Rotto – lessons from a first timer


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Rotto – lessons from a first timer

  1. 1. Rottnest Channel Swim – Lessons andReflections of a First TimerBy Michael Teys, 2013So you have the ocean swimming bug and someone suggests you do Rotto1. Whynot? It’s only 19 .7 km - on a good day.First lesson, you will swim twenty point something allowing for navigation deviationsand currents. What’s another 1 or 2 k when you’ve swum 19! This race is heavilyweather affected and in a cruel blow, Mother Nature usually makes the last half thehardest.Second lesson, long distance ocean racing is not just about the swim. Here are theother things I learnt on my first attempt.RegisteringRegistrations open in the first week of November. They are only open for weeks sodon’t miss this. 237 did the solo in 2013, about 180 made it.Another 2000 or so will annoy the crap out of you doing duos and foursomes. Theyare mainly young and good looking and seem to be having fun. There is a traditionfor the teams that one leg by each swimmer has to be swum nude. All of this frivolitygoes on while us middle aged soloists slug it out, breathing in their boat exhaustfumes proving to ourselves that life has not yet passed us by.All soloists are guaranteed a starting place as long as you meet the minimum criteriaof having swum 10 km in 4:15. There are a number of qualifying races for this on theswims website. If you can’t make this, speak to the organizers about an equivalentswim certified by you and an observer in a statutory declaration. That’s what I did.Finding a CrewThe hardest part, except the swim, is finding a crew. You will need your own boatwith a skipper and a spotter, and a kayaker or two. Better to have two kayakersbecause a lot of them, my fellow Carl excluded, are weak bastards and get seasick.An experienced crew who have done the course before are prized. They will makethe course in the shortest possible distance given the prevailing weather conditions.They will also handle the chaos of the start and, to a lesser extent, the finish in a way                                                                                                                1 (with thanks to the organising authority and the surf lifesavers for avery well run event and for keeping us safe)     1
  2. 2. that causes you minimum stress allowing you to put your head down and swim. Myskipper Brodie, and spotter Laurie, did a superb job.In ocean swimming, as in life, money solves most problems. The going rate for anexperienced crew in 2013 was $1,500. We pay $500 - $1,000 a day for a crew inSydney proving there is indeed a two-speed economy in Australia. Perth’s anexpensive town.AccommodationIf you want to party after, and it’s one hell of a party, book early for a spot on theisland. Failing that, book early for a seat on the ferry home because they will sell outon the day.Most of the boaties will want to return to Perth quickly after the race because gettinga berth at the island is hard and they are sick of swimmers by mid-afternoon.Sleeping on the beach is not for the middle aged and those little quokkas, while cuteas hell, apparently make loud unpleasant noises when they mate.First timers should not stay at Cottlesloe Beach, where the race starts. Thetemptation in the days ahead of the race will be to look out at the horizon to seeRotto faintly in the distance and regret what seems surely to be a bad life decision.Freemantle is the best option. It’s 15 mins away by car, a bit cheaper and noteveryone there will be a swimmer.The Little Creatures Brewery / Pub is the unofficial spiritual home and meetingpalace of swimmers in Freo (everything in WA unofficially ends in ‘O’ and every townofficially ends in ‘up’ said to be Aboriginal for drinking place). If you call Rotto, Rotty,as we would ‘over east’, you will be laughed at and vilified.Have the fries at Little Creatures, they are best thing you will ever taste and you canpass it off as carbo-loading.TrainingStart training at least 6 months out and do not believe anyone who tells you that youcan over-train. This is an evil myth spread by very good swimmers blessed with greatnatural technique and endurance and freaks who have made the crossing at least 5times.I did about 15 kms a week on average for the last two months and should have doneat least 25 km a week as recommended by the organizers. As a result, I had nothingleft in the tank for the last 5 km on the day.   2
  3. 3. Some will prefer open water training and others will join a squad for regular poolsessions. I now detest pool swimming so chose the open water path but the pool /squad swimmers get the better results. For me, and a lot of swimmers who spent afair amount of time in our teens following the black line, a swim in the ocean is a farmore enjoyable training regime than returning to that line, chlorine hair, tumble turnsand bruised inner elbows from clipping the lane rope. Not to mention the delusionaland / or dyslexic swimmers who either can’t read the signs that say ‘fast freestyleonly’ or think they are in that category (the same people encourage their children toaudition for Australian Idol and the like.)If training in the open water, try to find a course in the last 2 months that allows youto feed at 30-minute intervals. This takes some getting used too and left until raceday, as I did, will result in violent vomiting at the 10 