Marathon swims seem like a daunting enough undertaking on their own, but to most of us, attempting all seven of the world’s toughest channel crossings within a year seems all but impossible.
But that is the epic task Rottnest swim champion Andrew Donaldson has set himself, all in the name of raising money to support people’s mental health.
He started swimming aged seven in Scotland, which has a handful of 50m pools in the whole country. This is in stark contrast to Perth, which has practically “one in every suburb”, and is where Mr Donaldson moved to in 2013 – subsequently switching to open water racing.
Mr Donaldson has already had a wild ride in his 31 years, retiring from swimming in 2016 after not achieving his goal of competing in the Olympics, filling the void by throwing himself into becoming a chartered accountant and financial planner, then becoming a volcano tour guide while backpacking overseas.
“I was doing well with my career but I wasn’t looking after my mental health and there wasn’t balance in life,” he said.
“Things came to a head in 2019 and I was struggling quite hard. A few issues almost pushed me over the edge and I thought: ‘You know what? I’m going to take some time out and reassess’.”
If it weren’t for the COVID pandemic sweeping across the globe in March 2020 prompting a return to Perth, he would “probably be in South America with long hair living out of the back of a caravan right now”.
“I am in some strange way quite grateful for that,” Mr Donaldson said.
“I didn’t have really any intention to get back into swimming. I thought: ‘What do I do now? Do I get a job and go back into the corporate world?’
“It was really a chance meeting with an old friend and mentor of mine, Martin Smoothy, down at the beach, who encouraged me to get back into the water.
“My fitness started coming back and I was really enjoying my swimming. I found it to be a really great tool for managing my own mental health.”
After the pair set up the Swimclan group to encourage others to experience the mental and physical health benefits of swimming, Mr Donaldson took the advice he had given participants: to go after goals put aside and believed out of reach.
“I thought: ‘Well maybe I should get back in and have a crack at some unfinished business’,” he said.
In February 2021, less than a year after his return to Perth, he won the 19.7km Rottnest Channel Swim solo, more than six minutes in front of the second finisher.
Now, he’s set himself the 200km Oceans Seven marathon challenge, the pinnacle of channel swimming, with the goal of trouncing the existing world record of 64 hours, 35 minutes – targeting just 45 hours.
The longest stretches will be Ireland to Scotland, between the Hawaii islands of Molokai and Oahu, from the Californian island of Santa Catalina to Los Angeles, and the English Channel, which will be the first leg next month.
He’ll face large swells, cold waters, unpredictable weather — and also the threat of massive lion’s mane jellyfish as well as sharks.
One of his hairiest adventures so far was a 27km race off Sydney in April, where he was hit by an unexpected storm that caused his support boat to almost sink.
Faced with a bilge pump not working, the support crew sped off in a bid to lift the nose of the vessel and make water that was flooding in flow out the back.
Mr Donaldson was left 3km from shore, treading water for 30 minutes in one of the worst swells he’d ever been in.
“They actually took off and left me out there,” he said.
They came back of course.
“I managed to regain composure and channelled some Scottish rage … and still take the win,” he said.
“We just fell shy of breaking the record by 12 minutes.”
To donate to Andy’s cause, visit: teamblackdog.org.au/fundraisers/oceansseven.