Ashton resident overcomes fear of water to swim English Channel

Posted on - 29th September, 2023 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Ashton-on-Ribble, People, Preston News, Proud Preston, Sport
Jemma Wolstencroft on the boat

An Ashton resident has overcome a fear of water to swim the English Channel.

Jemma Wolstencroft made the crossing at the end of August, after months of training.

However Jemma’s journey with swimming began years ago.

“I was never a ‘proper’ swimmer,” said Jemma. “I learned to swim head-up breaststroke in lessons at primary school, but I stopped going as I wouldn’t put my face in the water and hated the deep end.

“In my late 20s I joined a pool with no deep end and taught myself to swim with my face in by using YouTube videos. I started to enjoy swimming.”

A scary experience in a first open water swim in 2016 put another stop to Jemma’s swimming.

“I entered the Great North Swim wearing a brand new wetsuit. I thought I would be totally fine, but I panicked and swam it head-up breaststroke, heart pounding. It was almost enough to put me off for life.

“I didn’t swim outside again until lockdown 2020, when I cautiously started swimming in the sea at Morecambe. I continued to swim all year round. I loved the atmosphere of the community.”

Jemma Wolstencroft swimming the Channel

At this point Jemma – who is married to Taz and has children Evelyn, 8, and Elsie, 5 – decided to take on the Channel challenge.

“I wanted to face my fears and do something exciting that would be just as much of a mental challenge as it is physical. I’d done ultra runs but that was not facing a fear. This would be different.

“I applied for a place to swim the Channel in January 2021 but didn’t really tell many people until this year.

“At this point I was winter swimming in a full wetsuit, neoprene socks, gloves and hat. The next summer I swam in skins – just a swimsuit – and I’ve never put a wetsuit on since. It’s very liberating and less faff getting things on and off and clean and dry.

“It’s also the Channel swim rules – nothing but cap, goggles and a standard swimsuit. So I thought I might as well get used to it!”

Jemma Wolstencroft on the boat's steps

Adventurous Jemma – who also loves rock climbing and travelling – prepared for the crossing with a swim plan by Amy Ennion, an experienced Channel swimmer.

“I did a lot of four and five hour swims in the pool, which saved time and money commuting to open water venues – plus it wasn’t safe to swim at those temperatures for so long, alone.

“I had a couple of endless pool swim lessons with Colin Hill in Ullswater. This completely changed my swimming for the better. Colin helped me get the most out of every stroke and swim in a way that prevented injury. Before those lessons, one arm would often be too sore to raise the next day.”

Jemma also attended two swim camps in Dover. At the first, in June, Jemma did 20 hours of swimming in four days, meaning she qualified to swim the Channel.

“The water was 14 degrees and the weather was awful all week. The wind was howling and the chop made it almost impossible to breathe. We all came into the beach from the sea loop every hour for a warm carbohydrate drink, shivering and encouraging each other.

“After surviving that week I knew I could swim the Channel as the conditions would never be that bad on the day.”

Jemma went back to Dover a few weeks later and while the weather was better, there was a serious jellyfish invasion.

“I did another seven hour swim and must have been stung 50 times or more, with the majority being from compass jellyfish. Nasty. The sea was busy with swimmers and you’d just hear, ‘Ouch!’ and see people stopping and bobbing in disbelief at how bad it was.

“It was another fabulous training experience. I thought if I could handle this, I could handle anything.”

An original swim window in early July came and went full of bad weather and disappointment. Jemma was offered a new window at short notice at the end of August.

Jemma said: “I received a text from the boat pilot on a Thursday saying the swim was on for the Sunday at 5am. We were camping in the French Alps with the kids, so we packed up and got on the ferry a day earlier than planned.

“My mum drove seven hours to babysit for us so Taz could crew. Just as my mum arrived my swim was cancelled. I’d waited so long and could feel the opportunity slipping away again. But on Sunday night we were having food at a pub in Dover, and the boat pilot text to confirm Monday morning.

“By the time I was stood on the beach and the horn honked for me to start I was simply relieved and honoured to be there.”

22 miles, and 14 hours and 53 minutes later, Jemma arrived in France.

Map of Jemma's route across the Channel
Jemma’s route across the Channel

Of the crossing, Jemma said: “I swam really well for around 11 hours. I slowed down for a couple and then had to put my foot down again to break the strong tide washing along the French coast.

“I landed on a beach in the pitch black near the French town of Wissant. My friend Jo jumped in to swim the last metres with me as the water got too shallow for the boat. Once on land we looked for a pebble and manage to find two unidentified objects that turned out to be a mussel shell and some mud, which I think I’ll get set in resin.”

Jemma Wolstencroft's mussel shell and mud keepsakes

Incredibly after so much exertion, Jemma only suffered with chaffing and tired arms for a week following the swim – recovering in time to celebrate with a party organised by sister Laura.

Looking ahead to future challenges, Jemma said: “I secretly thought to myself, if I make it across I’ll go back in 10 years to do it butterfly. It sounds ridiculous to me now – especially as my butterfly is sketchy and spans just 25 metres – but so did a front crawl crossing three years ago when I signed up!

“Perhaps one day, but I need to focus on my family for a little while and maybe I’ll come back to channels later.”

To find out more about Jemma’s Channel swim, visit @jemmaswimsthechannel on Instagram.

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