Monday, March 4, 2013

Homage to Cap'n Rod

Inside Cap'n Rod's gin palace. We can't show you his face, but we can show you his cabin. Note the gear couch: Cap'n Rod had nowhere to rest. We won't tell you Cap'n Rod's identity, because we don't want punters pestering him.

When they finish the swim and head off to the pub, most people forget them, but they are indispensable to a successful Rottnest swim. Indeed, they are indispensable to many endurance swims, particularly swims such as the English Channel that require a support crew. Who are they? They're the skippers, the pilots. The people who provide and drive the boats without which swimmers could not do these swims. The skippers' experience in the waters through which the swim passes often makes the difference between a successful swim and a partial swim, or an outright failed swim.

Mrs Sparkle has done Rottnest four times -- two quad teams and two duos -- and each time she's had the support of the same skipper. We're not going to identify the skipper or his boat, because we don't want people pestering him about helping them with their own swims. It's not to be churlish; it's a matter of protecting our skipper's privacy. If he wants to escort someone on a swim, it should be up to him to decide, without being pressured and pestered by unsolicited approaches.

We'll call our skipper Cap'n Rod.

On Rottnest Channel Swim day 2013, Cap'n Rod was on deck before 5 preparing his boat, a veteran, modest half cabin cruiser about 7m long. It's not a gin palace, which some teams use, particularly spectator boats. Nothing luxurious. But it's kept in good working order and clean. It's covered, too, which means we have shelter for the crossing, which is important. The boat, which we will not name for reasons similar to above, is moored at a yacht club in the Swan River.

We meet him there -- we're a few minutes late, after having dropped our lead swimmer, Seppo, at Cottesloe, along with the kayak that Team Tweetybirds has rented for their support paddler, Carol, also a volunteer. It's dark at Cottesloe, and it's only just turning light when we reach the boat about 20 minutes later.

Cap'n Rod has been there a while preparing, although much of the boat preparation was done beforehand. Cap'n Rod runs his boat with his cobber, Graeme, his deckie. Graeme has been with us the previous three crossings, too, but he won't be with us on swim day 2013 because he's had a heart scare in the days leading up to this year's swim. ON swim day, Graeme has an appointment with the cardiologist. We're not sure how many hours Cap'n Rod and Graeme have put in getting the boat ready, but it's quite a few: maintenance, cleaning, stocking and other preparations. For a day out like this, you don't just turn up, hop aboard, and take off. Graeme's role as deckie also is crucial. Rottnest has 2,500 swimmers as solos, duos and quad teams. There are about 1,100 swimmers in the water at any one time, which means there also are about 1,100 swimmers' boats in the water, along with around 1,100 escort paddlers. Add to them the official boats, the spectator boats, the other hangers on, all of them corralled into a corridor a few hundred metres wide between Cottesloe and Rottnest. Imagine this, all these swimmers, all these boats, all these paddlers, packed into such a tight space, and you start to get a feel for the enormity of the event that is the annual Rottnest Channel Swim, and its dangers.

 Michael Teys swam solo to Rotto. He breathes only to the right.

Boats are kept a kilometre off the starting beach at Cottesloe. Paddlers are kept a couple of hundred metres out. Swimmers have to pick up their paddlers, then the paddlers and swimmers have to pick up their boats. Swimmers may not pass a certain point, 1.5km, marked by the sailing ship, Leeuwin, without their boats. This starting process is chaotic, with boats, paddlers and swimmers manoeuvring in a confined space to meet up and set their courses.

