WESTBROOK – After spending nearly 16 hours swimming through frigid ocean waters crossing the English Channel, a police escort made Westbrook’s Pat Gallant-Charette’s trip home much faster and easier.

That’s what she got when she arrived Tuesday afternoon at the bus terminal in Portland, after flying into Boston. Two Portland police cruisers met her there, and escorted her and her family to the Westbrook line on Stroudwater Street, where two city police cruisers escorted her, with full lights and siren, to her Methodist Road home.

“We’re thrilled for her,” Westbrook City Administrator Jerre Bryant said. “(We’re) certainly glad she has represented Westbrook on the world stage very, very favorably.”

Gallant-Charette, 60, completed the swim last Monday. It is the third attempt she has made to cross the channel. Her first was in 2008, when she came within two miles of the French coast, but was forced by strong currents to abandon the swim. A second attempt in 2009 was thwarted by bad weather.

This time, however, nothing stopped her. Not vomiting several times into the sea; not the heavy, choppy wave conditions; not the salt water causing her bathing suit – wet-suits are not allowed – to chafe to the point where it broke the skin.

“I was just overwhelmed that I finally reached the goal,” she said.

Gallant-Charette exchanged hugs with family members in her driveway after returning home.

“It’s an awesome day. She’s earned every bit of the credit,” said her husband, Jim Charette.

He said he remained in the U.S. due to commitments at his business, Lake Region Imports in Westbrook, but a sign in front of the business announced his support for his wife. During her swim, well-wishers stopped into the business to offer encouragement.

Gallant-Charette’s brother, David Gallant, was with the boat crew that accompanied her in the channel. Swimmers are not allowed to simply dive in. They must register with the Channel Swimming Association, a group that organizes channel crossing events. Swimmers must also rent a spotter crew in a fishing trawler-sized boat to help keep them safe.

“She was all-out for 15 hours,” he said. “We really don’t know what her limit is.”

The channel is regarded by marathon swimmers – known as “open water” swimmers – as the ultimate test of endurance. The typical route starts in Dover, England, and ends at Cap Gris-Nez, France.

“We were with the elite of the elite of the elite of international swimmers,” David Gallant said.

On a map, the distance is roughly 21 miles, but veteran swimmers know the strong currents can force crossers to take a longer route. A 34-mile swim between both points is not uncommon.

Gallant-Charette said Tuesday that she estimated she swam 28-29 miles, arriving at the French coast in just under 16 hours. Exposure to salt water, diesel exhaust from the boat, and just the overall exertion made her nauseous enough to vomit several times on the trip, she said.

When that happened, she said, boat crew members extended a 10-foot pole to her, with a cup of flat cola, or sometimes crystallized ginger, which settled her stomach enough for her to continue.

Also among the crew was Gallant-Charette’s nephew, Christopher Gallant, 16. His father, Robbie, himself an accomplished long-distance swimmer, died more than 10 years ago. While other boat crew members took breaks, Gallant-Charette said, her nephew never did, standing guard over her for nearly 16 hours.

“I just wanted her to be successful,” he said Tuesday.

Gallant-Charette said he stood on the trawler, holding up signs saying, “Kick, kick, kick” and, when the current abated, another sign that read “No current” to encourage her.

“Every time I looked up, there he was, looking down at me,” she said.

Gallant-Charette said she dedicated each mile of the swim to someone she knows who has inspired her. She has also started up an informal annual event on Feb. 14, “Swim for your Heart,” to promote awareness for efforts to fight heart disease. To date, hundreds of swimmers around the world have participated in the event, Gallant-Charette said.

Gallant-Charette said the ideal situation would have been to walk up onto the beach in France at the end of the trip, but the current had other ideas. She reached the coast at a spot where there was no easily accessible shoreline. There weren’t even rocks – just a sheer black cliff wall, which she could only reach out and touch with her hands.

But once she did, Gallant-Charette said, the channel association declared the cross official. After her near-miss in 2008, Gallant-Charette said, she insisted on getting an official declaration before climbing out of the ocean.

“I would not get out of the water until they said, ‘Yes, it was a certified swim,’” she said.

But she did it, and set a record at the same time of being the oldest American woman to accomplish the goal.

Christopher Gallant said he was moved beyond words by the accomplishment.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “I don’t even know how to describe it.”

Back home, family, friends and Jim Charette kept tabs on the swim via his wife’s blog, www.patgalant.blogspot.com, where her daughter, Sarah, posted updates based on text messages she was receiving from the boat crew.

“OMG, she did it! she did it she did it she did it,” read a post from Sarah to the site at 3:14 p.m. Eastern time last Monday.

When asked about his first reaction upon hearing the news that his wife had made it, Jim Charette said, “It was relief. This was something I know she really, really wanted. I support her 100 percent.”

Pat Gallant-Charette, left, chats with her family after coming
home Tuesday from her trip to swim across the English Channel. With
her are, from left, her nephew Kyle Gallant, her brother, David
Gallant, and her nephew, Christopher Gallant. Christopher Gallant’s
father, Robbie, died over 10 years ago, and was part of the
inspiration for Gallant-Charette’s swim. Christopher Gallant stood
on a fishing trawler, watching and encouraging his aunt as she swam
for nearly 16 hours straight. (Staff photo by Sean Murphy)

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