Chattanooga nurse practitioner gives a behind-the-scenes look at swimming the English Channel

Staff photos by Matt Hamilton / Jennifer Whitlock stands at the Chickamauga Dam, shortly after having returned from England, where she successfully swam across the English Channel.

In the early hours of Sept. 8, 2023, Jennifer Whitlock stood on Samphire Hoe beach in Dover, England. She was smeared head-to-toe with homemade lanolin to prevent chafing from her swimsuit or anything else that might rub. "I make my own lanolin because I don't like the smell of wet sheep," she explains. "I have lots of great fragrance oils in the house, and I choose instead to make my lanolin smell like a coconut, suntan-lotion kind of concoction."

She had gargled with ulcer medication to coat her tongue and protect it from the impending salt intake from the water. She was also smothered with enough thick, white, pasty Desitin to stop diaper rash in an entire small country. This was to shield her from the excessive sun exposure that she would endure during her extended time in the English Channel. "It's largely zinc oxide. There isn't a sunscreen that can stand up to 14 hours in the salt water, so anything that could get sunburned gets coated in a nice layer of Desitin," she says. "I looked like Casper the Friendly Swimming Ghost."

If she were able to swim in a straight line from Dover to Wissant, France, the distance across would be 21 miles. However, currents and tides usually push swimmers off a direct course, adding sometimes considerable mileage and time — and, of course, a swimmer's speed and ability are also factors. The world record for the fastest English Channel swim, set the very same day that Whitlock swam, is 6 hours, 45 minutes. The world's record for the longest crossing is just over 29 hours.

At approximately 3 that morning, Whitlock pulled her goggles down over her eyes — careful not to smear them with Desitin — stepped into the waters of the English Channel and began swimming. And swimming.

And swimming.

The escort boat that would follow her for the next 14 hours and 41 minutes carried everything she would need for a successful crossing of the Channel: five pairs of backup goggles. Two extra swim caps. Six protein shaker bottles to mix up the nutrition she would be given at 30-minute intervals throughout the entire swim (known as "feeds"). A rope to throw out in the water to give her these feeds. Bags of drink powder, called Torq, full of electrolytes and protein. Nerds. Swedish Fish. Nutella. Red Bull. A ton of bottled water. Ibuprofen and Tylenol. Extra Desitin, which she would need to reapply to a few spots halfway through the swim. An horchata shake for after the swim, to promote recovery.

The boat also held her support crew, which included at least one boat captain; her wife, Kristin Evans; her team lead, Allison Crush; and an observer, to assure that she followed all the rules to make her swim officially ratified by the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation — and there are plenty of rules. For example, no channel swimmer is allowed to touch the boat or another person throughout the duration of their crossing. If, upon arrival in France, the swimmer makes contact with another person before walking up onto the dry sands of the beach, even if beyond their control — let's say, for example, a well-meaning Frenchmen were to wade out in the water to slap them on the back in congratulations — they would be disqualified. Swimsuits cannot cover their shoulders or any part of their legs, and any fabrics that could supply an iota of warmth, such as neoprene, are forbidden. Watches and underwater MP3 players are also prohibited.

As team lead, it was Crush's job to make sure everything went as swimmingly as possible during Whitlock's crossing, including giving her encouragement and on-site coaching. For instance, Whitlock says that after she had swum for 12 or 13 hours, Crush told her that she would need to do an all-out sprint for at least half an hour — what channel swimmers refer to as "power hour" — to break through the currents that are notoriously present near the coast of France.

  photo  Photos contributed by Jennifer Whitlock / Whitlock and Allison Crush on the escort boat during their return trip back to England from France, after Whitlock had completed her Channel-crossing swim.

"The swim going into France is where things get ugly, and that's where people fail. They call it the swimmers' graveyard because it can be so hard to break through the currents in France," Whitlock says. "Four out of five swimmers don't make it."

Four out of five swimmers — that's 80%! — are unable to finish their attempted channel crossing, even with 18+ miles of water already behind them.

But Whitlock would not be one who failed. ("Its too freaking expensive," she says. "The thought of having to pay all that money again and go back next year — that alone would keep me swimming through most things.") She broke through the currents and swam through a pile of jellyfish to reach the shores of Wissant and walked up onto the beach to officially end her swim. Her boat sounded its horn to signify her success, and the timing clock stopped running at 14:41:43.88.

Channel swimming rules allow swimmers only 10 minutes on French soil, during which they usually pick up a couple pebbles from the beach to bring with them, commemorating their accomplishment. After selecting two pebbles and two shells, Whitlock still had to brave jellyfish stings and swim the nearly half-mile back out to the boat again. Usually, a boat captain sends a dinghy to shore to retrieve a swimmer and save them this added exertion, but Whitlock's captain did not extend such a courtesy. He was too concerned that she would get Desitin on his dinghy.

For the 2.5 hours it took for the boat to return to England, Whitlock says that she used the time for "texting, Facebooking, updating Instagram and talking to all her friends back home" about her successful swim, and then she went straight back to her Airbnb.

