By early evening on 24 August 2016 Pat Gallant-Charette had taken 65 years, 204 days, 14 hours and 22 minutes to become the oldest ever to swim the North Channel (Ireland to Scotland). The North Channel is the most difficult of all Channel Swims; notorious for strong tides, blooms of jellyfish and unpredictable weather. Undeterred by a 2013 attempt halted within 600 metres of the Scottish Coast in deference to a sprained wrist, rough seas and an outgoing tide Pat vowed to return. In 2015 she sat in windblown and rain soaked Donaghadee on the North Down coast earnestly waiting for a safe weather window to make her second attempt. The weather didn’t turn and Pat returned to Maine to continue her training regime, again vowing to return.
Mother nature relented and welcomed Pat (and son Tom) to Donaghadee on 23 August. Expert pilot, Quinton Nelson, broke the news that the 3rd attempt would commence at 5:00am on 24 August. Pat was ready and after a quick dip in the harbour took to the nest in advance of a 3:00am call.
By 5:16 Pat leapt from the pilot boat south of Donaghadee Harbour. Thereon a gruelling physical challenge that has vanquished many swimmers started for the oldest individual ever to take on the challenge. Over 1,200 have swum the English Channel. By August 2016 only 40 individuals had swum the North Channel.
The North Channel pinches the Irish Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Tides are funnelled through the channel at speed that moves swimmers and vessels in directly North – South directions and swimmers need to travel East – West.
Taking advantage of the tide Pat swam diligently hour after hour after hour; pausing (every 60 minutes for a 30 second feed of Gatorade or carbohydrate embellished porridge. She swam alongside the beautifully restored 1950s lifeboat, watched diligently by Tom, Quinton, Molly, Jordan and myself.
Messages of support from family, friends and fellow distance swimmers were relayed and boosted the spirits. The sun rose and the wind blew gently across the Channel after the disappointment of 2015 this day was proving to be highly satisfactory. Pat swam on hour after hour after hour. Watching a marathon swim informs the soul of what a human body can endure. It nonetheless is very difficult to take in. Time on the boat flies and it feels as if hourly feeds are overlapping. And yet the swimmer moves serenely throughout the day.
Pat was joined by a family of seagulls and one in particular who shadowed her throughout the day and paddled along behind her. The side of the boat was bedecked in plastic coated photos of her beloved daughter (Sarah), husband Jim and Sarah's three children and at each feed she could see each of them cheering her on from far away Maine. Also supporting her were Robbie and Johnny.
Within five hours the half-distance mark was reached. Pat was not told. To tell a swimmer that they are halfway leads them to realise how tired they already are and how they have to replicate the same effort over the same distance only the second half only starts when they are exhausted from the effort of the first half distance. If that wasn’t cruel enough the North Channel offers a particularly difficult segment. The average swim time is 14+ hours, but every successful swimmer will tell you that it is only at 10 hours that the true physical challenge is unveiled. Having taken advantage of the flowing tide on the Donaghadee side the ebbing tide on the Scottish side pulls the swimmer away from the target of Portpatrick and while the tide pushes the swim northwards along the coast the protruding coast pushes the water back into the channel; the channel swim’s final hours are against a tide that relentlessly pushes the exhausted combatant away.
At 8 hours it looked like Pat would complete the swim in 12+ hours. At 9 hours it looked as if the swim would take longer than 14 hours. Pat had previously swam for over 16¾ hours, but by such time on 24 August she would have been back in the middle of the Channel. Pilot Quinton Nelson and supporters were determined not to let that happen. Pat swam, and swam and swam. At the 10th hour she was joined in the water for 50 minutes for company and encouragement. The swim was within 3 miles of the Scottish coast for almost one quarter of the total time of the swim. The last mile of the swim took almost three hours. Pat was encouraged and even though some of the swim went in reverse when the call came to make the final push at 7:15pm she put the head down and pulled one arm after the other to bring her to the rocks at the base of Killintringan Lighthouse, almost 3 miles north of Portpatrick; the idyllic capital on the Galloway peninsula that was passed going sideways in the preceding hours.
Pat’s success was exactly as she had planned. By 8:00pm on 24 August 2016 the social network world was buzzing with the news. A 65 year old had just completed the most difficult channel in the world. On the boat, Pilot Quinton Nelson welcomed Pat back. She had swam for 14 hours and 22 minutes and as she stood on the deck she appeared to have returned from a dip. She was tired but not exhausted, elated but not emotional. She realised her achievement and the rest of us could only stand in awe and applaud.
But I think over the next few days and weeks the world will wake up to Pat Gallant-Charette’s achievement. As a culture we have been raised to respect the elderly. We were reared with the target retirement of 65 which conveyed the expectation to be revered as grandparents and the right to be respected as experienced citizens. These stereotypes have been challenged over recent years. On 24 August, 2016 Pat Gallant-Charette has shown that ‘65’ is a number and physical activity is not monopolised by the young.