Avoiding Rottnest Channel Swim issues: Tips from the pro's

Updated: Mar 8

There are many issues than can occur during the Rottnest Channel Swim. This blog discusses ways to prepare yourself so you can avoid or overcome mishaps on race day from former winners and professional open water swimmers.
Preparing for everything ensures a great day out swimming to Rottnest!

No matter how well you train or plan for the Rottnest Channel Swim as a solo, duo or team competitor, the day of the race can throw a curveball your way.

This can come in the form of rough conditions, seasickness, hypothermia, malnourishment, chafing, exhaustion, cramping, losing team mates or dealing with pesky stingers.

We want you to have an awesome day out either in or on the water, so we've compiled feedback from former winners, channel crossing veterans and highly experienced open water swimmers on how they have avoided or overcome issues on race day.

1. Hope for the best, train for the worst

Currently, it's looking like we're in for a 10-15 knot south/south-easterly wind this year with a swell of between 1.2-1.4m up until midday, then the wind will become a strong southerly and pick up its speed throughout the afternoon.

Not horrible. Not exactly great either.

The best way to prepare yourself for any conditions on Saturday? Throw in as many practice swims in the river or ocean as you can, regardless of the weather.

Swimming in a pool is great for increasing your fitness, but that pool you're accustomed to training in will have waves, wind, swell and salt thrown in the mix on Saturday. It will change your technique, batter you with waves and alter your rhythm. Master those conditions beforehand and you'll be sweet.

Scared of sharks? Don't blame you! An easy way to avoid Big-Bad-Bruce is to stick with the shark net locations found throughout Perth. If swimming outside of the nets or in the river, try to stay in groups, have a paddler working as a spotter and stay close to the shoreline.

Training for the Rottnest Channel Swim requires preparing for any conditions. Swimming in the ocean or river is a great way to adjust to any swell, wind or waves that may meet you on race day.
Try and fit in as much practice in the ocean or river before the race on Saturday.

2. Don't go out too hard too early

One major error that has ruined plenty of Rottnest races over the years is swimmers spinning their wheels too early. This is not just for soloists, but also the duo and team competitors.

Ideally, you want to keep it solid for that first 10km and preserve plenty of energy in the tank for that latter half of the swim if you're going solo. For duo's and teams, you need to make sure you're going at a solid, yet sustainable pace. One easy way to do this is to keep your swim stints shorter at a maximum of 3-4 minutes in length.

2018 soloist, Andy Donaldson, finished third during his race and provided his insight on how important it is to pace yourself throughout the swim to prepare yourself mentally and physically for the final stretch.

Donaldson - "Looking back, I wasn't prepared for how much of a mental challenge the swim was going to be in 2018. Hitting the 15km mark, I'd already used up 95% of my energy tank, yet had more than an hour of swimming remaining. That was a really tough reality to face. My boat and crew got me over the line and I can't tell you how important it is to have a phenomenal support crew with you. It's not really a solo because you come to rely on them so much during the race. It's very important for them to keep you motivated even if your mind starts to hurt just as much as your body."
Pacing yourself during the Rottnest Channel Swim is a safe way of ensuring a strong finish. Many swimmers will go out too fast and fade very quickly. Ensure you have enough energy left in the tank for the final 5km stretch.
It's a long day, so don't expend too much energy in the first half. That last 5km will sting, be smart with your pacing.

3. Avoiding hypothermia

Even though it will be a sunny 31 degrees with a water temperature of around 23 degrees on Saturday, you would be very surprised how easy it is to develop hypothermia.

For teams and duo's, have at least five towels per swimmer on the boat along with hot beverages and warm clothing. This needs to be worn the moment you're out of the water given you'll be exposed to the wind. If shivering is spotted, this is the first stage of hypothermia and the swimmer needs to be warmed up immediately in layers.

