Background to the swim

Prior to the 1970s, Western Australia’s amateur swimming clubs were based around the river and many clubs ran swim-thrus as part of their club activities.

The opening of Beatty Park Aquatic Centre in 1962 for the British Empire and Commonwealth Games led to more 50m pools being constructed around Perth, drawing swimming clubs and people away from the river. By the end of the 1970s most of the river swimming clubs were land-based and river swims were disappearing.

AUSSI Masters Swimming came to WA in 1977 with the formation of the Carine AUSSI Masters Swimming Club. In those days a lot of masters swimmers were typically ex-swimming association members who were swimming for fun and fitness. Many swimmers who undertook the channel swim to Rottnest in the 1980s were masters swimmers or surf life saving club members and continue to be so today.

Founding member and life member of the Rottnest Channel Swim Association (RCSA) Kevin Holtom says part of the drive to establish the Association was due to a growing interest among Perth locals to swim longer distances than people had been doing.
“Swimming and surf clubs ran open water swim events but there were still people looking for longer and more challenging swims,” says Kevin.

In 1986, Perth was awarded the 6th FINA World Swimming Championships which for the first time included a 25km swim. At this time, local masters swimming clubs were holding competitions to swim 3 – 5km events in a pool and open-water swims were being introduced up and down the coast. AUSSI Masters Swimming conducted an 8km ocean swim from 1988 to 1990.

Around the same time local woman Shelley Taylor-Smith was making headlines for her swims around Manhattan Island in the US and world marathon swimming was grabbing international headlines, both of which encouraged swimmers to try out longer distances.

In 1989 a then 14-year-old Susie Maroney, the youngest Australian to ever swim the English Channel, was also generating attention and increasing the interest in longer open water swims.

This new and changing landscape set up an environment where a swim like the Rottnest Channel Swim was something locals were keen to challenge themselves with.

“The lure of doing the Rottnest Channel Swim has always been that it captures people’s imagination, challenges their swimming ability and encourages a higher level of swimming fitness,” says Kevin.

The early days

The first person to complete a recorded crossing of the Rottnest Channel – from the Perth mainland to Rottnest Island – was Gerd von Dincklage-Schulenburg on January 24, 1956.

Gerd was warned of the cold, sharks and the notorious rips around the island but his mind was made up and WA Newspapers had agreed to organise the swim. After the start was postponed a number of times due to adverse weather, Gerd finally entered the water at Fremantle’s North Mole and swam towards the hazy outline of Rottnest Island. He took 9 hours and 45 minutes to reach Natural Jetty and his swim was the one which started the history of the Rottnest Channel Swim.

It stirred the imagination of the Weekend Mail newspaper, which offered cash prizes to better Gerd’s time. This led to the first race two months later on March 25, 1956. Well-advertised, the race started to receive entries from swimmers keen on the challenge.

Because of the number of swimmers who wanted to participate, the West Australian Amateur Swimming Association (WAASA) suggested an elimination race of similar distance in the sheltered waters of the Swan River.

At 8.30am on 18th March, 1956 a reduced field of 22 swimmers started at half-minute intervals from Bicton Jetty and finished an 18km swim at Langley Park. Only nine swimmers made the finish line, with Trevor Seaborn crossing the line first.

Those nine swimmers qualified to swim the first race to Rottnest, scheduled to take place the following weekend. Those swimmers were: Trevor Seaborn, Tony Rigoll, Mel Andrew, Howard Bowra, Neil Earl, George Winning, Les Stewart, Harry Lapelaars and Toby Regan. Before the race, Howard Bowra and George Winning withdrew.

Four swimmers completed that first race from the mainland to Rottnest Island. Trevor Seaborn, Neil Earl, Les Stewart and Toby Regan all beat Gerd von Dincklage-Schulenburg’s time and Trevor Seaborn again took line honours. Les Stewart went on to swim the channel four times more during the modern era of the Rottnest Channel Swim Association.

Thanks to the interest shown for this initial race the Weekend Mail decided to promote a similar swim the following summer. On advice from the WAASA, it was agreed to restrict the 1957 event to the river.

It wasn’t until April 13, 1969 – 13 years later – that Lesley Cherriman, a recent English immigrant, became the next swimmer to complete a Rottnest crossing. She swam from Natural Jetty to North Mole and in doing so became the first female to complete a crossing, a feat she repeated on February 18, 1970 and again on April 4, 1971, this time from the mainland to Rottnest. Lesley later wrote a book called, Why swim to Rottnest when you can catch a ferry? (available from the State Library).

