On Saturday Nathalie Pohl starts at one of the world's largest open water swimming events near Perth, Western Australia. The Rottnest Channel is a 19.7 km long open water swim that goes from Cottesloe Beach to Rottnest Island.
Rottnest Island is known for its quokkas, beautiful beaches and unspoiled nature. Before sunrise, the swimmers gather at Cottesloe Beach and start the 19.7 km long route on their support boats. How well the swimmers will cope in the water depends, among other things, on the water and air temperatures.
The event – with approximately 2,400 participants from all over the world – takes place every February. It is one of the most important annual events in Perth.
The idea behind this swimming race is a very interesting little story: Rottnest Island served as a prison many years ago. Rumor has it that some of the prisoners from Rottnest Island fled, swimming back to the mainland and taking short breaks on Carnac and Garden Island. So it happened, that the myth eventually was turned into a prestigious event.
Nathalie is already in Australia, acclimatizing and preparing physically and mentally for the swimming with the help of her coaches.
The time had finally come! My third channel crossing was coming up fast and I was delighted to be heading to Los Angeles, USA.
The time had finally come! My third channel crossing was coming up fast and I was delighted to be heading to Los Angeles, USA.
The preparations were very intense and I swam more kilometres in training than ever before. I also worked harder on my strength training in order to make my shoulders more powerful so that I would be able to swim for as long as possible without any shoulder problems. Training was going very well and I felt great. Thankfully, I completed all of it without coming down with a cold this time. I was over the moon to be fit and healthy because daily training was extremely tough and my body was under a lot of stress. In the meantime, I had also completed a few training camps and was ready to swim the Catalina Channel.
Before each swim, I always familiarise myself with the conditions in the area – it’s really important for me to know exactly what I’m going to be up against. I knew that the Catalina Channel was only about 3 km narrower than the English Channel and that I would be setting off between 10 p.m. and midnight. The water temperature would be around 18 °C, so I knew that it wasn’t going to be any easier than my last crossing of the English Channel.
Before the swim, I was in contact with the crew who would accompany me on my crossing. It was very important to clear a few things up because this time I would have two boats – one large boat, which was actually quite big this time, and a kayak, which would travel alongside me to pass me drinks. Unfortunately, for safety reasons, it wasn’t possible for someone from my team to pilot the kayak. We also organised a second kayak, however, which could also be used in case of emergency.
I decided to fly to Los Angeles five days before the start in order to get used to the time difference and to put in some training hours for a few days before. On 13 June, the time had finally come and I flew out to LA with my trainer (Joshua Neuloh). I was a bit worried about catching a cold on the flight but, thankfully, I managed it without coming down with anything this time. After 12 hours in the air, I was tired but happy to have finally arrived. Our hotel was on Manhattan Beach, which was a bit impractical because it was a long way away from anything else and the traffic in LA is an absolute nightmare: I’ve never seen so many cars anywhere else in my life. After managing to stay awake for the remaining hours of the day and dealing with a few organisational things, falling into bed was all I could do by the time evening came.
The next morning, we went down to the beach and I went for a swim for an hour, which actually wasn’t all that straightforward since hundreds of surfers were already down on the beach by 8 a.m. I quickly noticed why only surfers were on the beach and why I was the only person swimming – the waves were super high just off the coast and by the time I had made it out onto the water (behind the surfers), I had swallowed enough seawater to last me a few days. There was a pier there that I used as a reference point. From there, I always swam the distance between three lifeguard huts and back. In the US, these huts can be found in well-spaced intervals on all popular beaches. It was just an easy swim and I didn’t want to do much apart from rest for the few days before the start.
When I was done, I went back to the hotel and packed my things because we were moving to another one – this time, in Santa Monica. We bought a few supplies in the supermarket, such as Thermos flasks, and also bought oxygen canisters just in case I needed oxygen. After coming down with pneumonia two years ago in the English Channel, when the distance from the boat to the hospital was much too far, we have always had oxygen on the boat with us since.
After I went for an hour’s swim on Santa Monica beach the next day, we drove out to the Hollywood sign. It took over two hours to get there because the traffic was insane, even though the sign was only 22 km away. We took the obligatory photos that everyone visiting LA takes, ate lunch out in Hollywood and then went back to the hotel.
There were now only three days before we would head out to Catalina Island. The next day, my father joined us in LA. In the morning, I went down to the beach again for a bit with Adam in order to go for a gentle swim. We took a few videos and pictures using Adam’s underwater camera.
When we headed back to the beach, we got a shock when we saw that our things were nowhere to be found.
Of course, we were pretty annoyed at that point, but soon we realised that we were looking one lifeguard hut too early and our things soon turned up. However, we still learned that it was best not to leave our things unattended on the beach. In the evening, we all went out for a meal and went to bed early.
We were supposed to head to the island the next day but we decided to stay in the hotel on the Saturday night, too. Adam had told us that there was only one hotel on Catalina Island and that there wasn’t much to see there, so we would have had nothing to do.
