A University of Southern Maine researcher is preparing to witness the sunrise from the cold surface of the English Channel.
Sometime before daylight on a September morning, John Gale, 63, will set off from Dover, England for open water swimming’s signature feat.
If the conditions cooperate, he’ll arrive on France’s Calais beach 13 hours after his departure, becoming one of fewer than 1,900 people to ever cross the 21-mile-wide channel with the strength of their own arms, legs and inner resolve.
“As I pass 60, I like to do things that scare me,” said Gale, a research associate in the Cutler Institute of Health and Social Policy in USM’s Muskie School of Public Service.
He wonders about the weather and the churning of the ocean. Fog, high seas or an angry jellyfish can scuttle his plans. Yet, he doesn’t worry about the cold, cold water or his skill at advancing toward the French beach.
Still tall and athletic, Gale has always exercised hard. As a young man, he ran long distances. He completed marathons, and he developed a group of friends around his running. Then, in the early 1990s, he fell. While hiking, he slipped and banged his knee. Eventually, surgery repaired a tear, but his knee was never the same.
“I couldn’t run as hard as I wanted, so I started looking for something else,” he said. He dismissed cycling, figuring that it was too reliant on equipment and careful drivers. He finally settled on swimming, even though he wasn’t very good.
“I could swim to avoid drowning,” he said. He took lessons, practiced with a coach and made himself good.
“A lot of it is balance and time in the water,” he said. “I suddenly found myself able to swim pretty hard against people who were younger than me or my age. And I was getting faster, which made it fun.”
A turning point was the YMCA of Southern Maine’s Peaks to Portland Swim to Benefit Kids. He entered the 2.4-mile Portland Harbor swim — from Peaks Island to Portland’s East End Beach — and he liked it.
“Being outside and swimming is closer to running,” he said. “It gets us closer to nature. You get fresh air, and you don’t have the chlorine from the pool.”
He also discovered a puzzling resistance to the teeth-chattering, knee-numbing cold of Casco Bay.
“This is where it gets a little crazy, he said. “Because I like cold water, I swim pretty consistently outdoors for training through November without a wetsuit.”
With a wet suit, he’ll go year-round.
And he’s not alone. He’s become part of the open water swim community in Maine and nationwide.
“It’s a small-but-twisted group,” he said.
Among his swimming friends is Pat Gallant-Charette, a USM alumna who has set nine world records in marathon swims. Among them was her accomplishment in 2017, when at 66 years of age, she became the oldest woman to complete the Channel swim. (She was recently featured by the Portland Press Herald's "Maine Voices Live" series.)
Gale, too, is an alumnus. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1979 and a master’s degree in health policy in 2003. His work as a health researcher in the Muskie School has taken him to as far away as Vienna and the south Asian country of the Maldives.
He still makes time to travel for his swimming.
“It’s a big time and economic commitment,” he said. “But I don’t play golf. I don’t spend a lot on cars.”
Gale flies annually to San Francisco to join an event he describes as “summer camp for open water swimmers with silly behavior.” He’s done the 4.4-mile Great Chesapeake Bay Swim and the 8-mile Boston Light Swim, that winds its way through the islands in Boston Harbor. And he swam with a group in Ireland. With them, he qualified for the Channel by treading water for six hours in 54-degree water.
His next stop will be Dover, sometime this September.
Sticking to the rules set by the Channel Swimming Association, Gale will be able to wear nothing more than a textile swimsuit, a silicone cap and a pair of goggles.
When he begins, he’ll start from a dry patch of beach beneath Dover’s iconic cliffs and wade into the ocean.
For the duration of the swim he’ll follow a boat, which will lead him to the French coast and occasionally drop floats into the water with food and drink attached.
“I can’t touch the boat,” he said. “I can’t get out of the water during this time.”
If there is any trouble during the swim, the captain of the boat will have the authority to end Gale’s pursuit.
“If he decides I am not making enough progress or the conditions are getting dangerous or the fog comes in, I can get pulled,” Gale said. “And I have to be ok with that. You’ve got to be OK with failure. Nature might not cooperate.”
During the hours in the water, the biggest obstacle is always in keeping his concentration and overcoming the next wave.
“The mental side of it is the hard part,” he said. “A lot of it is really focused on technique and trying to find the right balance.”
If all goes well after reaching Calais, he plans to hop on the boat, ride back to Dover and head for the local pub: the White Horse.
“If you’ve met all the rules and they certify you, you get to sign the wall,” Gale said.
It’s all part of the mystique of the Channel swim.
“People who are older, younger, faster, thinner, heavier and slower have done this,” he said. “I think I can do this.”
Photos courtesy of John Gale, Cutler Institute of Health and Social Policy