Last week, Pat Gallant-Charette attempted to swim across the English Channel. The 57-year-old Westbrook resident swam 32 miles in 16 hours, and came to within two miles of France. But she had to get back on the boat that was following her because the currents were too strong. This week, she sat down with the American Journal to talk about her experience.
Q: What was the hardest part about the swim?
A: What I didn’t prepare for was the taste of the water. It tasted like someone mixed a quarter-cup of salt water with a quarter-cup of chalk and a teaspoon of acid. It burned my mouth. When I finished the swim I had ulcers in my mouth, and my tongue had a white coating that peeled off. It was very, very sore. And I got friction burns on my arms from the salt water, but I was expecting that.
Q: Did you encounter any sea creatures during your swim?
A: I got stung by two jellyfish in the first 10 minutes of the swim. Then at night, when all I could see was total black, my hand entered the water and I saw this silvery thing grab onto my arm with its mouth. It didn’t have any teeth. I continued with the stroke – I never missed a beat – and the fish flew above me, did a flip in the air and landed on my neck. At first I was thinking, I hope this isn’t a shark, but I didn’t feel any pain. I was like, “You’re not going to stop me from reaching France.” The fish was OK.
Q: Was it hard being in cold water for that long?
A: I had really good conditions. The water temperature was very warm, in the mid 60s. I thought it was like bath water, but I heard they were pulling people for hypothermia. They hand off drinks to you from the boat, and I got so hot I asked for ice in my water. Word got back to Dover, and one of the locals, David Frantzefkou, said he’s never heard of that in the history of the English Channel. He said, “This is going to be all over Dover.”
Q: Were there other people swimming the channel at the same time?
A: There were other swimmers, but we left at different times. One swimmer was pulled at the halfway mark. Another was trying to break the record for the oldest woman. She was 64, but she got sick after three hours.
Q: How did you feel at the end of the swim?
A: I wasn’t even tired. The English Channel official said I had the endurance to do a double crossing. She said she thought I could have gone back, and I agree. I swam in place for four hours before they pulled me. I didn’t want to get out. I swore like a pirate, but the boat captain makes the final decision.
Q: How do you feel about it now that you’re home?
A: I’ve been getting e-mails – one from Julie Bradshaw, who’s the English channel record holder for the butterfly. She said, “Your swim was a brilliant effort.” I received another e-mail from Ned Denison. He’s an international marathon swimmer who lives in Ireland. I asked him for tips before and he gave me some. He said he had to abort his first swim and that nobody can beat the current at the end if the timing is wrong. So, that made me feel good.
Q: What do you think helped your success?
A: I believe the best training grounds anywhere is right here in the state of Maine. Two years ago, one of the record holders came to Maine to train.
Q: Do you think you’ll try again?
A: Yes. I’ve already contacted the English Channel Association for 2010. They’re already booked for 2009. I’ll change my training technique a little bit, work more on speed. You want to be able to sprint in the end, if you hear you’re going to miss the tide by an hour. That’s going to be my focus.
Q: What helped you the most to get across?
A: My crew was so fantastic. My three brothers and my son were all on the boat alongside me, and my daughter and husband, even though they had to stay home, were on my crew, too. They were so supportive. It was a long haul for them, too. I work with some wonderful people at the Barron Center and they made this wonderful towel and all signed it. When I got onto the boat, my brothers draped it around me. I’m going to start crying, it was so touching. And it was a dream come true. I swam the English Channel. I didn’t reach France, but I made it across.