Between 1983 and 1990, a total of 19 swimmers completed 26 crossings of the Rottnest Channel with seven of these crossings starting at Rottnest.

Swimmers who completed more than one successful crossing during this period were Tom Brown (3), Peter Blackmore (3), Peter Tanham (2), John Whitehead (2), Shane McGurk (2) and Ken Edwards (2).

Since then Peter Tanham and Barbara Pellick have each successfully completed 22 crossings, the highest number of crossings to date. Peter Tanham’s book My Thoughts On Swimming the Rottnest Channel (3rd edition) is available from the RCSA office.

Formation of the Rottnest Channel Swim Association

In August 1989, as part of the preparations for the 6th FINA World Swimming Championships in 1991, Kevin Holtom went to Long Beach, California to watch the US National 25km Championships. While there he consulted locals about the 40km Catalina Island Channel Swim, considered the American preparation for swimming the English Channel. He came home with the Catalina Island Channel Swim Association’s constitution which John Whitehead used as the model for the Rottnest Channel Swim Association (RCSA) constitution.

As the foundations were laid for the formation of the RCSA, John told past Rottnest Channel swimmers and other interested parties of his intentions at an informal meeting at the Rottnest Hotel in December 1989. This informal gathering was attended by John and Kevin as well as Bev Ashby, Peter Blackmore, Maxine Fitzpatrick, Ron King, Lesley Meaney (nee Cherriman), Barry Power and Shelley Taylor-Smith.

The first office bearers were elected and Association objectives were discussed. It was decided that the RCSA’s priorities were to observe and authenticate people who swim the Rottnest Channel, promote safety, advise and encourage swimmers wanting to make an attempt as well as gathering and preserving historical data from the crossings.

It was agreed at this first meeting that although most of the previous successful crossings be accepted, some rules based on other long distance swimming Associations – notably the Catalina Island and English Channel Associations – should be adopted for future crossings and that only successful, unaided swimmers be eligible for full membership of the RCSA.

The annual race (1991-1995)

On February 23, 1991, three-and-a-half decades years after the Weekend Mail’s first race to Rottnest, the second race across the Rottnest Channel was held.

Sixteen solo swimmers left iconic Cottesloe Beach at 5:30am and seven teams of four started at 6am. Twelve solo swimmers and all seven teams completed the 19.2 km crossing to Rottnest Island. Peter Galvin won the solo event in a time of 4:30:03 and the first team over the line comprised of Peter Blackmore, Shelley Jesney, Sue Johnson and Anthony Short. Max and Carroll Wannell were the first husband and wife to make individual crossings.

That day was also recorded as the hottest Perth day on record with the mercury hitting 46.2C but despite the sizzling temperatures, some swimmers still got hypothermia.

In the same year Peter Tanham achieved the first double crossing of the Rottnest Channel in a time of 14:08:05, repeated by Barbara Pellick in 1994. Barbara completed her double crossing in a time of 12:06:12, beating Peter’s time by nearly two hours.

Due to the success of their first race, the RCSA decided to make the Rottnest Channel Swim an annual event.

On February 22, 1992, 31 solo swimmers and 39 teams of four started from Cottesloe Beach. The solo race was won by 14-year-old Tamara Bruce with a time of 4:13:58, breaking the 1991 record by 16 minutes.

Peter Tanham made his fifth successful crossing, although the previous four were not part of an official race. Brian Kinneen and Dianne Kinneen-Larcombe became the first brother and sister to make individual crossings in 1992.

In 1993 David O’Brien from New South Wales broke the existing record by 12 minutes with a time of 4:02:08. Tamara Bruce finished second and third place went to Dieter Gebauer.

Teams of two swimmers (duos) were introduced in 1993 and eight teams entered. The first duo to reach Rottnest Island was Tom Hinds and Jason Diederich (named Peppermint Grove Jewellers).

In 1994 the length of the swim was increased when the finish line was moved from the Natural Jetty to the foreshore of Thomson Bay. David O’Brien once again won the solo event in 1994 in a time of 4:30:06.

Peter Galvin became the first person to win all three categories of the Rottnest Channel Swim – the solo event in 1991, the duo event in 1992 and the team event in 1994.

