FREEPORT – When Pat Gallant-Charette began her swim across the Strait of Gibraltar last month in Tarifa, Spain, she put her hands against a rock on the coastline and spoke to her late brother.
“Robbie,” she said, “this swim is for you.”
Then, she was immediately hit by a strong wave. It didn’t deter Gallant-Charette. Instead, the 59-year-old registered nurse and grandmother began to swim across the world’s second-busiest shipping channel, focusing solely on the finish point at Punta Almansa in Morocco.
“I just want to finish the swim,” the Westbrook resident said of each open-water swim she has participated in. “I look at it as a personal challenge. It’s a goal, something you want to do.”
In 1997, Gallant-Charette participated in her first organized open-water swim, the 2.4-mile crossing of the Casco Bay now known as the Cyrus Hagge/YMCA Peaks to Portland Swim. The swim has become a yearly event for Gallant-Charette and when she crosses the finish line Saturday at Portland’s East End Beach, she will be greeted by swimmers, family members, spectators and volunteers.
“The YMCA has such a strong commitment to community,” Gallant-Charette said. “You get to the finish line and you see that sense of community and that sense of family.”
Furthermore, each time she swims, she says a prayer to her brother Robbie, who died of a heart attack when he was 34. Her brother ultimately inspired her to begin swimming, and her son Tom encouraged her to swim the Peaks to Portland with him. Gallant-Charette agreed, but she knew there was work to do before she could get to the starting point on Peaks Island. She began training at a local pool in Westbrook, where she asked the lifeguard on duty to keep an eye on her as she crawled through the pool, doing laps.
She recalled the first time she stood on the beach, intimidated not only by the elite swimmers around her but the 2.4 miles ahead of her.
“I can remember standing on Peaks Island and thinking, ‘That’s such a long distance!’ ” she said.
Gallant-Charette returns to swim the 2.4-mile crossing after a year’s absence. Last year she was unable to cross the English Channel (the world’s busiest shipping channel) because of high winds, but in June, she completed the nine-mile crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar in 3 hours and 28 minutes, the fastest time by an American woman to cross the Strait, and the third-fastest time in history by a female swimmer who did not wear a wetsuit — customary in Gallant-Charette’s training. Penelope Palfrey of Australia holds the non-wetsuit crossing record of 3:03, ahead of Rashmi Sharma of India (3:24).
“It’s an honor for all of us, to have her swim in our pool and share her story,” said Dana Buckoski, the aquatics coordinator at the Casco Bay YMCA. “She’s said, ‘I’m not really an athlete,’ but you know what? She is.”
Though Gallant-Charette came to swimming later in life, she discovered that because of swimming her strength and endurance improved, as did her state of mind.
She graduated from laps at the local pool to crossing the local lakes and she realized that once she completed her first open-water swim, she could accomplish anything.
She has swum Sebago Lake, the San Francisco Bay to Alcatraz Island, and Chesapeake Bay. She plans to swim California’s Catalina Channel and in the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim.
Monday morning at the Casco Bay YMCA in Freeport, Gallant-Charette gave a half-hour presentation on swimming the Strait of Gibraltar. She then fielded questions from the 15 people in the audience.
“Did other people swim at the same time?”
“Do you need a passport to cross the Strait?”
She swam alone, between two guide boats, and a Strait of Gibraltar Swim Association official held her passport in a nearby boat.
Earlier this summer, she talked about her swimming accomplishments to a group of day campers.
Instead of asking about tides, currents and citizenship, the campers were most curious about the marine life.
“Did you see a shark?” one child asked.
“Did you see a dolphin?” asked another.
Gallant-Charette explained that she was forewarned by officials about families of killer whales that gathered in the area, but they assured her that they only eat 500-pound tuna.
She was relieved. And she forged toward her final destination.
Staff Writer Rachel Lenzi can be reached at 791-6415 or at: