Frigid waters, jellyfish hordes, riptides, and things that go bump in the night — nothing has stopped sexagenarian aqua-woman Pat Gallant-Charette on her quest to beat marathon swimming’s globe-spanning challenge.
by WILL GRUNEWALD
portrait by GABE SOUZA
One day when Pat Gallant-Charette was 13 or 14 years old, she went down to Pine Point, a peninsular beach not far from her home outside of Portland, Maine, to go clamming. At low tide, she and her two older brothers and a couple of their friends toted their rakes and baskets out past the jetty to a sandbar. “My mother warned us to be careful of the tide,” Gallant-Charette says, “but we weren’t listening.” As they filled their baskets to the brim, nobody noticed the water rising — not until it was too late. Cut off from the beach, they abandoned their gear and catch and started to swim. “It wasn’t that far out,” she recalls. “But all of a sudden, one of my brothers screamed, ‘Shark!’ And I could tell by the tone of his voice that he wasn’t kidding.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a dark shape skim the surface. “I panicked,” she says. Her arms and legs wouldn’t go. She was barely treading water. Something brushed her leg. “I thought I was going to die right there,” she says. But then a seal, not a shark, poked its head up. Gallant-Charette managed to gather herself and get to shore.
“I remember lying there on my back, in the sand, cussing up a storm,” she says. “We’ve had plenty of laughs about it since, but that put a real fear in me, and it stayed with me.”
One night in 2017, more than 50 years later, Gallant-Charette found herself in the middle of a 26-mile expanse of deep water between Hawaii’s Oahu and Molokai islands. The sky was black, the water was black, and she’d been swimming for about eight hours. From a boat, her brother David watched the green beacon on her back blinking off and on, tracing her progress through the dark.
Suddenly, around 2 a.m., she started yelling. Something had knocked into her legs. The boat crew snapped on a spotlight and scanned the surface. Gallant-Charette treaded water. If she so much as touched the boat, her swim, the sixth leg of a challenge called the Oceans Seven, would be disqualified. She thought about a friend, stalked by a tiger shark in these same waters, who’d recently had to quit a swim several hours in.
But David and the rest of the crew didn’t spot anything. It must have been a dolphin, Gallant-Charette reasoned, on account of her leg being intact. The crew clicked off the light, sky and water went black again, and Gallant-Charette swam on. Some 15 hours later, she crawled hand and knee onto the beach in Oahu. She had sea legs and couldn’t stand. The sun had singed her skin, and a jellyfish sting on her lip felt like a fresh burn. Her tongue was white, coated in salt. But, at 66, she had become the oldest woman ever to swim the Molokai Channel.
LOOKING TO TEST HERSELF, SHE SWAM 6 MILES IN SEBAGO LAKE. THEN, SHE DOUBLED IT. "JEEZ," SHE SAID TO HER HUSBAND. "I MIGHT BE ONE OF THOSE ENDURANCE ATHLETES."
The Oceans Seven is the brainchild of Steven Munatones, a former swimmer and water-polo player who founded the World Open Water Swimming Association. In 2008, inspired by mountaineering’s Seven Summits, a challenge to climb the highest peak on each continent, he came up with an equivalent for swimming. In addition to Molokai, he picked California’s Catalina Channel, the U.K.’s North Channel and English Channel, Japan’s Tsugaru Strait, the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain to Morocco, and New Zealand’s Cook Strait.
Ten kilometers (about 6.2 miles) is the minimum distance for any marathon swim. Most of the Oceans Seven crossings are at least three times that, and with currents pushing and pulling swimmers off course, a 20-miler easily turns into a 30-miler. There are two main rules: standard swimwear only (i.e., no wetsuits or full-body racing suits) and no physical contact with a boat or another human (although crew can toss food and drink to a swimmer). Marathon swimming has been around a long time — the first English Channel crossing was in 1875 — but the mind-numbing distances and spartan bylaws always sufficed to limit participation, until recently.
