Mylène Paquette and her one-woman rowboat were still in Canadian waters when the worst moment came on her solo voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Assailed by storms, she was 60 days into the trip, but had spent only 15 days rowing from her Halifax departure point. She was ready to surrender and asked her team to plot a course to nearby St. John's.
Word came back from her onshore weather expert and navigator: Ocean currents made it impossible to quickly divert to Newfoundland. She would have to carry on with her 5,000-kilometre journey.
"All I could think about was, Oh my God. What a mistake it was to believe in this project. I was going to wave down the next cargo ship to pick me up and bring me home," Ms. Paquette said. "I even had a thought of calling my mom and asking her to pick me up … I wasn't rowing and I felt like a fraud."
There was no ride on the immediate horizon, so she kept rowing. The weather improved, the 35-year-old Montrealer found the Gulf Stream ocean current, which would push her toward Europe, and on Tuesday, 130 days after she departed, and 30 days behind schedule, Ms. Paquette pulled into port in France.
As she prepared to pop champagne corks to mark her status as the first North American woman to row across the North Atlantic, Ms. Paquette was exhausted but elated. Her leg muscles have atrophied from disuse and she needed help from two friends to climb a flight of stairs to the telephone where she answered questions about her trip. "I'm trembling like crazy," she said. "I feel like I'm getting over a terrible flu."
Many people have rowed from the Americas to the Old World over the past century. Dozens have made the southern crossing between South America and Africa, with its shorter route and more favourable current and climate. But fewer than a dozen have crossed the North Atlantic, and only two were solo women, both French nationals, according to the Ocean Rowing Society. "It's like climbing Everest," Ms. Paquette said. "I am very proud I endured, that I didn't give up."
Attempts before the 1980s get special recognition because they were completed without modern navigational and communications, and no equipment for producing potable water.
Besides oars, Ms. Paqutte's boat has little in common with the rowboat familiar to cottagers. Seven metres long and made from fibreglass, her vessel has a watertight cabin, automatic pilot, solar panels and a small wind turbine to charge GPS navigation aids and a water purification system.
Her boat was christened "Hermel" for Hermel Lavoie, the self-described "old seadog" and technical wizard from Rimouski, Que., who helped build the systems and keep them running.
While Ms. Paquette had her share of rough days – she rolled 10 times in heavy seas, including four times in a single day just a week ago and burned her hands while celebrating with emergency flares as she was towed to port Tuesday – she also marvelled at some magical moments.
She went two weeks under escort from a pod of pilot whales. After she capsized in September and lost food, an anchor and other equipment, the Queen Mary 2 cruise ship, a frequent visitor to the Port of Quebec City, diverted course to deliver replacement supplies and treats. A morale boost from passengers may have been more important than the bread, fruit, chocolate and wine the ship delivered.
"It was so cool to see so many people on the ship, cheering me on, yelling my name, saying, 'Don't give up, don't give up,' " she said.
A hospital orderly in her normal life, Ms. Paquette, who has a fear of being submerged in water, said seeing young patients inspired her to confront fears.
"I'm scared to be in a pool or a big bath. Maybe I watched too much Jaws when I was younger," she said. But getting dunked in the ocean was actually the least of her worries. A much bigger fear was having her boat smash into 12-metre waves during the roughest storms.
Ms. Paquette's immediate plan Tuesday was to eat salmon and a fruit salad topped with whipped cream before drinking champagne with friends. "I think I broke a record for spending the most time in the water. I probably also broke a record for having the deepest desire to have a shower."