km mark, again, as I did. There isquite an art to vomiting Thursday’s spaghetti marinara while treading water in themiddle of a channel on a Saturday.On the subject of feeding, also learn in the weeks before the race to feed while nothanging off your kayak. You will be disqualified if you do and it’s harder than youthink.MatesTrain with good mates. My crew is the ‘Frosty Nuts’. We are an informal sub set ofthe Bold and Beautiful2 of Manly who swim 365 days a year from Manly to ShellyBeach and back.The Frosties are dedicated to long distance oceans swims and swim year round onthe northern beaches, Sydney without wet suits; we are mostly men (obviously) andwe exist informally for the pure joy of ocean swimming.On my Rotto swim, in no particular order, I took with me the determination of Miles,the power of Todd, the technique of Sabine, the equanimity of Gaetan, the drive ofAlex, the passion of James (Rotto soloist), the tenacity of Ben (Rotto soloist), thededication of Cae (Rotto soloist 2013, who swam an amazing sub 7), thenonchalance of Iain (English Channel Soloist), the thinking of Collie (English ChannelSoloist), and the exuberance of Rob (Rotto soloist).I was also inspired by fellow Bold and Beautiful swimmers; the record of Michael (5Rotto solo crossings – his fifth in 2013 in just under 10 hrs), the founder of B and B,Jules (6 Rotto solo crossings), the persistence of Brendan (Rotto solo crosser) andthe spirit of Robin (a valiant 18 k Rotto attempt).                                                                                                                2   3
  4. 4. TravellingArrive no earlier than the Thursday and leave no earlier than Monday. I got this muchright.Arrive any earlier and you have too long to get nervous. You will watch the horizonand become addicted to the weather watch websites. The local press will be full ofcommentary about swells and currents and big white things that apparently hang offthe start and finish lines of this race and bite. Skippers, God bless them, will text youoften about the current predictions and warn of cancellations and seasickness. Thisis just their perverse way of having fun.Arrive too late and you will not have enough time to get nervous. A certain amount ofnervous energy is needed to do your best. As my young friend and now fellow soloistRob, said the day before our crossing, ‘I’m pumped and ready – it’s not everyday thatyou get to tear life a new arsehole’.Pre Race PrepIt’s advisable to have someone with you on land in the morning that is not swimming.They think for you from 4 am when you wake allowing you to panic.I didn’t have anyone with me. I went to get my goggles from my bag with 20 minutesto the starters gun and realized I had left them in my hotel room. At that moment Iwould gladly have traded my beloved first born for my favorite pair of never – leaked– once – in the last two months - goggles. (Sorry Ellen but it’s true). Fortunately,trusted Frosty Nut, Alex was on hand about to kayak for his sister El and was goodenough to lend me one of the 7 spare pairs this experienced team had on them.They didn’t leak once after the first adjustment at the 1 km mark. El nailed her swimin better than 1 hour off her previous crossing despite an unexplained u-turn back toPerth at one stage when Alex momentarily returned to their boat for supplies.Those who have never done a 20 km swim should follow the lead of the experiencedswimmers and grease up like a pig at a county fair. You will chafe where you thoughtyour body parts would never meet. By the way, bring some disposable rubber glovesfor the application or you will smear your goggles and swim to Africa as aconsequence.If you are a media tart, write something funny on your chest. This year’s winner was‘don’t eat me, eat him (side arrow)’. This wit predictably made the news that nightand the paper the next day.   4
  5. 5. Starting TacticsThere are two types of crews: those who hang to the left (Southerlies) and those whohang to the right (Northerlies). Northerlies are an anti-social group who detest crowdsand to avoid them will run the risk of being pushed North off course for a quiet andcalmer start. I am from the South.Southerlies tend to the left of the starting gate. They hold putting up with a bit of acrush at the 500-metre mark to find your paddler and the 1.5 km mark to find yourboat is a fair price to pay for the trajectory that will apparently get you to the finishline without swimming an extra metre. But this doesn’t take account of currents. Bestlaid plans come astray on the way to Rotto, I swam 20.8 km on the day.The women and seeded men start just before dawn at 5.45. Some 25-year-old partmale / part fish will be in this group and win the race in 4 hours something. If you arein the first wave you might want to wear non-tinted glasses to help you hook up withyour crew. The remaining male soloists leave at 6 right on sunrise. Visibility is prettygood for this wave.There are no vessels allowed in the starting lane, which is the first 500 mts of thecourse. After that, you have to find your paddlers who will be lurking like theproverbial ‘dogs bark’ to the left or the right depending on your inclination.Paddlers like to wear funny hats. They think this makes them more visible to you asyou steam roller your way over your training mates with whom you have beenexchanging nervous niceties at the starting line. The paddler’s funny hats actuallyserve no useful purpose at all other than to amuse the paddlers. They’re a peculiarlot but very important to your mental health for the next half a dozen or so hours.Finding you quickly is their moment to shine so best to indulge them about the hatthing.You have exactly 1 km then to find your stink boat. After that you won’t be let pastthe iconic tall ship. As you want to settle into your rhythm, the last thing you need isthe coast guard called out to find your peeps. At this point there is little you can do asa swimmer but surrender to the eye of the paddler with the funny hat and get on withthe business at hand.Now the only tactic left to be concerned with is this – ‘Right arm over, left arm over.Repeat’.   5