We were booked to go across in the helicopter on Sunday at 3 p.m., so we slept as late as we could on Sunday morning and then I packed my swimming bag for the boat. After that, we went for breakfast and then headed to the helipad at about 1 p.m. The flight was brilliant and we spotted a huge pod of dolphins from the air. ☺ The pilot asked us what we had planned for our visit to the island and when I told him, he just laughed, thinking that I was joking. When he noticed that I was serious, I then had to hear about what a bad idea it was to swim across because of the sharks.
The flight was very quick and, after 15 minutes, we had arrived on Catalina Island. Even from the air, we could see that the island was very mountainous and that there wasn’t much there. We were picked up and driven straight to the hotel, where I took my things to my room, and then we walked into “town” to go and get something to eat. It was about 4 p.m. by that time and I decided to eat pasta one last time and then not to have anything else until just before the start of the swim.
I went to bed at about 5.30 p.m. to sleep for another three hours. As is always the case for me, it was very hard for me to fall asleep at that time. I was feeling very good and I was delighted to be able to do the swim. Before falling asleep, I thought about how much I had worked for it and all the training that was behind me. I also thought about how the nicest part of the process was about to come.
I slept for perhaps two hours and woke up at 9 p.m. My trainer was already awake – or rather, he was still awake – and was boiling water for my drinks. I took my bag and we all set off for the harbour, where we met up with the skipper and the crew.
When I went outside, I was scared – it really was the darkest night I had ever seen in my life. There were no stars and the moon was nowhere to be seen. There were no lights of any kind, anywhere. As I have already mentioned, there was nothing really on the island – just our hotel and perhaps three other houses. When we got to the harbour, we had to wait for the boat. I stayed in the car because it was very cold outside and I didn’t want to catch a chill before going in the water. After 20 minutes, the boat finally appeared out of the pitch black and I went out to the jetty, where my father and Joshua had already set down all my things.
As I mentioned, the boat was much bigger than the one used for the English Channel crossing and the crew was almost twice as big, too. I introduced myself to everyone and spoke to the kayak pilot to discuss which side I would be swimming on and where she would be able to best pass me my drinks. There were actually two kayak pilots because they wanted to switch over halfway so that they wouldn’t have to paddle the full distance. Shortly after I had decided that I would swim in between the boat and the kayak, there was a meeting with the entire crew. The skipper explained his rules and then two observers briefed me. I also had to fill in a few forms. Time was passing and it was already 10.30 p.m. by then. I was starting to get nervous because there were a lot of things to remember.
When the meeting was over, I went straight outside to get some fresh air because I didn’t want to feel sick before I even started. I put my warm coat and headphones on and looked out to sea. It was once again one of the most beautiful moments of my life and I just enjoyed my surroundings and was happy that I would soon be in the water again. My father came up to me and we discussed where the lamps and glow sticks would be best placed on the kayak.
I closed my eyes for a moment and thought of all the people who had wished me luck and believed that I could do it. I was incredibly happy that my father was with me – there is no other person who knows me better and knows when I’m not doing too well.
Everything was ready and we set off. The kayak was launched onto the water and I got ready. My trainer applied the Vaseline and Adam motivated me with a few words. The big boat stopped and I said my goodbyes to everyone. I jumped into the water and swam to the beach with the kayak at my side because I had to completely leave the water before setting off. On the way, I got a huge fright when I realised there was vegetation growing in the water that came right up to the surface and I couldn’t tell what it was.
I got to the beach and came out of the water. The moment of getting out of the water with the entire swim still ahead of me is indescribable: simply nothing can describe how I feel at that point and the emotions running through me.
The sea was ahead of me and everything was so beautifully peaceful. I took a deep breath and lifted my arm. I ran into the water and started swimming. It took a few minutes for me to find the perfect position after catching up with the boat, but then everything went perfectly. In the Pacific, there is a phenomenon where, when you place your hand in the water, the water around it lights up. It’s not the water that is lighting up, however, but tiny organisms that become luminescent when they are touched. It was a beautiful thing to witness and it helped me to stop thinking about other things.
After two hours, I felt terrible and had to throw up after my next peach energy drink. I was familiar with this from previous swims but it’s never very nice to throw up and then have to keep going. I stopped briefly and told my father that I would like black tea with honey next time – I didn’t want the peach drink any more. It was just then that a few jellyfish got me, too ...
At times like that, you often think about why you’re even making the attempt and I can say that I do it because, for me, there is no better feeling than looking back at the sea from the finish line and thinking: “I just swam that whole distance and I am so proud!” I just swim for myself. In the past few years, I’ve also learned that it’s not a bad thing to have to give up occasionally. It’s not a bad thing when I can still say to myself that I have truly given my all. So I thought back to what Adam had said and kept swimming.
In the next hour, Adam joined me in the water for an hour. You’re allowed to have a support swimmer join you in the water for three hours. I’m actually not a huge fan of doing that because it always makes me lose my rhythm a bit but it is a huge help in keeping my pace up and stopping me from going into a kind of trance. I started feeling better and alternated between drinking tomato soup and tea.