For solo swimmers, they will be unable to do this. One way to prevent your risk is to wear two caps as a majority of body heat is lost through the head. Wool fat can also be worn around the armpits and on the neck to prevent more heat escaping your body. It's also very important to keep feeding and drinking regularly, as heat is produced by your body as you burn energy.

Your legs also contain some of the largest muscles in the body. If you find you start to get a bit cold, start kicking aggressively as fast as possible for around 10-20 seconds. This will increase your blood flow by elevating your heart rate. I've seen this tactic warms most people up in the ocean very quickly.

If you are one of those people who frequently becomes cold, it is definitely avoidable. Paul Laver suffered from severe hypothermia during his solo swim in 2012 and unfortunately had to pull out of the race. He changed his tactics and bounced back brilliantly in 2014 to avoid hypothermia and claimed a sensational solo victory. Below is his tips on how he kept warm.

Laver - "Some people can handle the cold very well and others do not. I am certainly in the latter category, but there are still things that can be done and I made a handful of small changes to my race plan in 2014 which played a big part in my success that year. The first and most effective was changing my feed frequency to every 20 minutes down from every 30 minutes in 2012. It takes a lot of energy to keep your body warm in cold conditions, and whilst 23 degree water is hardly cold, it does sap your warmth over several hours. Being well fuelled early in the race ensures that your body has the energy to burn to keep warm and keep swimming. It's important to come into the race as well rested as possible. In 2012 I raced the 10km and 5km races at the national open water swimming championships the weekend before the Rotto swim. In hindsight, that level of exertion so close to the race definitely contributed to my poor swim and hypothermia. For those swimming this year it’s not too late to start resting up. Sleep as well as you can, don’t do any more training than you need to and try to avoid a big session on the beers. A couple of other tips I would suggest are wool fat and ingesting warm drinks (non-diuretic) during the race. The jury is out on whether either of these things make a subjective physical change to body temperature. But if a thick layer of lanolin and warm tea filling your stomach makes you feel warmer, then go for it – swimming to Rotto is 70% mental, 30% physical so feeling warm is more than half the battle."

* For those who can't warm up no matter what you try, don't fight it by continuing in the water, otherwise you'll hit dangerous territory. Your health and safety is more important than any race will ever be. Play it safe by jumping out and get warm immediately.

A good way to prevent hypothermia during the Rottnest Channel Swim is by rubbing vaseline or wool fat on to your body before the race. This prevents more heat escaping from your body in the water.
Applying wool fat or vaseline to your body is a great way of staying warm in open water swimming.

4. Prevent exhaustion by feeding regularly

On race day for soloists, you'll most likely lose 3-4kg during the race and burn through thousands of calories. These energy levels need to be restored frequently.

Feel like you need a feed? Listen to your body and take it. I've never heard of soloists having a pleasant swim if they feed or drink every 30 minutes or more. You suddenly start to burn more energy than you are consuming and your stored energy will rapidly deplete.

Other than being smart with your pacing, it's a wise move to stay hydrated and eat plenty of carbohydrates in the week leading up to the swim. This can be consumed through sources such as vegetables, pasta, rice, eggs, bread, oats and dairy products.

This boosts your glycogen storage in preparation for the swim. If you don't load up on carbohydrates, your regular glycogen storage amounts will burn up within around 90 minutes of swimming. By loading up on carbohydrates leading up to the race, you will double or even triple this window of glycogen burning.

While you should increase your carbohydrate calories consumed, I would not increase your overall calories as this can lead to weight gain or bloating. Consume the same amount of calories as normal, but focus on more carbohydrates without overeating.

Want to know what the best swimmers on earth prefer to eat or drink during long open water swims? Sports drinks mixed with glucose gels, oat bars, bananas, sandwiches, hydrolyte, water, flat coca-cola, fruit, smoothies and lollies are the most common. Find out what your body prefers out of these options in training before consuming on race day.

One of the favourites to take out this year's solo race, Will Rollo, reflected on his feeds during a previous solo and noted that they were more than 30 minutes apart, leading to him becoming fatigued during the final stretch of the race. Below is his advice on keeping the energy levels high for the full 19.7km.