It's not only chaotic; it's also very dangerous. Boats are heading in all directions. In the still-growing light, swimmers are often hard to see. It takes great skill and concentration to manage your boat into position where you connect with your swimmer, turn west for Rotto, and get out of that mess without mishap. All this mayhem is not helped by the Rottnest Channel Swim Association's choice of cap colours. Solos in 2013 wore white caps, which means as soon as the wind comes up and you get a few white caps, you can't see them. Quad teams in the Tweetybirds age group, 150+, wore purple caps, straight from the lost-at-sea range of colours. You can't see them, either. Bizarre. There are plenty of fluoro coloured caps available, why do they pick these silly, even dangerous colours? The mayhem points to the importance of the deckie: Cap'n Rod can watch out ahead and to the sides from his position at the helm at the front starboard side, but he can't see behind or behind on the sides. Graeme's role, inter alia, is to keep watch on the port side, whilst the team manager, us, keep watch on the starboard side. This may seem obvious and routine, but it's extraordinary how many escort boats in this event seem to have no-one in particular watching out on either side. Near collisions are manifold. Some collisions do happen. There are golden rules for boats and skippers, such as Never reverse. Seems obvious? Not to some. In the first swim in which Mrs Sparkle was involved, in 2005, a duckie driver with a load of bright young things doing minute rotations, reversed his duck into Mrs Sparkle has he manoeuvred to pick up a retiring swimmer. It was a small duck, and he'd eased off the throttle as she'd hit the prop, but she came up with grazes and lacerations from her hand up her forearm. Oh, how close that came to disaster. All because this ducky driver -- an ageing, rotund, bald twerp lying across the back of his ducky, seemed to be more intent on showing off to his pretty young team than in watching around him.

This year, the Tweetybirds start at 7am. By this time, Cap'n Rod has been on deck for two and a half hours or more. Unlike the rest of the Tweetybirds and their manager, who languished in the back of the boat from the time we left the dock to arrival off Cottesloe, Cap'n Rod has no break. Indeed, as swim time drew near, then the swim starts, Cap'n Rod's role grew more intense, as the boat positioning grew more intense and boats commenced to jockeying about looking for they swimmers and positioning themselves for quick exit from the starting area into the Rottnest corridor proper. Near misses are many.
We got out of it, however, and set sail for Rotto.

These are pleasure boats which are not intended to cruise for 20km at swimmer's pace. It's not easy to manoeuvre them at such low speeds, dodging other boats, swimmers and paddlers, and some boats cannot handle being kept at such low speeds. It takes much concentration.

This goes on, and on, punctuated every 20 minutes by the changeover between swimmers. On our first crossing with Rod, the routine was that the new swimmer dived into the ocean carrying the end of a rope. The two swimmers high-fived, above the water, the new swimmer handing the end of the rope to the retiring swimmer. The deckie pulls the retiring swimmer into the boat. But he holds the retiring swimmer two metres off, calling to Cap'n Rod, who then disengages the propeller. When the prop is disengaged, the deckie hauls the swimmer the final two metres into the boat. They climb onto the transom at the rear of the boat, the blunt end, then over the back inboard. We call to Cap'n Rod that all is clear, he re-engages the prop, and off we set again.

Cap'n Rod presented us with his invention: on the end of the rope was a harness, which he'd fashioned from a canvas-like material. It resembled a life saving belt. The retiring swimmer would loop it over their shoulder to be hauled in. He didn't have to do that, did Cap'n Rod. But he always is looking for ways to do things better. This year, he presented us with a plastic and rope ladder, which we could drop over the rear corner of the boat. This didn't work well, however. The ladder twisted, worked under the boat and generally got in the way. The problem with rope ladders is that, when you put your weight on them, they follow the direction of the weight and spear under the boat. You can't climb it. We hauled it in.

Some think os.c is a 24-hour operation. It pretty well is. Here, we tell the world that Long Reef has been called off.
By the time we get to Rottnest -- the Tweetybirds did 6 hours 34 minutes this time -- Cap'n Rod has been at the helm for over nine hours without a break.
At Rotto, we moor on the northern side of the jetty. We can't get a mooring close to the beach, because the crowd beat us there, more on which later. The best we can do is a mooring about 75 metres off the beach. The Tweetybirds have swum the last 700m to finish together, which leaves us on the boat with Cap'n Rod and our paddler, Carol, another volunteer who climbed into the boat from the kayak at about the 17km mark with a numb bum, swearing never to do anything like this again. Paddlers also are the unsung heroes of these events, and Carol, who has never done this event before, and has never paddled anything like this distance before, has done an outstanding job to maintain her poise, her pace and her concentration for 17km. Even getting through the sharp, dumpy shore break at Cottesloe at the start was a miracle, with many more experienced paddlers coming off their craft, while Carol got out first go. But Carol is a Scot. She is doughty.

