How a boast over a beer lead to the first Freo to Rottnest swim

First Freo to Rottnest swim image

It is a giant understatement to suggest that German visitor Gerd von Dincklage-Schulenburg liked to swim.

When he did — and it was often — he swam to spear fish, collect shells and coral or take photographs. And he would swim long distances to do so.
But on a cold, overcast January day in 1956, Mr von Dincklage swam further than he had done before — and became the first man to swim from Fremantle to Rottnest Island.
By today’s standards, his time of nine hours and 45 minutes was relatively slow. But it set the standard and created an endurance challenge that is embraced by thousands of swimmers every year in the Rottnest Channel Swim.
Like many things, the idea for the swim had its origins over a beer. Mr von Dincklage was having a Christmas drink with journalist Hugh Schmitt, fromThe West Australian , at the Quokka Arms Hotel.
Schmitt later wrote that Mr von Dincklage had been “spending freely” and Schmitt jokingly said that if he didn’t watch his money, “he wouldn’t have his boat fare back to the mainland”.
“Then I’ll swim,” Mr von Dincklage announced.
Schmitt explained that an escaping Aboriginal had supposedly swum to the mainland when the island was a jail, but no one had swum from Fremantle to Rottnest.
“Then I will do it,” Mr von Dincklage said. A few days later, Schmitt had organised a support crew of his newspaper colleagues — including renowned cartoonist Paul Rigby — and challenged his German friend to make good his boast.
“I told him I had a party to go to that night,” Mr von Dincklage recalled. “But what the hell.
“I also had no training — it was hardly the right condition to do the swim.”
After a few delays because of poor weather, Mr von Dincklage successfully swam from Fremantle’s North Mole to the holiday island, mostly using breaststroke. “When I finished, I was absolutely exhausted and lay on the beach for ages until they chaired me up to the Quokka Arms,” he said.
Now 87, Mr von Dincklage is back in Germany living in the small town of Dorentrup, about 160km from the Dutch border.
He remembers his time in WA fondly, though he did not plan to stay as long as his did.
Mr von Dincklage only headed to WA when a lack of money forced him to abandon plans with friends to sail around the world.
He found a spearfishing job, among others, and stayed in WA.
He also married in Perth and had three children.
Mr von Dincklage returned to Germany about 10 years ago but visited Perth in 2014 as a guest of the Rottnest swim organisers.
“The Rottnest swim was probably the longest I ever did,” he recalled. “But I have probably been in the water for longer, particularly when I was spearfishing in Sri Lanka.
“Swimming for long distances has never fazed me. I remember when I was in Cuba, I wanted to see if there were any fish around a particular reef. So I swam out and couldn’t find any.
“I kept swimming and swimming, looking for fish, because I knew they had to be somewhere.
“Eventually, I found some and it was only then that I realised that I had swum about two miles from shore.
“When I got back and told my friends, they thought I was crazy. They thought it was too dangerous and that I might have been eaten by a shark.”
Mr von Dincklage didn’t fear a shark attack during his Rottnest swim but did have a brush with a large stingray at one stage.

How a boast over a beer lead to the first Freo to Rottnest swim - Ken Acott, The West Australian, 12 October 2016