A brief history about the Rottnest Channel Swim

Rottnest Channel Swim Association logo

Highly regarded worldwide and one of Western Australia’s iconic events, the Rottnest Channel Swim is a 19.7km open water swim from Cottesloe Beach to Rottnest Island.

Men running on beach


Gerd von Dincklage became the first person to complete a recorded crossing of the Rottnest Channel from the Perth mainland to Rottnest Island.


Lesley Meaney (nee Cherriman) became the next swimmer to complete a Rottnest crossing. She swam from Natural Jetty to North Mole and 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.


19 swimmers completed 26 crossings of the Rottnest Channel with seven of these crossings starting at Rottnest.


As part of the preparations for the 6th FINA World Swimming Championships in 1991, Kevin Holtom went to California and 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.


The RCSA was incorporated as a not-for-profit organisation.


The first Rottnest Channel Swim race was held. There were 44 entries, 16 solo swimmers and seven teams of four. Peter Galvin won the solo event in 4:30:03 and the first team over the line was Peter Blackmore, Shelley Jesney, Sue Johnson and Anthony Short.
Early Rottnest Channel Swim map
Man holding trophy


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


David O’Brien from New South Wales broke the existing record by 12 minutes with a time of 4:02:08. Duo teams were introduced and eight teams entered. The first duo to reach the island was Tom Hinds and Jason Diederich (named Peppermint Grove Jewellers).


The length of the swim was increased when the finish line was moved from the Natural Jetty to the foreshore of Thomson Bay. Additionally, Barbara Pellick became the first female to complete a double-crossing of the Rottnest Channel in a time of 12:06:12.


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.


Colin Barnett, Member for Cottesloe at the time and later the Premier of Western Australia, was asked to be the official starter.


The skipper for Grant Robinson, 1997 solo winner, used a GPS to plot their course to Rottnest. This was one of the first times a GPS was used during the Rottnest Channel Swim race.
Swimming team holding hands in ocean
Swimmers at Cottesloe Beach starting line for Rottnest Channel Swim


Rottnest Channel Swim became the world’s largest open water swimming event, attracting 1,150 competitors.


Personalised number plates were introduced for successful solo crossings. Any new soloist qualifies for a number plate, regardless of whether their swim occurred during the official event or as an out-of-event swim.


The history books were re-written when 2,022 people swam the Channel. The Channel Swim had grown so large, an event management consultant was hired to assist volunteers in running the event. Royal Life Saving WA began assisting the RCSA.


An electronic timing system was introduced to improve race efficiency.


160 individuals, 92 duos, 421 teams entered the swim. The conditions were the worst in the history of the swim with 12-15 knot westerly winds and early squalls. Many swimmers didn’t even start while others withdrew during the event. Only 43% of competitors who entered that year completed the event.


People with disabilities were given an opportunity to enter through the allocation of five reserved team places. Rhumb line GPS coordinates were provided to all swimmers to help them take the most direct route to Rottnest.
Finish line for Rottnest Channel Swim
Older man at Rottnest Channel Swim


The Swim marked the 50th anniversary of the first solo crossing of the Rottnest Channel. Demanding conditions resulted in a quarter of the field retiring. The online entry process was introduced and a ballot was conducted for the 3,910 entries received.


The event was cancelled due to poor weather conditions caused by cyclonic activity in the north west of Western Australia.


The Virtual Rottnest Channel Swim began. This gave swimmers unable to compete in the actual swim an opportunity to replicate the race in their local pool.


The Rottnest Channel Swim celebrated its 20th anniversary. For the first time, swimmers were offered the opportunity to raise funds for a charity of their choice via an online fundraising service called Everyday Hero.


All finishing swimmers crossed the finish line well before the final cut-off time of 5pm – which had never happened before!


Swimsuit regulations were introduced which comply with FINA’s open water swimming rules. The RCSA was successful in increasing the number of boats in the water on event day which resulted in more swimmers participating. All finishing swimmers completed the swim well before the final cut-off time and earlier than the 2012 event.
Boat in water for Rottnest Channel Swim
Swimming running to finish line


The first ‘Welcome to Country’ was conducted by Ingrid Cumming at the pre-race briefing held at Challenge Stadium (now HBF Stadium) and Professor Len Collard performed a second ceremony at Cottesloe Beach on race day.


The swim celebrated its 25th anniversary, with one of the highlights being the release of a commemorative book. With the event outgrowing the finish line at the Hotel Jetty, the finish was relocated to the grassed area near the Fuel Jetty, which required a 20m ramp to be built over the dunes.


The inaugural Champions of the Channel event was held, with Ben Freeman as the first male solo to cross in 4:18:28 and Jaime Bowler as the first female solo in 4:42:16. The Premier of Western Australia, the Hon. Colin Barnett, celebrated his 20th year as the official starter of the race. Tandem solos (two solos sharing one boat) was introduced


A first-in-first-served registration system was re-introduced after ten years of using a ballot system. Conditions were deceptive with a calm 39 degree day hiding the unusually strong north to south current


2018 was an eventful year, with records broken, a boat sinking, a propeller strike, a 3.30pm finish and the event's first ever shark sighting evacuation. Favourable conditions led to records tumbling - Solomon Wright broke an 18-year male solo record by 47 seconds arriving in 3:59:28; while Heidi Gan broke the solo female record, arriving to Thomson Bay in 4:21:55. The male team record was broken by Reilly Kennedy, Callum Lauriston, Nicholas Rollo and William Rollo arriving in 3:36:36.


Following on from the previous year’s shark evacuation, 2019 saw the incorporation of the first dedicated event helicopter. The measures paid off, with the helicopter crew being able to quickly and easily verify any reported sightings of aquatic life. Conditions were tougher without the famous easterlies of 2018 and Victorian open water swimmer, Sam Sheppard and local stalwart Jamie Bowler took out the Champions of the Channel titles in 4:11:22 and 4:44:41, respectively.


In 2020 we welcomed aboard Naming Rights Sponsor, South32 and celebrated the 30th Anniversary of the Rottnest Channel Swim Event. We also saw the largest ever field of solo swimmers, with 498 registered and 420 completing the swim.


One of the most testing years ever, rough conditions and strong currents led to the partial cancellation of the event at 3:00pm. The COVID-19 pandemic border closures also restricted participation to only local swimmers.


The event welcomed fundraising platform, Grassrootz, for Lavan Charity Challenge teams and all participants which saw a huge increase in money raised for charities throughout the event. The 2022 event was a prime example of the trails and triumphs that are inherent to an open water swimming event like the Rotto Swim.