“Since 2010, the sport has just exploded,” says Darren Miller, a swimmer from Pittsburgh and the fourth person ever to complete the Oceans Seven. In 2012, he became just the sixth swimmer to cross the Tsugaru Strait. In the seven years since, 32 people have done it — and it still qualifies as a relatively unpopular swim (perhaps because of the poisonous sea snakes). Last year alone, the English Channel saw more than 140 successful solo crossings and 120 relay crossings. And as Oceans Seven–type solo swims have grown more popular, so too have races. All in all, Munatones estimates that participation in marathon swimming is up tenfold in the last 20 years and that the number of organized swims around the world has gone from a handful to more than 600.
Today, scores of swimmers are actively chasing the Oceans Seven — but, as of the end of last year, just 13 had completed it. Gallant-Charette has only the Cook Strait left to go, and she’s attempting it this winter. To date, the oldest swimmer to complete the Oceans Seven was 58. Another was 54. The rest have been in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. By the time she hops on a plane in Portland in late February, with three connections between her and Wellington, New Zealand, Gallant-Charette will be 68.
Pat Gallant was born the third of eight kids, six boys and two girls. Her family, from the Portland suburb of Westbrook, spent countless summer days at Pine Point Beach and nearby Sebago Lake State Park, and even though she wouldn’t do more than wade in the ocean following her shark scare, she remained a swimmer. At Westbrook High, she joined the swim team, which she remembers as a casual affair: a couple of short practices a week, plus meets. “One time, they put me down for the 500 yards,” she says, “and I remember thinking, my God, this is terrible! I stopped partway through and asked how many more laps I had to go.”
At 21, she married her high-school sweetheart, Jim Charette. They had a daughter, Sarah, and then a son, Tom. Jim started his own business, a used-Subaru dealership. Gallant-Charette worked night shifts as a nurse.
“There was never enough time in the day when you’re working and you have two kids, grocery shopping, laundry, picking up the house,” she says. “Go for a swim? I don’t think so.” Exercise meant a stroll around the block, if she wasn’t busy shuttling the kids to their activities. “I considered myself a spectator mom,” she says. “All of a sudden, almost 30 years go by.”
Toward the end of those years, when Gallant-Charette was 46, a tragedy hit her family that changed the trajectory of her life. One day in 1997, she got a call that her youngest sibling, Robbie, had suffered a heart attack. At just 34, he was an avid open-water swimmer who had twice won the Peaks to Portland, a 2.4-mile race from Peaks Island to Portland’s East End Beach. As Gallant-Charette drove to Maine Medical Center with her son, Tom, she coached him that they’d have to stay positive with Robbie — rehab would have him active again in no time. But by the time they arrived, Robbie, who had a 3-year-old son, had died.
It was the second time that Gallant-Charette had lost a sibling unexpectedly. Her younger brother Johnny had been captain of the Westbrook track team, a state champ in the 1,000-yards, and a local paperboy — “an all-American type of kid,” Gallant-Charette says. In 1972, at age 17, he was conducting a physics demonstration in school, measuring electrical signals with an oscilloscope. It wasn’t clear what went wrong — a freak accident — but he was electrocuted in front of his classmates, and he died soon after.
Tom was 16 when his uncle Robbie had a heart attack. A member of the high-school swim team, he decided to compete in the next Peaks to Portland in Robbie’s honor. He remembers his mom telling him, “I think it’s great what you’re doing. I wish I could too.” Standing in the kitchen at home, he looked at her and said, “You know, Mom, you could if you tried.”
When Tom recounts that exchange now, he pauses before adding, “I never imagined it would have gone this far.”
The first time Gallant-Charette went to a pool to train for the Peaks to Portland, she told the lifeguard, “Keep an eye on me, because I don’t know if I can swim two lengths.” It took her a couple of months to find a rhythm. One of Tom’s friends, another high-school swimmer, said to her, “You know, Mrs. Charette, you swim like you’re doing a dog paddle.”
Soon enough, though, she could go nonstop for 30 minutes, then 40, then 50. She knew she’d eventually have to try the ocean. So, some 35 years after her shark scare, she got up her moxie and slipped back into the water at Pine Point. “Every swim, I still wonder what’s underneath me,” she says. “But I don’t let it hold me back. To lose two brothers at such young ages, it puts a perspective on life. It taught me to make a bucket list of things I didn’t think I could possibly do.”
