Next July, while you'll be lazily roasting your back in the sun, getting fatter and fatter from BBQs and beers, swimmer Ben Lecomte will be attempting his second ocean crossing with only the strength of his arms and the odd kick of a leg to help him.
Originally from France, Ben chose California to be his home 20 years ago, and in 1998 he successfully swam across the Atlantic Ocean. Every day he goes for long swims of at least three hours along the coast to keep in shape. Ben's latest journey will take him from Tokyo to San Francisco, and is set to last for five months. That's 5,500 miles worth of swimming, the first-ever attempt by someone to cross the Pacific in this way. Ben will be swimming eight hours a day at the average speed of two to two and a half knots per hour. He'll burn around 10,000 calories daily.
Obviously this presents a lot of questions. Mainly, "Why?" So we called him to talk.
VICE: How did you get into this sort of thing?
Ben Lecomte: I've been involved in open-water swimming for a long time. It's a passion of mine, which started by learning how to swim in the Atlantic Ocean with my father. Being in a pool always felt very restrictive to me, so I always liked swimming in a more open environment. I was also always more attracted to the "adventure" side of things, rather than competing. Then when I was a teenager, Gerard d'Aboville, a French sailor, rode across the Atlantic. I started comparing our speeds, and that's how the idea came. My dad's death from cancer gave me the final push to pursue my dream.
Did you have a day job?
Yes, I am an architect. But for the last two years I've been focusing exclusively on the challenge: I want to dedicate myself 100 percent to avoid having any regrets later.
How are you preparing yourself for the swim, on a day-to-day basis?
A big part of it is logistics. On the other side, it's training and staying fit. I do from three to five hours of swimming everyday, depending on the time I have.
What about the logistics of the swim?
There will be a boat behind me with a support team of six people. I have to stay close as the boat will give me directions thanks to a line under the water, so that I don't need to lift up my head. The line has different markings indicating whether I'm falling behind or whether I'm in the right spot.
The boat is also equipped with a sonar system to detect sharks, so I have to stay near so that my team can warn me if they notice anything suspicious. One of the difficulties to handle is that strong waves can potentially crush me against the boat.
Christ. What actually happens if your team sees a shark?
There's an alarm that they can ring. There are different types of alarms: two short beeps mean, "Watch out, there's something around!" and continual short beeps mean, "Get on the boat as soon as possible!"
How will you feed yourself when swimming?
Every 20 to 30 minutes, I will be given a bottle of liquid or soup, or something easy to ingest. I will then swim on my back for 15 or 20 seconds to drink it. I don't need to stop.
How did you pick your starting and arrival points?
You need to take advantage of the weather patterns and of the current. There are strong currents flowing from Tokyo to the US—the Kuroshio and the North Pacific currents—creating a big push. The idea was also to arrive close to the time when the UN Climate Change Conference will happen in Paris next December.
When you crossed the Atlantic, there was a shark following you for five days. How did that feel?
The shark was circling the boat for five days. In the mornings and evenings, when the device that creates a magnetic field to repel sharks wasn't in the water, you could see the fin going around the boat. As soon as it was on, the fin disappeared. The last day, I was actually able to see the shark coming a little closer, passing below me, so I decided to do a shorter day of swimming. The following day, it was gone.
Were you not scared?
It gets your attention, of course. You have to be very cautious, watch how they behave and bear in mind that they are wild animals. If they're there, it means they're either looking for food or for a mate. I suppose they don't look at me as a mate…
What was the toughest thing during that first crossing?
It changed every day. Sometimes, you're seasick and can't eat properly, you have cuts on your skin that sting in the salty water. you're deprived of contact with your loved ones, your mood gets affected easily… It's an accumulation of things rather than a particular one.
Did you ever want to give up, or have moments of weakness?
You get these moments, of course. But then you have to remember why this matters to you, what's the goal around it. Back then I was raising funds for cancer research. People were emailing me saying that following me was helping them get through their chemo. I couldn't let these people down. You realize that it is bigger than just you.
What do you think about when you swim?
That's a very key point. The most difficult part of the challenge is mental rather than physical. You need to be able to motivate yourself. It is essential that keep your mind occupied. For that you need to have a very structured approach, and know exactly what you're going to be thinking about throughout your day. So I have a schedule: I'll first think about my father, then try and count in different languages, then try and solve a math problem and so on… You need to know what you're gonna do with your mind. If you don't, then you start asking yourself too many questions. You have to dissociate your mind from your body, and have your body on autopilot.
How do you keep your morale up during the challenge?
The line between pain and pleasure is very thin, of course. You're constantly moving along that line, one way or the other. But these are moments when I feel very much alive. It's very rewarding, and overwhelming at the end. I don't imagine my life without this.I have to do it, there is no other way.
The best way to tackle is certainly to have a "day-by-day" approach, instead of thinking of how much you've got left ahead.
What's the bigger scope of the challenge?
I will be raising funds for the Climate Group, who are involved in the low carbon footprint campaign, and for another organization protecting oceans which is yet to be chosen. The swim is a way to get people's attention and make them think about environmental issues.
We will have a platform with live-streaming so that people are able to follow the swim, and react on social media. A documentary will also be released at the end. The aim is to bring people together, show them what's happening in the middle of the ocean and to make people realize that small changes in our lifestyle can have a major impact on the environment. Experts will also be commenting and be part of the discussion. We want to rally as many people as possible around the issue.
What will you do when it's over, will the next challenge be the Indian Ocean?
I can only answer that once this challenge is over. Right now, I'm trying to just focus on this. But I guess, once the event is finished, I would like to use the created platform to go further into educating people, and to use it to interact with schools and give children classes about sustainability. I believe this should be taught at an early age. Knowing about sustainability should become part of our curriculums.
Follow Ben during his swim at thelongestswim.com
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