Rollo - "Arguably one of the most important aspects of the day is your nutrition, as poor nutrition in any form will lead to fatigue, exhaustion or DNF's. The best way to handle nutrition is to keep it simple and over prepare. Personally, my feeds include a range of fluids and carbohydrate shots to ensure you’re staying on top of what is required. When it’s time to feed, take your time and make sure you consume everything you planned to. While you may lose a minute on a feed, it’s better than losing 30 minutes in the last few kilometres. My special trick is to make sure I have a few lollies or baby food to give you a sugar hit as you come towards the end of the race. At the end of the day, do what you’ve done at training, stay positive and you’ll make it across!"
The best liquids and food to consume during the Rottnest Channel Swim includes carbohydrate-gels, sports drinks and hydration tablets. Sugary snacks can also provide an energy boost when you're fatigued.
Consuming liquids and carbohydrate gels frequently on race day is crucial to keeping your energy levels high.

5. Mishaps with goggles, bathers, paddlers & boats

Best way to prepare for goggle or bather mishaps? Carry spare pairs. I definitely advise buying a new pair of goggles before the race. The main reason for this is they will be clearer, stronger, have more anti-fog and UV protection. It also means you'll see jellyfish and their trailing stingers, meaning you can swim around them and avoid getting zapped.

If your paddler suddenly needs to pull out, it's a smart move to have someone on the boat willing to take over. Paddlers are just as exposed to the elements as the swimmers and will get wet and cold.

Ensuring paddlers have adequate food, drinks and warm clothing is essential. Paddlers who cover up to avoid sunburn and apply plenty of sunscreen is also a smart move. I'd recommend also wearing jackets with pockets at the front big enough to fit a phone in. This means kayakers can call their skipper and place the phone upside on loud speaker and still communicate while paddling if they're struggling to locate each other.

Before the race, make sure the entire crew knows the line the swimmer is taking. Plan out whether you'll go north or south of the Leeuwin vessel and try to create unique flags, colours or objects that are easily visible and distinguishable from other boats. All paddlers this year are required to also wear life jackets, so make sure they are sorted prior to the race.

At least one boat every year suffers from mechanical issues. For skippers, make sure you touch up on the safety procedures and skipper checklist for the race and crew. This includes checking the engines are recently filled with oil and fuel, monitor temperature gauges, have all safety equipment checked and available to all on board and most importantly, make sure the engine prop is in neutral when picking up swimmers.

Swimclan Director, Martin Smoothy, is about to embark on his tenth solo crossing. Despite his experience, he still had to deal with a major goggle mishap seconds before his crossing last year. Here is his advice on staying cool, calm and collected on race day.

Smoothy - "I was as confident as one could be. I had done the kilometres in training, several open water events in the lead up and was rested from a good week of taper. Next to the side barrier I could see my paddler and was feeling geared and ready for my ninth crossing to Rottnest. I had my race bathers pulled as high as they can go, race tag was secured, I swung my arms to ensure wool fat was distributed and had a final sighting of my paddler. 10 seconds before the race start I went to slip on my lucky pair of goggles. As I put them on, the band completely snapped and I went into panic mode. I even heard the gasps of the public who witnessed it unfold from the sidelines. The buzzer went off and I frantically wondered what to do before shoving them down my bathers and setting off. I hadn't swum without goggles for a solid 45 years since I was a kid and had to swim blindly for 1.5km before I could receive a backup pair! But the golden rule is no matter what mishaps occur on the day, just try to keep going. Do things go wrong? Yes. Will you get through it? Yes. Can you prevent every single issue when ocean racing? No, but that's why we do it!"
Boat safety is crucial during the Rottnest Channel Swim. To ensure your boat is safe and running smoothly, make sure you check every detail of your vessel before the race and confirm your skippers checklist on the Rottnest Channel Swim page.
At least one boat every year runs into trouble. Make sure you're prepared as skipper so it isn't yours!