After a year of training, at age 48, she stepped onto a beach on Peaks Island, feeling overwhelmed. “I was looking at all these young, slender athletes and looking across the bay, thinking, ‘Well, Pat, this’ll be the last time you ever do this.’” An hour later, in the water, with the granite walls of Fort Gorges on her right, seagulls overhead, and a lobsterboat skipping past her out to sea, she realized she’d fallen in love with the sport.
She kept doing the Peaks swim in the ensuing years and, to her surprise, felt her endurance improving each time. “I didn’t think that was possible,” she recalls. “I mean, I was in my 50s.” Looking to test herself, she swam 6 miles in Sebago Lake. Then, she doubled it. “Jeez,” she said to Jim. “I think I might be one of those endurance athletes.”
“Why don’t you try the English Channel?” he asked.
Dolphin encounter off California; Catalina in the dark; pre-swim with older brother David; posing after the North Channel; first time in the Cook Strait; tanker traffic in Gibraltar.
Gallant-Charette swam in the 21-mile English Channel for the first time in 2008. She vomited often, from the roll of the waves (“I get dizzy on merry-go-rounds,” she says). After 12 hours, she’d come within 2 miles of France, but the current started pulling in the opposite direction. It was like running on a treadmill. Four hours later, no closer to shore, she and her crew called the swim.
That setback was frustrating, but setbacks are inherent to marathon swimming. “You can have the swim of your life out there,” Oceans Seven swimmer Darren Miller says, “but if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, you won’t make it.” Wind, waves, and currents constantly threaten to undermine a swimmer’s best efforts.
In 2009, Gallant-Charette went back to the Channel, but conditions precluded even getting in the water. The next year, she went to Spain to swim Gibraltar instead, and her luck turned. She caught a favorable current, and despite having to tread water while oil tankers passed by — they have the right of way — she swam the 8-mile stretch in 3 hours and 28 minutes. It was around then that she learned of the Oceans Seven. With one leg accomplished, she put the other six on her bucket list.
In 2011, she returned again to the English Channel and reached the French shore after 16 hours. Robbie’s son, by then a teenager, was on the boat to see her do it. Later that year, she knocked out the 21-mile Catalina Channel, accompanied by sea lions, dolphins, and flying fish along the way.
In 2012, after seven hours in the 12-mile Tsugaru Strait, she spotted land and knew she was almost done. The next time she looked up, the coast was nowhere in sight; a current had dragged her in reverse. She finished 12 hours and some 100 jellyfish stings later. In four years, she had checked off four of the Oceans Seven swims.
SHE FINISHED THE TSUGARU SWIM 12 HOURS AND SOME 100 JELLYFISH STINGS LATER.
When I was a kid, you never heard of grandparents doing any sports,” Gallant-Charette recalls. “In the 1950s, my grandmother was crocheting mittens.”
Gallant-Charette is a grandmother who went back to the English Channel two years ago and set the record for oldest woman to swim it. Whose likeness now shares an ‘O’ with famed bandleader Rudy Vallée on her hometown’s GREETINGS FROM WESTBROOK mural. Who recently starred in a swimsuit ad campaign with supermodels Brooke Shields and Ashley Graham. Who last year became the oldest person to complete the Triple Crown challenge — the English and Catalina channels, plus a circumnavigation of Manhattan (requiring preemptive antibiotics due to unsanitary river water). Who, in March, will become the first Mainer inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. Who has a shot at becoming the first person to complete a lake-swimming challenge called the Still Water Eight, with four legs down, including a 31-mile, 24-hour trek in Lake Ontario. Gallant-Charette has managed all that while spending 40-plus hours a week with her three grandkids, while her daughter, Sarah, a single mom, works nights as a nurse.
Whether she’s being interviewed on NBC’s Today show or speaking at swim conventions, her favorite topic is her belief that being AARP-eligible doesn’t mean a person can’t choose a more active lifestyle. Among endurance sports, swimming makes a good fit for older athletes. It doesn’t subject the joints to the same pounding as, say, marathon running. Last year, a 71-year-old woman bested Gallant-Charette’s age record in the English Channel. Gallant-Charette wouldn’t mind reclaiming it. “I want to see what it’s like to swim the Channel in my 70s,” she says. “Then, maybe I’ll go back and try it in my 80s.”