  6. 6. FeedingMuch pre-race conversation and Facebook / blogging time is devoted to the issue offeeding.All agree that regular feeds, perhaps each half hour, are good and that the earlyfeeds, when you don’t think you need them, are the most important.Simpletons like me use water each thirty minutes alternating with a banana and a gelwith added caffeine. Have your paddler tie the bottle and the gel / banana to a ropeand throw it at you every half hour. This will amuse them, which is necessary midrace because the funny hats will have blown off and the nude team swimmers are yetto catch the soloists. The rope also makes it easier for the paddlers to retrieve thebottles at the end of the feed so you can push on quickly. Feeds are for feeding, notresting. Stop too long and getting started again hurts like hell.There are gels and gels. Find the flavor and brand you like and stick with it. I thoughtit would be a good idea on race day to reward myself at the half way mark with someraspberry concoction I had never tried before. All I achieved was much burly likely toattract those sea creatures that must not be named.The more refined will take vegemite sandwiches, muffins, peaches and tea. I say it’snot a picnic guys, leave the fairy bread and sausage rolls for the after party.Mind GamesThe race is of course more about the mind than the body. Everyone will have his orher own games and tricks to pass the time.Some will think a lot about their stroke. In preparing for this swim, I learnt to swimfrom the hips and use my lats, so this occupied about 2 minutes of the day. I boreeasily.You can sing a song but there are risks with this. The last song you heard in carbefore hitting the start line might have been an Abba tune that will have you wishingfor a Voldermort fish attack to end the pain.A lot swim for charity or for someone in his or her life that needs some support facingone of life’s challenges. There were some wonderful stories – one-legged men, Dadsswimming for kids with leukemia and an 80-year-old doing his ninth, but definitely hislast crossing!I dedicated my race to my son Patrick who sits his HSC this year. While thankfullynot life threatening, it is a challenge for him nevertheless. I wanted him to know thatany big task in life is just a series of little things done well. A trek like Kokoda, which   6
  7. 7. we have both done, is a series of little steps one after the other for 8 days. A swimmight be one stroke after the other for 7 or 8 hours, and life is one thing after theother for as long as we are blessed to be here.In all our endeavors, the good times come and go as surely as the bad. Life is aseries of memories. We endure the bad times and cherish the good times to live ahappy and fulfilling life. That’s why I swam Rotto in 2013. Find your reason and youare half way there…… Well that’s not true, but it will make it more meaningful.Rotto is a challenging swim but it is not a beautiful swim. My mind game was topretend I was doing any one of the many beautiful swims I get to do any day I like inmy hometown, Sydney. The first 1.5 km was the daily Bold and Beautiful dash toShelly Beach and back. The next 3 km was the BnB ‘bolder-dash’ to Queenscliffe.The middle bit was the Frosties iconic beaches swim from Manly to Bondi across theheads of Sydney’s harbor. The final leg was our 5.30 am Freshie express. I amfortunate to have done all these swims in my first year of ocean swimming, somemultiple times and to have done them with some remarkable people who havebecome good friends. This was my way of breaking down the race to manageablebits. The trick is to forget you are doing them back to back!Whatever mind games you play; there will be times when you want to give up. Theseare the moments when you have to convince yourself not to make that decision whileyou are feeling crap. There’s a life lesson is this alone.Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we fall short of our self-imposed goals. Wemight not beat our friendly rival, we might not make the time we want, we might notmeet the cut off and be pulled out by an official just doing his or her job. But this justkeeps us keen and striving for the very best we can be.The FinishIt’s not for me to spoil your finish. Your finish is your private moment, just as mine ismine, but when someone says, ‘Are you going to do Rotto?’ you really should3.                                                                                                                3 I completed my 2013 crossing in 7 hrs. 6 mins and 27 seconds, a few hours later I decided to competeagain in 2014 for a sub 7-hour time. You can follow me on twitter @MichaelTeys and contact me byemail on     7