South Portland swimmer fulfills dream with English Channel attempt

·3 min read

Jul. 5—When Ian McKay climbed onto the boat that had been guiding his swim across the English Channel, he was smiling.

"I'm so happy, everyone," he said to those awaiting him. "I did it."

McKay, 31, of South Portland, had flown to England to attempt a solo swim across the Channel, but he did not complete the full crossing.

He set out from the English shore at 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, but his team decided to pull his out of the water after five hours and nine miles because the current was too strong.

His coach said McKay still felt victorious.

"Ian's smile and laugh was contagious," Will York said in a text message. "Ian had a dream and made it a reality. As we headed back to port, Ian's smile and laughter never stopped."

McKay, 31, has autism, but his diagnosis was just one factor in the challenge he set for himself. Fewer than 2,000 swimmers have completed solo crossings of the English Channel since 1875. The Channel Swimming Association formed in 1927 to authenticate these swims and verify their times, and the process is highly regulated.

The shortest distance across the Channel is 21 miles, but tides often force swimmers to travel much farther. The water temperature Tuesday was 62 degrees Fahrenheit, and wetsuits aren't allowed on official swims because they give extra buoyancy. Large waves, seasickness, passing tankers and stinging jellyfish are all par for the course.

McKay trained for three years for his attempt, often swimming for hours at a time at Willard Beach in South Portland. York said he was well prepared for the conditions.

When McKay started his swim, the wind was at 12 to 15 miles per hour, creating choppy waves. The sunrise was still hours away, but he made steady progress alongside the pilot boat that accompanied him. His mom, his coach and a longtime family friend were on board to support him with encouragement and hourly feeds. He had traveled about five miles when he hit the current.

"The strong current pulls you one way as you must swim another," York texted. "Ian fought it for another 3.5 miles and another hour and a half, never cold, and always with a smile and a thumbs up. At 4.5 hours to 5.0 hours into the race with 9 miles swam in hard conditions we as a team decided to pull Ian for his safety."

Facebook posts from the Channel Swimming Association and pilot boat operators showed that at least six boats set out with swimmers on Tuesday. A relay team of four and two solo swimmers completed the crossing, but McKay and two other solo swimmers cut short their attempts before reaching France.

McKay decided he wanted to attempt the Channel after he met Pat Gallant-Charette, a seasoned marathon swimmer from Westbrook who at 66 became the oldest woman to swim the English Channel in June 2017. She gave him advice during his training process and was impressed by his dedication.

"Even before he starts the swim, he's a champion in so many ways," Gallant-Charette said before his swim. "Training is grueling. He has done it. He has done everything possible to be successful — and now, when he gets to England, Mother Nature will rule the day. If he has good conditions, he'll make it."

The team celebrated on the ride back to Dover, York said, and then got some well-earned rest.

"We are all proud of him and with better conditions we know he could have made it," he said.