Darren Miller first got to know Gallant-Charette in 2013 when they booked the same day to swim the U.K.’s North Channel. He was 30 then, and it was his last leg of the Oceans Seven. “When people consider what I did, they’ll say, wow, that’s amazing. But they also look at me and think, yeah, you’re a young guy — you can handle it,” he says. “Pat, though, she just crushes it with her mental tenacity. It’s sheer grit.”
Gallant-Charette wasn’t looking forward to that swim, the 21-mile channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland, where water temperatures hover around 50 degrees. At the time, only six women and 12 men had ever crossed successfully. She quickly encountered one of the route’s other major hurdles: lion’s mane jellyfish, in flotillas so vast that the only option is to plow straight through. After 16 hours, covered head to toe in stings and showing early signs of hypothermia, she was less than a mile from the finish when a riptide kicked up. Her crew tried to convince her to stop, and she argued at first, but soon realized she needed to get out of the water.
Down in the bottom of the boat, out of the wind, her brother David and sister-in-law Jeannie helped her into layers of clothes and put heat pads and blankets on her. She was still shaking so hard that Jeannie draped herself over her. Successful or not, David says, his sister always pays a physical toll: “It’s never one of those champagne-popping moments.”
In 2016, back in the North Channel, Gallant-Charette swam headfirst into a jellyfish. Tom watched from the boat as his mom picked her head up out of the water wearing the jellyfish like a hat, its tentacles dangling around her. She plucked it off, tossed it aside, and kept swimming until she made the far shore. “What sane person wants to be doing this?” he remembers thinking. “My ass would have been out of the water at that point, but she’s a tough woman.”
"PAT JUST CRUSHES IT WITH HER MENTAL TENACITY." — ENDURANCE SWIMMER DARREN MILLER
The Cook Strait has a reputation for extreme currents, choppy surf, and sharks. The first time Gallant-Charette traveled to New Zealand, in 2013, she had a one-week window to swim it, but storms kept her grounded. She went again in 2014. Early in her swim, she noticed a rock outcrop. Two hours later, those rocks were still there; she was stuck in an eddy, and she lost too much time to finish.
After that, she realized her usual approach might not work on this swim. “Normally, if you have the determination to do a long swim, you can just keep going,” she says. “But there, because the current is so strong, you have to be fast.” And she isn’t usually fast — last year, she clocked what was then the slowest-ever crossing of Lake Tahoe.
So, for the first time in her life, she’s getting some one-on-one instruction. In September, she started working with Suzi Boccanfuso, a former UMaine swimmer and the head swim coach at the Casco Bay Branch of the YMCA of Southern Maine. Boccanfuso has helped her to use her legs to better effect and to develop what they’re calling an eddy-buster stroke — faster arm cycles and kicks, a second gear to go to when stuck in a current. In the pool, that stroke has shaved 15 seconds off her 100-yard pace. “Granted, some 10- and 12-year-olds could probably blow right by me,” Gallant-Charette says. “But that’s big for me.”
She also started lifting weights, and to prepare for the cold water, she’s taking icy showers all winter and regularly cruising I-295 with her windows down. “There’s a lot riding on this one,” she says. The waitlist for another attempt is three years — a symptom of the sport’s surging popularity. She’d be 71 by then. And flights, lodging, supplies, and boat-hire cost close to $15,000 for each attempt. Successful or not, she says, this might be her last shot at the Cook Strait.
Once Gallant-Charette gets to New Zealand, she’ll have a couple of days to settle in. After that, she has a five-day window reserved for a swim. On the morning she gets the go-ahead, she’ll wake up around 4 a.m., have a light breakfast, and taxi to the marina. She’ll be thinking about arm cycles and kick rates. But she’ll also be thinking about her whole reason for doing this, especially as Tom writes two names on her arms in indelible marker: Robbie and Johnny. Then, she’ll jump in.
To get an underwater portrait of ocean swimmer Pat Gallant-Charette, we sent a five-person team to the Casco Bay Branch of the YMCA of Southern Maine, where Gallant-Charette trains, in Freeport. Photographer Gabe Souza used an underwater camera housing with a strobe. To keep him submerged, director of photography Mark Fleming filled a backpack with 45 pounds of dumbbells. Then, with two safety divers in place, Fleming says, “we strapped the backpack on Gabe and hoped for the best — he was able to hold his breath for a good 40 seconds to nail the shot.”