The big day came and started well, I went to bed the evening before at 7pm and, although I woke up a handful of times throughout the night, I was able to get back to sleep reasonably quickly. Kristen and I got out of bed just before my 3.30am alarm and started ticking tasks off the morning to do list. Race numbers applied, first coat of sunscreen, swim trunks on, banana, water, pack the food esky… we were all in the car on time and headed to Fredericks house by 4.10am.
At Fredericks house the whole team was together. Fred was the skipper, his son Alex, the Kayaker, Jason and Glenn were on the boat and Kristen was coming to the start so she could take our gear back home and send us off! We split into two groups, Kristen, Alex and Myself, drove to Cottesloe for the start while Fred, Glenn and Jason went to launch the boat at Hillaries.
By the time we parked and walked towards the activity it was still before dawn but the atmosphere was full of energy under the bright flood lights. Hundreds of people were prepping their layers of sun protection with their family and friends. After placing our kayak on the Northern side of the starting channel, I added 2 more layers of sunscreen, a layer of zinc and a thick layer of wool fat with Kristen’s help.
The conditions of the day were very favourable with a light Easterly wind forecast and a small north to south current. Essentially, a calm day with not too much swell or current to fight with.
The champions of the channel wave left first with roughly 20 invited swimmers hoping to win the event. 10 minutes later, Wave A took off followed by Wave B. My qualifying time put me in Wave C of soloists, the 10 minute wait looking out over the ocean was spent trying to reduce the nervous energy through breathing and self talk, “It’s a long day Michael”, “Remember to take the first hour to slowly settle into this”. I fleetingly remember thinking I’m in over my head but ignored that voice!
The siren sounded and we were off, I intentionally let the bulk of the swimmers go ahead of me so I could avoid too much carnage, however, I guess everyone else was wary of starting too fast because within a few minutes I was swimming past people and got kicked in my face dislodging my goggles. Besides this minor annoyance, I was able to find my own space, spotting Alex my paddler in the kayak easily and Frederick on the boat as well. For many swimmers this is the most nerve racking part as there are many horror stories of swimmers bobbing around in the ocean for 30 minutes without finding their support crew! Alex later told me I was ahead of my pack of swimmers for most of the first half which is probably why I felt kinda alone with very few boats around us.
My game plan was the break the day down into 15 x 30 minute swims with a quick stop for refuelling as advised by Andrew, a mentor I gained through the Perth swim club. This worked perfectly to keep my mind focused on the moment right in front of me and avoid getting distracted by the overall task. After 7 of these breaks and 3.5 hours of swimming, I asked where I was at (hoping it was half way). Frederick informed me we were at about 9 kilometres. Although I had hoped to be a bit further, given the Easterly current pushing me towards Rotto, I decided to remind myself at least that meant I hadn’t swum too fast and was on target to finish, which, was the most important goal.
I find this such a useful tool in life, look for the positive in any situation and, while in that state, plan for the future. It avoids lamenting on the past, getting stuck in the present and positions you to move forward as best as possible.
Andrew was right in saying that the floor is visible nearly the entire way and that there is minimum sea life around. I had envisioned this blackness with streams of light pouring down into the nothingness but it was more like deep snorkelling! I only saw a handful of tiny fish, two small stingrays and one shark. Yes, a shark. It was roughly 1.5 metres long and moving across the floor with all it’s pilot fish. I’m not an expert but I think it was a Port Jackson, sorry, no Jaws.
There was a form of wildlife I was worried about and did encounter, but luckily, it was no where near as severe as it could have been. Jellyfish! I got stung across my face, arms, chest and armpits multiple times throughout the first 90 minutes and again in the last hour or so. Thankfully they were the clear small ones and the sensation is a mild stinging that subsides after 20 or so minutes. After hearing horror story after horror story, I am thankful this is all that I have to say about that!
The boats were a little stressful in a few different points, Alex and I had planned for him to be just off my right shoulder but we just couldn’t figure out a rhythm where I adjusted my direction based on where he was. For some reason, my sense of direction was telling me the island was further North than it must of been and so I kept trailing too far to my right. After a quick chat, I asked Alex to go in front of me and I would “sight” forward from time to time and just follow. It worked perfectly and we continued this the whole way. Occasionally Alex would be slightly further in front than I would have liked and I felt a little exposed with the boats all around me, a few times I felt some panic at the closeness of a boat passing me or drifting towards me. The smell of the fuel in the water was not pleasant either and it only intensified as the fleet narrowed towards the finished channel. Again, these were small hurdles to work through.
