The im­pos­si­ble jour­ney: Man read­ies to swim the At­lantic

The Myanmar Times - - Sport -

AS a boy, Ben Hooper wanted to join the Bri­tish ex­plor­ers he idolised for sur­mount­ing the im­pos­si­ble, and now as he pre­pares to swim across the At­lantic, he hopes to equal their dar­ing feats – and sur­vive.

Hooper is wrap­ping up no less than three years of prepa­ra­tion for an im­mense jour­ney that will see him swim up to 10 hours a day in two ses­sions for nearly five months, start­ing on Africa’s western ex­trem­ity and fin­ish­ing on Brazil’s east coast.

Hooper will leave from Sene­gal to­mor­row with 11 crew mem­bers in­clud­ing a medic on his sup­port boat, and will spend around 140 days strug­gling against what he calls “the blue wall” – miles and miles of ocean with no land stops.

“Shark-wise, we have two lines of de­fence,” says Hooper, squint­ing at the waves of the At­lantic lap­ping at the Voile d’Or beach in Dakar, where he will be­gin his cross­ing.

The 38-year-old an­i­mat­edly ex­plains how he will carry syn­the­sised rot­ting shark meat to ward off the preda­tors, sup­ple­mented by ca­bles send­ing out an elec­tri­cal sig­nal to put off any snub-nosed killers.

Sharks and jel­ly­fish are not the only ad­ver­sity: His mus­cles will be in agony after swim­ming 20 kilo­me­tres (12.4 miles) ev­ery day, his throat parched by salt­wa­ter, and there is lit­tle he can do to avoid sun­burn in wa­ters that may be too warm to wear a wet­suit.

His goal is to rack up 1635 nau­ti­cal miles, equal to about 1881 land miles (3027 kilo­me­tres), over the course of the jour­ney. He will take in up to 12,000 calo­ries a day of mil­i­tary food packs and en­ergy drinks.

Fi­ennes an ‘in­spi­ra­tion’ So why would any ra­tio­nal human do this? A com­bi­na­tion of neardeath ex­pe­ri­ences and a love of old-fash­ioned Bri­tish der­ring-do, Hooper says.

A pre­ma­ture baby, he was born with col­lapsed lungs and barely sur­vived. After five years of bet­ter luck, he al­most drowned in a Belgian swim­ming pool.

“That was where my affin­ity with wa­ter started. Rather than scare me, that’s where it be­gan,” he says.

Years of char­ity swims, swimath­ons, scuba and free dives fol­lowed, through un­cer­tainty pro­fes­sion­ally.

A bout of de­pres­sion led Hooper to leave a po­lice ca­reer in his late 20s and be­gin study­ing psy­chol­ogy, but the de­pres­sion re­turned three years ago and he re­alised some­thing had to change.

“I thought, ‘You know what? I don’t know what’s go­ing to hap­pen,’” he said. “I had to think about my daugh­ter and I had to think of my own life.”

He be­gan look­ing back to the fear­less English ex­plor­ers who had long fas­ci­nated him: Ran­ulph Fi­ennes, who reached both the North and South poles over­land, and Vi­vian Fuchs, the first man to cross the Antarc­tic on foot.

“Ran Fi­ennes has been an in­spi­ra­tion of mine since I was a teenager,” he said, de­scrib­ing his de­light at re­ceiv­ing a let­ter from the legendary ad­ven­turer in his mid-teens.

“He sent me loads of in­for­ma­tion and put me in touch with the late Sir Vi­vian Fuchs, who sent me a stack of stuff from New Zealand.”

After some thought, his con­clu­sion was un­equiv­o­cal: Hooper would at­tempt to be­come the first man to swim the en­tire dis­tance across the At­lantic, a chal­lenge he says no one else has ever com­pleted be­fore.

There is a counter-claim: In 1998 French­man Benoit Le­comte claimed to have swum from Mas­sachusetts to Brit­tany, but Guinness World Records re­fused to val­i­date his feat.

Le­comte was forced to spend a week on the Azores is­lands in the mid­dle of the At­lantic re­cov­er­ing from ex­haus­tion be­fore com­plet­ing his swim.

“Benoit Le­comte tried to claim it in 71 days, 3700 miles. With all due re­spect to Benoit’s feat, Guinness [World Records] never ver­i­fied it, be­cause you can’t swim that amount per day. It’s lu­di­crous,” Hooper says. No Michael Phelps Hooper says re­ac­tion to his plan has been var­ied, not least be­cause he is far from a pro­fes­sional ath­lete.

“I’m not ripped like Michael Phelps,” the stocky English­man says, pat­ting his slightly rounded stom­ach while re­fer­ring to the US Olympic cham­pion.

Then there have been crit­ics who have at­tempted to sour en­coun­ters with what he de­scribes as “pro­fes­sion­als not in it for the right rea­sons”.

“I am on a very, very limited bud­get. I have given up work to do this and we are de­pen­dent on do­na­tions, spon­sor­ship. We got let down by two spon­sors in the last month,” he says.

Pushing him back to the pool and the gym ev­ery day is his daugh­ter, Georgie, who wants to be­come a ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist and is the “key per­son I wanted to in­spire”, Hooper says.

The eight-year-old has given him the strength to push through crit­i­cism that he is mad, or at least dan­ger­ously un­pre­pared. “Ev­ery time I talk to her she makes me laugh and makes me re­alise I am a worth­while per­son,” he says.

How does he rec­on­cile putting him­self at such risk with his fierce love for his daugh­ter?

“A cou­ple of weeks back I did think about death, but, well, I’ve been there six times al­ready,” he says of his sev­eral brushes with the Grim Reaper. “If you don’t step out­side the box once in a while, the lid’s go­ing to close on you.”

Hooper’s jour­ney will be logged and filmed and can be tracked on his “Swim the Big Blue” web­site.

Pho­tos: AFP

Ben Hooper leaves to­mor­row for an ar­du­ous six-month at­tempt to swim from Africa to South Amer­ica.

The 38-year-old has ad­vanced anti-shark mea­sures in place, and is pre­pared to around 12,000 calo­ries per day.

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