In 1995, as a consequence of the growing number of participants, the RCSA appointed its inaugural Race Director (Kevin Holtom) and Chief Referee (Richard Verboon) to oversee the technical aspects of the event and to ensure the event’s rules were properly adhered to. Kevin and Richard remained in these roles until Kevin retired from his various roles with the RCSA in 2006 and Richard retired as Race Director after the 2008 swim.

The annual race (1996 – 2000)

Past Australian open water swimming champion, Grant Robinson, set the men’s solo mark at 4:08:20 in 1997 which was beaten by Mark Saliba in 2000 with a time of 4:00:15.

With its growth in popularity the Rottnest Channel Swim became the world’s largest open water swimming event in 1998, attracting 1,150 competitors. There are swims with a larger number of participants but these are conducted in the closed waters of bays, lakes and rivers, not through an open ocean channel.

Personalised number plates were introduced in 2000 and are available to solo swimmers who have made a successful crossing of the Rottnest Channel. The RCSA issues a number to each swimmer who completes a solo swim to Rottnest. Permanently attached to each name, the number on the plate is the swimmer’s solo number, not their number of solo crossings. For more information see the section titled Historical Solo Crossings.

The annual race (2001 – current)

Due to the expansion of the race and the increased commitment required from the volunteer committee, the RCSA agreed to tender for an event management consultant. From 2001 – 2005 an event management consultant assisted the RCSA organising the swim.

In 2001 the RCSA formed the Emergency Control Operations (ECO) to include direct involvement in the swim by the relevant authorities. For more information, see the Safety section.

That year the history books were again rewritten when 2,022 swam the channel. The current duo race record was also set in 2001 by brothers Travis and Jarrad Nederpelt with a time of 3:55:54.

An electronic timing system was introduced in 2002 to improve race efficiency. It has also improved the speed and credibility of information and allowed instant result access.

In 2003, 160 individuals, 92 duos and 421 teams entered the swim with a wait list of 135 teams who missed out. The conditions were the worst in the history of the swim with 12 – 15 knot westerly winds and early squalls which meant turbulent water for the duration of the event. Many swimmers didn’t even start the event while others withdrew during the event for safety reasons. Only 43% of competitors entered that year finished.

With a view to letting more people compete, the Virtual Rottnest Channel Swim (VRCS) became an extension of the Rottnest Channel Swim. It provides swimming communities a chance to replicate the 20km crossing to Rottnest in local pools. It’s ideal for country swimmers who can’t attend the actual swim, those who don’t want to compete in the ocean or swimmers who miss out on the swim due to entry number restrictions. See Other Events for more information.

The RCSA organised a 10km qualifying trial in 2003 for those solo swimmers who didn’t have experience in long distance open water swimming in the ocean. Now renamed the Rotto Rehearsal, the 10km swim is open to all swimmers and includes duos and teams. See Other Events for more information.

Feedback indicates the 2004 Multiplex Living Rottnest Channel Swim was the best swim ever. The number of participants competing increased to 2303 – up 13% from 2003. Improvements in risk management and safety procedures allowed this increase.
New initiatives introduced in 2004 included:

  • 100 swimmers per wave start resulting in increase from five to eight starts
  • Holding bays for support craft 500m north and south of start line
  • Tall ship Leeuwin used as an icon craft
  • The Rottnest Channel Swim race book was produced in conjunction with the West Australian newspaper.

2004 saw The Invincibles, the team from DFG Homeloans, set a new race record for the fastest team in a time of 3:43:02. The swimmers were Travis Nederpelt, Jarrad Nederpelt, Aaron Holding and Josh Sinclair. That year, Peter Tanham completed his 21st crossing.

A new initiative introduced in 2005 was the opportunity for people with disabilities to enter through the allocation of five reserved team places.

In 2005, Jarrad Nederpelt became the second person to have won the solo, duo and team events after Peter Galvin.

The 2006 Multiplex Living Rottnest Channel Swim marked the 50th anniversary for the 19.2km crossing of the Rottnest Channel. Swimmers faced some of the worst conditions encountered in the race’s history with a large swell, buffeting winds and colder-than-usual water. The demanding conditions saw a quarter of the field retire. 2006 saw the introduction of an online entry process. Entry for teams and duos was open for seven days and attracted 3,910 entries and solo swimmers had four weeks to register. A random electronic ballot then determined which 2,300 swimmers would participate.