Many swimmers struggle with Hypothermia which is the most dangerous element of the event. People have nearly drowned and been flown to Perth for immediate treatment in the past. I wasn’t worried as much about this from my previous experience in ocean events throughout this journey and luckily felt fine on the day, I was praying for the sun to shine through the clouds but it was not to be! The crew was again fantastic at asking me questions to check my mental clarity. Answering them was not difficult but it was very stressful as in my eyes, being told I had to get out was the most likely way I would be unable to finish so I tried to fire back as soon as possible! “What’s Glenn’s wife’s name” – “ EMMMA!!” hehehe
Putting on the extra 10 kilograms might not of been great for my ego but it was a wise choice in terms of succeeding in this endeavour!
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the day was having the mental picture in my mind broken a few times. I swam through 14 kilometres without much difficulty, I was in good spirits and felt fresh. Somewhere around that point my right shoulder began to ache which was very foreign to me as the left shoulder has been the issue since day one having dislocated it in the past. I had two 90 minutes massages that focused on that left shoulder leading up to the day and had been using my right arm throughout training more already. Accustomed to using the right more, and perhaps was subconsciously nervous the left wouldn’t allow me to finish, I favoured the right arm too much leading to the issue. The discomfort continued to build so I began playing with my stroke to recruit and relax different muscle groups hoping to baby it somewhat.
At one point I asked Alex, “how much further?” to switch he replied “about 3.5km”. I then spent the next 20 minutes or so breaking down that distance into possible time and food stops remaining to create a plan from that knowledge. All of a sudden I saw a bright yellow buoy with 16km written on it meaning I still had 4 kilometres to go !!! I was so mad and my spirit dropped. After a few choice words spoken down into the ocean I used the anger to just push on, there was never a question of finishing, it was just another hurdle to climb over the push on.
There were 2 more times when the distance remaining was slightly under reported, shall we say, but it really didn’t matter, Alex was fantastic at keeping me going and softly deflecting the frustration that was building purely from fatigue and pain. Andrew had warned me against looking for the Island and I followed this advice, however, the ocean floor became noticeable shallower at one point but then stayed that depth for the next 2 hours or so! Another mini blow to the spirit!
By the time the boat pulled off and Alex said “it’s all you, you got this” my right arm was cooked and decided I couldn’t hurt it anymore so I picked up the stroke rate, power and the kick into it also. I swam past 3 teams of 4 swimmers coming into the finish and was so glad to be able to stand up. I instantly heard my cheering squad and saw them all right in front of me! I had finished! 7 hours and 43 minutes to cross the ocean from Cottesloe beach to Rottnest Island. I was handed my medal, offered some food, drink and had my photo taken.
Once I had hugged everyone who had gone across to support me and the adrenaline subsided, the pain in my shoulder exploded. I became unable to lift my hand away from my side more than a few centimetres. I ate some hot chips and half a beer but I really just wanted to get home and lay down. We hung out on the beach for a few hours before we took the boat back to Hillaries, looking out across the ocean as we flew along I had a clearer sense of what I had just done.
What stands out for me, even now only 3 days on, is the amazing atmosphere created by my friends and family. Everyone came together to support Kristen with the 3 girls throughout the day, the crew to support me in any way they could and it just continued all the way home and into the evening.
Having a special day with my family that was so full of love and joy will be the aspect of this adventure that will stay with me long after the memory of the pain, boats, jellyfish and the rest fades.
Through this journey we raised nearly $3000 for men who are struggling with mental health and feel that they are somehow no good and broken. Money that will reach those that need to hear it’s not weak to seek help, that we all need people to show us kindness, love and respect. We were not made to be isolated but connected. I hope following along with this journey you can see just how many people it took to make possible, how many people I reached out to in order to make it possible. This is just a reflection of life!
If you are reading this and feel alone, if you have not shared how you are struggling with the people closest to you, you need to know a few things. Almost everyone tries to hide to some degree. Being vulnerable and opening up doesn’t make you weak, it shows your strength. Asking for help will not make you look weak in the eyes of others, it will bring you closer to the people that really matter in your life and build stronger relationships.
Once again thank you for all the love, encouragement and support!