She still had enough energy to shower, eat a single slice of frozen pizza, drink some water and take ibuprofen and a muscle relaxer before falling asleep. The next day, her arms were so sore that she couldn't lift them over her head.

"It took two of us with kitchen scrub sponges to get the Desitin off of me. It took like an hour," she says. "And I think I washed my hair five times to get the lanolin and Desitin out of my hair."

Evans, too, was amazed by "the incredible amount of baby-butt ointment that she had to put all over herself" and how much it would get a sticky mess all over everything her wife touched for the next 10 hours. "It's worse than glitter," she says.

Evans also notes the unpleasant odor of the lanolin, especially when, during Whitlock's other swims, such as her recent 12-mile crossing from Anacapa Island to California, rough waters rocking the support boat caused Evans to feel seasick. Because despite Whitlock's attempts to make her homemade lanolin smell less like wet sheep and more like tropical coconut sunscreen, she only succeeded in making it smell nauseatingly like a wet sheep sunning itself on a tropical beach.

But there were no rough waters in the English Channel that day. Whitlock lucked out with rare and unusually good weather and water conditions for her swim, including an extremely calm neap tide. "It was a perfect day to swim," she says. "The water was silky and like glass."

  photo  Photo contributed by Jennifer Whitlock / Greased up with mounds of Desitin, Whitlock, pictured here all ghostly white, prepares to begin her swim as team lead Allison Crush stands by.

Except for a few lower-back twinges and at least 11 jellyfish stings, Whitlock insists that she felt good during her swim. She passed the time wondering how many fish her boat captain was catching while she swam, thinking about if she was swimming above the Chunnel (the underwater train tunnel linking southern England and northern France) and pondering if English ships would be sailing on the left side of the Channel instead of the right. And she sang songs in her head to keep her stroke count up, "and since it was the English Channel, only British artists," she says. "Lots of 'Relax' by Frankie Goes to Hollywood."

But Whitlock also made a point to look around, take it all in and appreciate the moment and the beauty of the water. "I was like, 'I'm not miserable at all. I'm actually in my happy place right now, and I'm totally fine," she says. "It was just amazing. I was so happy to be there and just purely thankful."

Whitlock's swim across the English Channel was a long time coming. She had booked her boat three years previously and had very little real open-water swimming experience prior to that. But she's spent the past several years training and readying herself for this monumental swim. She says that the first year, she tried to swim 10 hours a week; the second year, 15 hours. And this past year, her goal was 20 hours — or 45,000 yards (half the length of the Panama Canal) — every single week leading up to the swim. She's also participated in many other, shorter open-water swim events since 2021, including recent 10-hour and 12-hour training swims.

Evans, an endurance athlete and Ironman World Championship finisher herself, says that watching a channel swimmer swim — even one she's married to — is "deadly boring." She spent the nearly 15 hours on the boat timing and orchestrating when to feed Whitlock every 30 minutes, along with trying to stay awake and entertained by "making jokes, telling stories and practicing Spanish" with Crush. But she doesn't downplay her wife's achievement or dedication.

"I'm super proud of her, and I'm curious and slightly terrified of what she might decide to take on next," Evans says.

According to Whitlock, next on her swimming bucket list is completing an "Ice Mile," which means swimming for a mile in water that is 41 degrees Fahrenheit or below — an easily achievable goal for Whitlock, who thrives in water temps in the mid-50s and has already spent 63 minutes in 48-degree water, shiver-free.

"You are forever changed by swimming the English Channel. I think it's nearly impossible to walk away the same person as when you arrived," says Whitlock. "Just to put your toe in the water at the beginning is such an act of courage, willpower and faith that it profoundly impacts who you are as a person and what you believe yourself to be capable of."

Just Keep Swimming, at All Costs

(The Price of Swimming the English Channel)

Because of the expenses involved, Whitlock considers swimming the English Channel a real privilege. "I mean, it's not quite polo ponies," she says, "but it's not cheap." She figures that anyone considering this swim could easily drop 10,000 bucks on the undertaking alone, not including training expenses beforehand.

Here is a breakdown of some of the expenses that Whitlock incurred to be able to do this swim:

Airfare for three people to England: $5,000

Boat rental with captain for the duration of the swim: £3,500 ($4,283.82)

Fee for the observer and to have the swim ratified: £350 ($428.38)

Airbnb: £1,200 ($1,468.74)

Rental car: £500 ($611.97)

Cost of various gym/pool memberships for training: $140/month

Cost of top-notch open-water swimming coach Sarah Thomas: $185/month

Personal trainer following shoulder injury: $60/half-hour session

Entry into other open-water swim events: Up to $400 per swim

Miscellaneous expenses, such as the cost of food, the 18 swimsuits she's gone through in the past three years, goggles, travel for other swims, hotel rooms, her sanity (and her wife's), etc.: A heck of a lot.