July 12, 2013

Peaks to Portland: Waters welcoming to locals, foreigners

One of the top 50 open-water swims in the U.S., the 2.4 miles across Casco Bay could hold a global appeal.

By GREG REID Special to the Press Herald

SCARBOROUGH — A 13-hour flight from Tokyo to Boston is a long trip by any measure.

click image to enlarge

Japanese marathon open water swimmer Miyuki Fujita, right, and Westbrook’s Pat Gallant-Charette are two of the entrants for Saturday’s Peaks to Portland swim.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Japanese marathon open water swimmer Miyuki Fujita, right, and Pat Gallant-Charette of Westbrook practice at Scarborough’s Pine Point in preparation for the Peaks to Portland swim on Saturday.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer


WHAT: 2.4-mile swim; proceeds benefit children's swim lessons at Portland YMCA branch

WHEN: 9 a.m. Saturday

WHERE: Peaks Island to East End Beach

Miyuki Fujita considered the comment. Then, with a glint in her eye, she said, "The swim is longer."

Ah, yes, marathon swimmer humor.

Fujita and her friends enjoyed a good laugh Thursday morning. Joining Fujita were Yoko Aoshima of Falmouth and Pat Gallant-Charette of Westbrook. Within a few minutes they were heading into the water off fog-shrouded Pine Point Beach.

The swim was a leisurely practice in advance of the Cyrus Hagge YMCA Peaks to Portland swim. On Saturday morning, some 372 swimmers -- most accompanied by a kayak-paddling guide -- will swim a 2.4-mile span of Casco Bay to East End Beach.

Regarded as one of the top 50 open-water swims in the United States, the event is open to swimmers 16 and older who have shown they can swim a mile in 45 minutes or less. It is a major fundraiser for the YMCA of Southern Maine.

"All proceeds go to funding children's swim programs at the Portland branch," said Terry Swain, the YMCA's event director, adding that the goal is to give children access to lessons, regardless of their ability to pay.

"Every child should know how to swim and feel safe in the water. Learning to swim builds confidence they can use going forward in life."

In 2012, Scott Yeomans of Bethlehem, Pa., was the overall winner for the second straight year, finishing in 45 minutes, 32.8 seconds. Pam Torrey of Portland was the first female, in 50.14.5.

As marathon swimmers, Fujita, Aoshima and Gallant-Charette don't expect to place highly in the relatively short swim. That's fine with them.

"I'm always promoting the Peaks to Portland at international events," said Gallant-Charette, who attempted to swim the English Channel three times, completing it in 2011. She also has swum five of the Oceans Seven, considered the most challenging swims in the world.

"We're hoping more international swimmers will swim Peaks, then build a summer vacation around it, exploring all Maine has to offer."

Talk about starting at the top. Fujita, 47, is a bit of a rock star in the sport. She is known in Japan and England as the "Japanese Queen of the English Channel," having completed the swim eight times. Her friendship with Gallant-Charette blossomed in September 2012, when Aoshima accompanied Gallant-Charette to the Tsugaru Strait swim in Japan, where Fujita also was competing.

Fujita came to Maine, she said with Aoshima interpreting, to visit her friends -- and to eat lobster. She and her husband, Yuki, will spend a week in Maine, return to Japan, then come back to Maine in advance of a trip to New York, where Aoshima and Fujita will form half of a four-person relay team that will swim a 28-mile course around Manhattan Island.

That's a point not lost on Gallant-Charette.

"Five years ago, Yoko couldn't even swim," she said. "She took a few lessons at the Y, and now she's kicking my butt."

"I saw Pat training, and she was an inspiration," said Aoshima, who on Saturday will compete in Peaks to Portland for a third time. "She was gliding through the water, lap after lap, for hours. I wanted to do that, too."

Organizers are hoping the children of Portland will someday have similar stories to tell.


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