Carol and team manager os.c jump into the bay to bob into the beach to find Team Tweetybirds, who expect us to moor down the other end of the bay, about 1.5km away. There are thousands of punters on the beach at Rotto. The beach is lined with gin palaces, many of which, we discover later, have nothing to do officially with the Rottnest swim. We're told later many are owned by cashed up mineworkers who park out at Rottnest for the weekend, drinking and watching, and taking up all the usable space well beforehand, so that by the time swim boats arrive, the joint is full, the beach lined with boats full of drunks. Mrs Sparkle overheard a conversation in the laydees' loo. One lady said to another: "Are you here for the swim?" And the other replied, "No, we just came out this morning. We've just been drinking and watching." And taking up prime beach space. This explains why so many of the mugs on these boats, on each year that we've been coming to Rotto, have appeared to be non-swimmers, usually pissed, and loud. It is an issue that should be addressed by the Rottnest Channel Swim Association and by the Rottnest Island Authority: perhaps they should set aside areas for genuine swim boats to moor, keeping the voyeurs' gin palaces at distance. At the very least, they should set up a spot on a jetty where swim boats can come in to drop off and pick up, so that team crews don't have to swim in and out to get between their boats and the shore, and facilitating swimmers and their support crews taking part in the cultural celebrations in the pub after the swim. One of the terrific aspects of the Rottnest swim is this culchural dimension at the Quokka Arms. If you've had to swim in, then you can't can't have all your clothes with you, you can't go to the pub, you can't swap yarns with your rivals and peers, and you miss the culchural highlight of the Rottnest Channel Swim.

Carol and os.c head into the beach with a dry bag, in which we fit some money, a t-shirt, a small towel, sunnies, and a camera. We find the Tweetybirds way down the other end of the beach, but all we can do then is to come back out to the boat, with Cap'n Rod standing watch aboard.

We re-board. Cap'n Rod tells us he'd hoped to catch a few minutes sleep whilst the boat was empty, but he couldn't because the "bed" -- the padded seat along the port side of the cabin -- had been full of Tweetybirds belongings. A gentleman, he hadn't wanted to move them. He'd had nowhere to rest. 
By that stage, Cap'n Rod had been on duty for 10 hours.

Back aboard, the Tweetybirds discussed options wit Cap'n Rod. They were to wait for the presentations, still three and a half hours away, or to head back to port. The Tweetybirds felt they may make a podium, and indeed they did: 3rd in the Laydees 150+ Quad Teams. Much excitement and merriment ensues. Seppo cries. But they decide to head home, partly in deference to Cap'n Rod, still without a break from c. 4:30am.

Noice course, Cap'n Rod.
By the time Cap'n Rod noses us back into his mooring -- actually, he backs in, which means he backsides us in -- it's about 6pm, and he's been on duty for almost 14 hours.

Swimmers from outside Western Australia often have enormous difficulty securing a boat and paddler for their Rottnest crossings. Mrs Sparkle has been very lucky to have had the support of Cap'n Rod and deckie Graeme for all four of hers. She met them during her first crossing, when they'd been engaged by another team member. Most swimmers hire boats, some paying up to $1,500. Cap'n Rod has never charged anything, apart from the cost of fuel. Yet we cannot imagine getting a better, more professional, more thorough, more diligent skipper than Cap'n Rod.

No, we're not telling you who Cap'n Rod is, or where to find him. He's earned his privacy, and our gratitude.

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