I couldn’t see anyone on the boat, but I knew that my father had an iPad with him displaying pictures with motivational messages. I saw that he kept holding it up, even if I couldn’t read what was on it. I knew that he was standing outside the whole night, cheering me on.
After Adam got out, I was feeling good again and swam onwards with strong strokes. The time passed like this and I noticed that I was making good progress, even if I never asked how it was going. I noticed that my strokes were strong and that I was feeling good.
As a result of the pitch blackness and the long hours of darkness, the night seemed as though it would never end and I thought I had been on the move for much longer than I had. I usually count the drinks I receive but when I wasn’t feeling well, I had lost count and forgotten how long I had been in the water. You can’t change it in any case, so I swam and swam on through the extremely long, dark night.
Suddenly, I got a fright. The kayak pilot called out to me, saying I should stay close to the kayak! She called out to the other boat: “Animals!” I was scared and thought to myself: “Please don’t let it be a shark!” I wasn’t really afraid of sharks because I think that they only really attack people when they feel threatened. I didn’t even think about it throughout the whole swim because everything was so peaceful and I could just calmly take one breath after another. But at that moment, I was afraid. I saw several animals swimming in the water, but then I realised that it was a large pod of dolphins. I stopped for a second and watched them swim around the boat. It was beautiful to see the dolphins like that and to swim with them, at night, in the middle of the Pacific ... The dolphins accompanied us for a while until they swam on and disappeared into the sea.
Now, I was wide awake and, after over six hours in the complete darkness, it slowly began to get light.
I was so happy and now knew that I would be able to do it. I was still feeling good but I noticed that I was missing the energy drinks because I had only had soup and tea for the past few hours. However, I didn’t want to risk feeling sick again.
Before the swim, we bought a drone because I wanted to take a few pictures from the air as mementoes. Slowly, I was able to make out the people on the boat and saw how Adam and my father were trying to get the drone airborne. When it got up in the air, I saw that it had little lights underneath. But then I suddenly saw my father standing at the end of the boat and frantically trying to do something – and then I knew I wouldn’t be seeing that drone again! I saw how Adam jumped into the back-up kayak and paddled out to sea. At that point, I just laughed out loud because I could see that we had two professionals at work!
I kept swimming and enjoyed watching Adam try to fish the drone out of the water. After a few minutes, I could no longer see the drone or Adam, but my father was standing at the edge of the boat, holding the remote control, and giving me the thumbs-up. I knew that it was done for, though! After having a drink, I focussed on my swimming again and made good headway. A short time afterwards, my father held up the drone to show me that Adam had managed to catch it. At that point, I didn’t know that the drone had flown into the water and that it had blown up in Adam’s hands in the kayak.
There was still no sign of land and I started to ask myself how much further it could be. But when I swam to the kayak the next time for a drink, my father shouted out to me: “Just two kilometres to go!” I couldn’t believe it because I couldn’t see anything. I knew from my crossing of the English Channel that sometimes you can see land but still have several hours ahead of you, but I also knew that it was extremely foggy and Adam had already said that the finish would really creep up on me. At that point, I realised that I had nearly done it and that I was just a few minutes away from the finish.
I was extremely happy and knew that I would do it. I tried to up the tempo a bit, which was very difficult because my arms were so tired. Adam came into the water and I knew I was nearly there. We swam together to the finish and I lifted my head a few times to check exactly where I needed to go in order to be able to get out of the water.
When I saw the seaweed and stones underneath me, I shed a few tears of happiness and was delighted to have made it. All that was left was to exit the water, which was pretty dangerous: it was high tide and the waves pushed me onto land. There were only rocks there, which were covered with seaweed and extremely slippy.
I tried to stand up slowly but I noticed that it was really difficult and that I kept falling down and hitting the rocks. My right leg was cut. When I was finally halfway onto the rocks, the crew shouted that I should climb up higher. At that point, Adam was really annoyed and I was also running out of patience because it was just so dangerous to climb up any further – but I tried and it took me at least five minutes to get up any further onto the rocks. Only then did we hear the signal that officially ended the crossing.
I now sat down on this rock, somewhere off the coast of LA and looked back out to sea. I can’t really describe that moment, but it made me so proud to look back on what I had achieved with all my hard training. I thanked Adam for his support and took his hand. We tried to get down off the rocks, which was just as difficult as it was to get up onto them.
Once we had made it back into the water, we slowly swam to the boat and climbed up the little ladder. I had made it! And I was so unbelievably happy! I felt pretty cold for a while and I noticed that I had been stung by some jellyfish. Once I was feeling better, an observer showed me images on his mobile of a shark attack and how bad it had been. It was pretty impressive and I enjoyed hearing his story. He still likes swimming in the sea and I was happy that he had waited until afterwards before showing me the pictures.
I stayed in Los Angeles for a while after my swim and couldn’t even look at the water for a few days afterwards.
At this point, I would like to thank everyone who believed in me once again and sent me all their lovely messages. I am very thankful for every kind word I received! I’m so happy that there are more and more people who recognise open-water swimming and appreciate the effort involved.
Thank you and see you again soon!
Just keep swimming
Next stop: Cook Strait, New Zealand :)