A clearly defined course was introduced in 2006 and compulsory gates were placed at the 10km, 15km and at Phillip Rock which swimmers had to swim through to avoid disqualification.

Since the inception of the race in 1991, more than 16,500 people have crossed the Rottnest Channel. Whilst the popularity of the event is constantly increasing, only three swimmers have participated every year: Peter Hodge, Steve Rogers and John Guilfoyle.

To date 931 solo swimmers have successfully completed 1,502 crossings and the swim has truly become an international event with swimmers from the United Kingdom, United States of America, India, Japan, South Africa and Ireland competing and making successful solo crossings.

The oldest swimmer to complete a solo crossing was 73-year-old Dieter Loeliger from Margaret River (formerly of South Australia). Dieter has done 10 solo crossings since 1996. At the presentations in 2006, which happened to be on Dieter’s 70th Birthday, the swimmer was asked if he would do a solo again. He replied that unless everyone sang Happy Birthday he wouldn’t. Several thousand people obliged and in 2007 he completed another solo swim.

For the 2007 Multiplex Living Rottnest Channel Swim, the management of the event came back under the auspices of the RCSA, to be run by its executive officer and volunteer committee. Unfortunately the 2007 event was cancelled due to poor weather conditions caused by cyclonic activity in the north west of Western Australia.

The following year, the 2008 BankWest Rottnest Channel Swim was a great success with a large number of participants completing the event, despite the forecast for strong winds. What started out as an overcast day meant the expected winds never arrived. As the afternoon progressed the sun came out and the water temperature increased by a full degree. Barbara Pellick completed her 20th crossing on the day, more than 85 volunteers assisted and for the first time a group photo was taken of the successful solo swimmers before the presentations.

WAtoday signed on as the naming sponsor for three years starting in 2009. The 2009 WAtoday Rottnest Channel Swim was blessed with favourable weather conditions. The only downside was a northerly drift which caused many to swim further to the south and ultimately across a longer distance. This meant no records were broken. A record number of solos and duos participated.

In 2010, the Rottnest Channel Swim celebrated its 20th anniversary and record numbers of solo swimmers participated in this celebratory year. The wind and waves were unkind, as were some of the stings from creatures unknown however the conditions were better than had been feared. The 20th annual event of the 19.7km crossing from Cott to Rott, saw swells of up two metres at the 10km mark as a result of a rumoured plume from dredging in Fremantle Harbour and the affect of an unfavourable south westerly breeze.

That element meant no records were broken, but instead Deane Pieters backed up sentimental favouritism after his narrow loss in 2009, to provide a perfect omen for his employer – West Coast – ahead of the 2010 AFL season, coming home ahead of former winner Tim Hewitt.

In 2011, the final year of naming rights sponsorship for WAtoday.com.au, the event saw record numbers of registrations resulting in 10% of duo and team entries missing out on selection in the random ballot. The cyclonic weather in the lead up to the 2011 WAtoday Rottnest Channel Swim created some unusual conditions at Cottesloe Beach, with the start line washed away from the high tides leaving only a very small section of beach for swimmers to depart from. On the day of the event, 2300 swimmers battled an unusual north-north westerly swell to about half a metre on their 19.7km journey. The water temperature of 24 degrees with a sea breeze was introduced at 11am making the risk of hypothermia quite low however increased the chances of dehydration. At the finish line, swimmers were greeted by 10,000 spectators, volunteers and officials, friends and family as they crossed the finish line and celebrated their tremendous achievement.

2012 welcomed new naming rights sponsor HBF and a fresh look to the much-loved annual event. The 2012 HBF Rottnest Channel Swim was held on Saturday, 25th February 2012 and although the forecast in the week leading up to the event predicted less than perfect weather and caused anxiety for many intending swimmers, the day itself turned out to be magnificent and resulted in all finishing swimmers crossing the finish line well before the final cut-off time of 5.00pm – which has never been seen before!

The 2013 HBF Rottnest Channel Swim was held on Saturday, 23 February 2013. The Rottnest Channel Swim Association was successful in increasing the number of boats able to safely be in the water on event day. This resulted in more swimmers participating in the event. All finishing swimmers completed the swim well before the final cut-off time and earlier than the 2012 event.

The RCSA look forward to holding the 26th annual Rottnest Channel Swim on Saturday, 27 February 2016 and will continue to prepare for the event with a paramount importance on safety. We look forward to seeing you all on the beach at Cottesloe in February!