Farmington Hills resident swims English Channel in 11 hours, 31 minutes

By: David Wallace | Farmington Press | Published August 31, 2011


Jenny Birmelin celebrates her successful swim on the beach in Wissant, France, with the Detroit Tigers flag, her alma mater Michigan State University’s flag and an American flag.

FARMINGTON HILLS — Resident Jenny Birmelin made the swim of her life Aug. 20 when she successfully crossed the English Channel’s 21 miles and set foot on the French coastline after 11 hours 31 minutes and 7 seconds.

An accomplished open-water swimmer, Birmelin set the channel as her goal and began training more than a year ago for the cold swim. Crossing the English Channel is thought of as one of the world’s most demanding swims and has an allure not unlike Mount Everest for mountain climbers.

Birmelin hired a boat, the Louise Jane, and began her swim at 4:05 a.m. in utter darkness. Her boat captain, Andy King, had her jump off the boat and swim to the English shore under his search and rescue light. She cleared the water, and he blew the ship’s whistle to begin.

Channel swimmers tackle the chilly saltwater in normal bathing suits and caps that offer no thermal protection. They are not allowed to touch the boat, so Birmelin’s support team used a basket to reach her and deliver food. The food breaks were like pit stops; they had to be under 30 seconds to keep from elongating the swim.

Birmelin would consume squeezable baby food pouches or peaches, an energy drink mixed with warm apple juice and hot water, and a watered-down mouthwash to combat the salt water’s effects. She said that after training in the water for five days before the attempt, her tongue felt swollen and cut up from the salt.

Onboard the boat, Birmelin’s support team included her husband, Noah, physician and aunt Lynn Frikker, and friends Karen Rosinski and Cheryl Machovec Dehn.

Birmelin started strongly, but a moment of truth came at the four-hour mark.

“I was grumpy and yelling and having a tantrum. I was crying. I was freezing. To be honest, I didn’t realize that the water temperature had dropped from 63 (degrees) to 58 to pockets of 56,” said Birmelin.

“I yelled, ‘I can’t be this cold for nine more hours!’ And they said, ‘You’re not going to be. It’s a pocket of cold water. Just keep swimming,’” said Birmelin. “I got the tough love from my friends and family on the boat, which is what I needed, a little kick in the butt right then.”

Frikker spent the 11 hours thinking about different scenarios that might occur and monitoring her niece. But she knew her niece’s incredible determination.

“I had no doubt that she would do it, and she did,” Frikker said.

“It was just so amazing to watch (Jenny) going all day — just how consistent she was and how strong she looked and how she just kept going,” said Dehn.

The channel is an extremely busy shipping lane, and Birmelin said there was a lot of chop.

“When the freighters went by, there were huge waves that would bounce off the boat and go right into my mouth. So, sometimes, it was hard to take a stroke and actually get a good stroke. Sometimes, I would get kind of bounced around.”

She saw floating debris, seaweed and sea life.

“We went over huge jellyfish at points; huge, beautiful orange and pinkish ones that were bigger than 2 feet wide. They were huge, and then there were others that were very, very small, like the size of my fist,” she said.

“They were far enough below that it wasn’t really scary. It was just kind of cool to see them,” said Rosinski, who jumped in wearing a wetsuit and fins to provide some companionship during the swim. Noah did, too, though they had to make sure not to touch her or otherwise upset the attempt.

“The last hour and a half was the hardest swim of my life. It felt like we were in an endless pool fighting against a tide that was sweeping us north, and here I’m trying to swim east,” Birmelin said.

The tide carried her away from her intended landing, so they turned their attention to the sandy beaches of Wissant. She eventually swam more than 28 land miles.

“It was maybe the last 100 or 200 yards only where I didn’t have to fight. We were making a lot of progress quickly, and you could finally see that it was getting brighter and shallower. And I could see the people on the beach that were getting larger, and there were dogs and sunbathing,” she remembered.

She crawled out of the water and got up slowly, her legs wobbling.

“I took a few steps before they sounded the air horns that it was over, so then I hoisted my arms in the air and saw my husband crawling out and then gave him a huge hug,” she said.

“Nobody really knows exactly what Jenny has been through this whole time but Noah. And when he was able to swim, not to shore when she did, but shortly after that to meet her, that was very touching, because he brought her to a point and she took it from there. And he didn’t stand in front of her glory, but with it,” Frikker said.

“I was very proud of her — all the hard work she put in. I mean, it’s been a year and a half of work and her swimming twice a day,” Noah said.

The co-pilot handed them the Detroit Tigers flag, a Michigan State University flag and an American flag for pictures.

Birmelin is a 1995 Harrison High School graduate and a math teacher at Orchard Lake Middle School in West Bloomfield.