7. Cramping & Soreness

All of you reading this would have cramped up in your calf, foot or hamstring and immediately thought about writing your will. Having this occur on race day doesn't tickle. Other cramps include the 'slow build' which occurs in your shoulders over long distances.

One way of preventing cramping and general muscle soreness is to consume magnesium tablets (or powder) with liquids in the days leading up to the swim and also on race day.

While medical experts are still trying to nail down the exact cause of muscle cramps, they have discovered keeping hydrated with high levels of magnesium will highly reduce your odds.

Do your shoulders get sore while swimming? Try bending your elbows as much as possible with each underwater catch. This is a stronger way to pull through the water and uses more muscle groups while reducing the pressure on your shoulder joint and transferring more strain to your forearms and triceps.

Finding your neck aches when swimming? Try having your arm extend out in front of you close to the surface of the water and rest your head/ear on your shoulder as you breathe to the side. This will take a lot of pressure off your neck and trapezius muscles as you breathe. Your head should rotate sideways for air, not lift upwards off the shoulder.

Cramping and soreness during the Rottnest Channel Swim is common. An easy way to prevent this from happening is consuming liquids and snacks frequently throughout the race and also consuming magnesium-rich food in the lead up to the race.
Consuming magnesium-rich foods leading up to the race can help prevent muscle cramping and soreness.

8. Stingers

These brainless floating jerks serve no purpose other than to annoy us. Unfortunately after a recent swim at Cottesloe over the weekend, I noticed a lot of these pesky invertebrates floating around.

One way to reduce the impact of the stings is by rubbing wool fat and vaseline over your body. Not only does this keep you warm, if you swim through any tentacles it will soften the blow.

Thankfully, most of the stingers will be closer to Cottesloe beach as the southerly and westerly winds blow them closer to shore. As you swim, you will most likely see less of them. I would take antihistamines on the boat to be safe in case of bad reactions to stings. Applying hot water, heat packs or vinegar is also better treatment for stings than ice packs.

...Please don't pee on each other.

Jellyfish stingers can cause issues during the Rottnest Channel Swim. A good way of reducing the impact of stings is by wearing wool fat on your skin. Applying warm water or vinegar to the stung area is the best treatment.
Wool fat can protect you from jellyfish, while warm water and vinegar provide relief from stings.

9. Chafing

Over 19.7km, your bathers mixed with rubbing and the salt water can leave nasty chafing marks to the point where the skin is red, blistered or broken.

An easy way to stop this from happening is applying vaseline under the straps or areas where the bathers will move around. This includes the neck, shoulders, armpit and hips.

The vaseline will retain the moisture in your skin and act as a lubricant to reduce the friction as you swim. For everyone rocking full body suits, not having vaseline between your skin and the suit can be more painful to deal with than stingers.

Chafing is common during the Rottnest Channel Swim. An easy way to avoid this is by rubbing vaseline, sunscreen or wool fat to areas of your bathers that will rub on your skin. This includes the back, armpits or hips.
Applying vaseline or sunscreen under the bather straps or high-rubbing areas helps reduce chafing.

10. Seasickness

Consuming Kwells tablets at least 30 minutes prior to setting foot on the boat or entering the water is what most people swear by on preventing seasickness. Dry ginger ale or ginger beer (non-alcoholic) is also great for steadying stomachs if you start to feel ill.

If you take a bunch of Kwells tablets in one day, just be wary that they can cause drowsiness, so try to avoid driving if possible.

The finish line waiting for you at the end of the Rottnest Channel Swim is one of life's most euphoric moments! It is a great moment for every soloist, duo or team competing in one of the biggest open water swimming events in the world.
Best of luck to all of you swimming to Rottnest this weekend!

Need some technique, training and racing tips for the Rottnest Channel Swim? Check out our Tips For Duo's and Teams Blog.

Rocking the swim on your own? Check out our Tips For Soloists Blog.

#openwaterswimming #thechannel #jointheclan

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