2006 will be a big swimming year for the Townsville Palfreys.
Penny, the faster of the husband and wife duo, has been wanting to swim the English Channel since she was a teenager. Born in England and a successful still water swimmer as a youngster, the lure of the channel was always in the background. It would be thirty odd years though, before she would get her chance to take on the Everest of open water swimming.
After emigrating to Australia at age 20, then having three of children, lack of money, lack of time, etc. etc., any thoughts of serious swimming were put on hold for almost a decade. Eventually, Penny decided she needed something to give herself a break from the household chores. After a bit of training and a few local swims, she increased the klms and the intensity to see what she was capable of. After some success in a few well known swims, she managed third place in the 25 k nationals behind Shelley Taylor-Smith and Melissa Cunningham. This earned her a spot on the 1993 Pan Pacs team to Italy. In what was virtually a world championship field, she managed fifth place. In 1994 she again placed third in the nationals behind Shelley and Melissa, before a neck injury sidelined her.
Chris, who is big on enthusiasm but not so big on style or technique, has been focusing more on distance swimming since his knees told him in the mid 1990’s that a switch from triathlons would be a wise move.
We have been training together since the mid 1990’s, normally with Penny in the fast squad lane, and myself in the middle of the road squad lane. Our main focus has been open water, with some “masters” thrown in here and there. Whilst we have the 8 klm “caged” Magnetic Island to Townsville swim on our doorstep, we wanted other challenges.
Way back in 1999, we heard via the Oceanswims website of a 20 klm swim in Perth. The then race organizer, John Guilfoyle, was very helpful and assisted us with obtaining support boats, so we had no hesitation in entering.
Rotto is an amazing event. It has massive support from both the swimming and the boating community, and including a small army of volunteers and supporters, there are probably around 10,000 people who have some involvement in the race. The Perth people are generally very friendly and the professionalism of the race organizers is second to none. The swim itself is also very enjoyable. 20 k’s is not beyond the capability of most average swimmers (provided you do the work to prepare), but it is big enough to give one a great sense of accomplishment to have completed the swim. The water temperature varies between 20 to 22 C and is quite bearable even for people like us who hail from the tropics. And the water clarity is normally very good. Unless it is rough, you can see the bottom quite clearly for most of the 20 k.
So after our first Rottnest crossing in 2000, we were hooked, and have been back every year except for 2002, when it clashed with the World masters championships in New Zealand.
Our training is probably similar to many solo swimmers, with a couple of exceptions. Townsville, in summer is always hot. At 19 degrees south of the equator, situated almost halfway between Cairns and the Whitsundays, the summer sun and heat is relentless. Both the pool and ocean water temperature can go over 30 C. Training in this is very hard work. Some liken it to training at altitude. The other thing we have to work around is the box jellyfish. This is the world’s most venomous creature, and inhabits the tropical waters of northern Australia from November to April. Swimming unprotected in open water is out of the question. Fortunately we have a netted off enclosure at the beach, which is roughly the size of two Olympic pools. Whilst visibility is normally terrible (due to suspended sediments), it is all we have. So our open water training consists of a weekly 10 k swim in the net, using a program we have made up.
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Back to the Rotto swim.
We were really looking forward to Rotto 2006. Through Penny’s English Channel enquiries, we heard that Alison Streeter was in Australia, and was coming over to Perth to watch the swim. After a few emails, we were lucky enough to tee up a breakfast get together. With 43 English Channel crossings including numerous records, Ali must be close to a living legend. But with all that, she was very friendly and down to earth, and only too happy to share some of her channel swimming experience. As we were sitting at the Blue Duck Café, chatting and gazing out toward Rottnest, it occurred to me that the last time we saw seas this flat was the day before the 2003 swim (which saw over half the field pull out due to strong headwinds). And the weather forecast for this year was not too much better.
With 2,300 competitors, consisting of solos, teams of two and four, numerous wave starts are necessary to get competitors into the water without total chaos. The first wave of solos starts at 5.45am, a few minutes before daybreak. Standing on the beach in the darkness, I’m sure most people have a fleeting thought of Ken Crew, the unlucky swimmer who was attacked by a great white, only 600m north of the starting line. The need to concentrate on the task ahead and the fact that there is safety in numbers, ensure these thoughts don’t linger.
The most important task, as the starting hooter sounds, is the task of finding your paddler (if you have one), and your support boat. This can be extremely difficult in the half light and 2006 was the first time that Penny and I both found our boats without any trouble. Most boats look the same from the water, and the same goes for boaties trying to pick their charge from a mass of white caps and thrashing bodies. Some competitors can end up treading water for minutes before meeting up.
The weather forecasters were spot on when they said conditions would not be great. They predicted 18 to 23 knot southerly cross winds (the swim heads almost due west from Cottesloe Beach to the finish at Thompsons Bay) with 2 metre swells at the start. This made conditions uncomfortable and somewhat difficult to get a decent rythym going. At around 9.00am, after three hours in the water, the breeze backed around to the south west (almost a head wind) at the same strength. This made everyone’s work fairly tough. Swimmers had to fight the conditions and boats found it more difficult to hold a straight line.
Any one who has done the Rotto swim will be aware of the currents in Thompson’s Bay. Perth locals can probably explain what causes these currents and which direction they will flow. All we know is that they always seem to appear for about a 1 klm stretch, just as you come abreast of Phillip Rock. Right at the time when you don’t need it, these currents flow against you and slow your pace to a crawl.
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In Rotto 2006, however, these currents seemed to start a lot further out from the island and last a lot longer. At some points, you would be going flat out, and clearly see yourself staying stationery or going sideways across the weed beds.
Whilst nowhere near as difficult as 2003, the conditions still had a big effect on the field. Last year, around 15 swimmers broke 5 hours and another 35 finished under 6 hours. This year, no one went under 5 hours and only a dozen swimmers broke 6 hours. And the conditions forced one third of the solo field to retire. Penny and I have now finished the solo swim six times and will keep coming back to team up with our fantastic boaties, John Rothwell and Wayne Williams from Austal Ships.
It was also a thrill for me to see my younger brother Martin finish. Martin hails from Bronte in Sydney, and whilst he finished the South Head rough water swim last year, Rotto 2006 was his first big swim.
If you are looking for something a bit more challenging than the 1 or 2 k fun swims, then Rotto is “the” event to aspire to in Australia. It takes a few months of commitment, but the sense of accomplishment (not to mention the fitness you pick up along the way) far outweigh any sacrifices you make.
The hardest thing, if you don’t live in Perth, is securing a support boat. But the website gives you some assistance. And perhaps the organizers may be able to help.
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What’s next for us? Well the Rotto swim on 17th February, 2007 is a definite. In the meantime, Penny in particular is going to be very busy. We meet the great Philip Rush (English Channel triple crossing record holder) in Wellington, in early April to have a crack at the Cook Strait. According to Philip, this is a tougher swim than even the channel. Penny will swim, and if the weather behaves itself long enough, I will also have a go. In June, we hope to swim the Strait of Gibraltar (another swim we heard about, via Stephen Junk’s article in Oceanswims). And then Penny has her trip to Dover in late August. After all that, we might have a rest and let our shoulders (and bank account) recover.
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PS. If you are looking for a challenging event that is a little outside the ordinary, check out our Magnetic Island swim on 29th July this year. A caged swim is very rare these days, and you will find the weather at that time of the year, and the people, extremely welcoming. But make your mind up quickly. There are only eleven cages.