through the water, Christine did amazing and despite the rough conditions still somehow managed to paddle at the perfect position for me. I still felt strong and swam at a good pace. We passed the 10 km buoy and tried to keep the stops as short as possible which meant no more blood glucose measuring. Concerned that my levels would drop too much I continued eating and drinking carb heavy things. I started to feel a bit cold and decided to have a hot drink which helped for the next few kilometres. But then things went downhill.
At kilometre 15 I had quite a queasy feeling and almost vomited during the feeding stop. I was also shivering and felt very weak all of a sudden. We couldn’t take any sea sickness medicine during the swim as it simply was too fiddly for Christine to reach out to the tiny tablets. I’m still not 100% sure what happened to me at this stage but I’m guessing it was a mix of sea sickness, hypothermia and ketoacidosis. When I read out the history of my sensor later, I discovered that my blood glucose levels almost hit a whopping 800 mg/dL which is way too high. I totally overdid it with the energy drinks and gels. Also Jason told me later that he looked around during that stop and that every other swimmer in our area at that time behaved like me. I tried to lay on my back for a while but that actually made it worse. Giving up definitely wasn’t an option and I didn’t feel disoriented or dizzy so I felt I was still able to finish. And that’s what it was suddenly all about: Just finish. Finish somehow. I found out that I felt ok when I kept on swimming with a very slow pace so that’s what I did.
No more feeding stops, just really focussing on my stroke it took me ages to reach the 18 km mark. To make things worse my Garmin decided to stop working and wasn’t showing me any progress anymore. However, once we were at the 18 km buoy the water seemed to be a bit more protected from the elements as the chop now calmed down significantly. I felt much better as I was also able to see the finish now. We passed Philip Rock and I knew that it’s only two tiny more kilometres to go. With a very excited feeling I was able to speed up again and very soon Jason had to leave us. With only 500 metres to go Christine also left me and the next moment I put my toes in the sand and stood up. I could stand! Which meant that I actually made it!
Christine and I were hoping that we could cross the finish line together but unfortunately that wasn’t possible. I slowly walked up the ramp to the finish and just enjoyed every second of that moment. Sinking down on a chair I grabbed a blanket to warm up and tried to digest what just happened in the last 5 and a half hours. Pure bliss was running through my veins and after 10 minutes or so I left the finish zone to pick up my medal, my solo finisher pack and meet Christine at last. I was slowly able to talk again and caught up with Brenda & Jackie. It turned out that everyone had their own little battles during the swim but we were all just united in happiness and pride about what we had achieved. Christine admitted at that point that she already got seasick at the 10km mark but decided to not tell me in order to keep up a positive vibe. She was actually cheering at me at that stage! Well, what can I say…? Kudos to her - she’s simply the best person in my life and without her I clearly wouldn’t have been able to do this.
To my surprise I met a few other people from our group already dressed up in the finish zone. That’s when I heard about the shark sighting and that swimmers got pulled out of the water - unfortunately quite a few from us were affected by it. We were already 3km past that point when it happened so I was lucky. But I feel really sorry for the people who couldn’t finish. They’ve put in so much work and effort into doing this crossing and couldn’t get the reward. You can argue if it was the right decision by the race organisers or not, but I’m pretty sure that a lot of changes will be made in the future based on what we now know about the situation and how it evolved. How would I have reacted if I would have been in that situation? I really don’t know. It happened in the shipping channel, so the water was quite deep and you couldn’t see the bottom. I told myself before the race that I would leave the water immediately if there would be a shark sighting in a 1km radius around me. Now that I’ve experienced the swim as a whole I’m not so sure anymore. The animal wasn’t aggressive, it disappeared rather quickly and I have serious doubts if it really was a threat to anyone in the water. But that’s just me now, sitting in front of a computer on safe grounds. It definitely was a hot topic during all the debates and discussions after the swim.
Completing the Rottnest Channel Swim has now taken two weeks to sink in and I’m still struggling to process all the emotions, feelings, ups and downs from that day. The finisher medal is hanging in a prominent spot in our apartment and it makes me very, very happy every time I look at it. And that feeling exactly is what I was writing about at the beginning and what makes all the hard work worth it. It was an amazing experience, in fact it was clearly one of the best things I ever did in my whole life.
I have no idea if there is anything coming up next. The English Channel might come to mind but I’m actually not interested in that one as I don’t feel I have a connection at all to it (unlike Rottnest Island - I still remember the first day we met). I do however have the feeling that I can do more. And that alone is just awesome enough for now.
A huge thank you goes out to Christine who was my rock during that whole journey that started almost 6 months ago. Also big thanks to Jason & his deckie Matt for guiding us safely through the channel. Peter and his team did an amazing job organising most of the logistics for us and the whole bay open water swimmers crew made the event super enjoyable from a social perspective as well. And obviously a big shout out to everyone who donated to our fundraiser and finally a big thanks to Sea Shepherd for trying to protect these wonderful waters that we swam in. I hope that many more people in the future will be able to see and experience the beauty that we could.