Ben Hooper's Atlantic Bid: What's Happening?
Ben Hooper's Atlantic Bid: What's Happening?

Date: Wednesday 7th December 2016

Ben Hooper, an ex policeman from Cheltenham, has recently begun his swim across the Atlantic, from Dakar to Natal. Here's an update on what’s happening, and what it means for his swim  

On 13th November, Ben Hooper, a former police officer from Cheltenham, began his long awaited and much publicised attempt to 'Swim the Big Blue' (STBB). His aim, as stated on his website, is to become the “first person to swim every mile” of the Atlantic, a distance of 3,007k. Before he set off his plan was to swim 20-24km a day, covering the total distance in 120-140 days, and he chose a route between the African mainland and South America. 

The swim started considerably later than planned, plagued by financial, electrical, mechanical and personnel glitches but on the 13th November he set off from Senegal, hoping to reach Brazil in March or April 2017.

There have been two previous Atlantic swims, by Benoit Lecomte and Jennifer Figge.

In 1998, Benoit Lecomte’s boat covered a 3,716 mile journey from Massachusetts to Brittany in 73 days, but his exact swim distance is unclear.

Jennifer Figge took 31 days to complete her swim from Brava in Cape Verde off the coast of Africa to Gran Riviere, Trinidad, in 2009. The total distance was 2,186 nautical miles (4,048 km), She swam a total of 139 hours in the Atlantic Ocean, covering a cumulative total of 300 miles.

The swim is a "stage swim", which means the swimmer sets a target number of hours or miles to be achieved each day, before sleeping on the support boat

As with these previous attempts to swim the Atlantic, this has been set up as a "stage swim". It's not possible to swim it by Channel Rules, whereby a swimmer swims from dry land to dry land in one go, touching neither boat nor human in that time. In a stage swim, the swimmer sets a target number of hours or miles to be achieved each day, before sleeping on the support boat.

To swim the entire distance, and be able to claim a world record, the original intention of the STBB team was to return the boat to the exact position at which the swimmer exited the water the previous day. This was found to be unfeasible because of the amount of fuel it would take. So the next idea was to limit overnight drift with a sea anchor, log the number of miles drifted and add those to the miles still to be swum. The miles gained in drift would then, presumably, be made up at the end of the trip.

It is not possible to return Ben to the exact position at which he exits the water so the plan is to add drift mileage on to the swim, to be completed at the end of the trip

Onboard the support boat is an observer from WOWSA, responsible for sanctioning the swim. Spot trackers, logging the miles covered by the swimmer as opposed to the boat, stopped working after a few days, but the assumption is that the distance is now recorded by the observer and reported to WOWSA. Every mile must be logged and records immaculately kept if Ben is to claim a world record swim. Whilst the burden of proof rests with those on board, no independent verification is possible.

Originally, the sailing route was planned to be either 3,000 or 5,000 miles. (Both figures were mentioned in different interviews/ blog posts). The greater distance travelled by the boat would then protect the swim distance (2000 miles) so that, even with drift, Ben should still cover enough miles to be able to claim a stage swim covering the entire straight-line distance of the Atlantic from Dakar to Natal.

So that’s the idea, but what is actually happening? The boat appears to be taking a straight route, the drift is far more extensive than expected and many days have been unswimmable due to safety issues raised by retrieving Ben from the water in poor sea conditions. The result of this? He has not been swimming his planned 8 – 12 hours per day. (Again, different blog posts and interviews suggest different daily plans, one of 2 x 6 hour swims with a 2 hour rest between them and one of a straight 8 hour swim.)

As of Monday 5th December, (the most recent swim distance update) Ben had swum 140k in three weeks, an average of 6-7km a day, as opposed to a target distance of 20-24km a day (had he made his target distance, he would have covered 420km-504km in that time). But while his swim distance was low during that 3 week period, the support boat travelled 830km of its straight-line distance of 3007km. What this means is that, while Ben had covered 5% of his swim in the first 3 weeks, the support boat had covered 27% of the entire distance. 

Extrapolating this data, were he to continue to cover actual swim distance at this rate, he would take until February 2018 to complete the full 3007km miles he intended to swim.

A continuation of the present rate of the support boat’s progress, however, would result in the boat reaching Natal with Ben having swum roughly 500k, leaving him with a swim of 2,500k still to complete.

Were he to continue to cover actual swim distance at his current rate, he would take until February 2018 to complete his target... at its present speed, the boat would reach Natal with Ben having swum roughly 500k, leaving him with 2,500k still to swim

Not surprisingly, Ben’s Facebook pages and the Marathon Swimmers Forum have seen some heated debate about whether this swim will be able to claim an Atlantic first. Such an enormous undertaking, seeking to claim a world record, was bound to be subjected to minute scrutiny. Opinion is divided as to whether the so far relatively short daily distances en route, coupled with a lengthy swim at the end to compensate for considerable drift mileage (if this is what actually happens), would constitute “swimming the Atlantic”. Such a swim has been compared by one respected marathon swimmer to, “swimming 21 miles in Dover Harbour and claiming to have swum the Channel”.

Meanwhile, the adventure has caught the imagination of the world’s press, with Ben suffering a backlash of negative publicity from a couple of possibly unwise jokes in updates, mentioning Martinis and cold beer being consumed between swims. Ben has taken great pains to point out in an online press release, dated 30th November, that the support vessel is a “dry boat”. He also addresses those he perceives as his critics and provides further information as to how the swim will work. He is still adamant that he is on track to claim his world record and his legion of fans and supporters are firmly and vocally behind him, but it is becoming increasingly clear that with the probability of fewer than 50% of days swimmable, the 120 – 140 day claim is looking unrealistic. Sean Conway’s 2013 LEJOG swim took him 4 months, twice as long as he originally predicted, for approximately half the STBB distance.

With the probability of fewer than 50% of days swimmable, the aim to swim the Atlantic in the original 120 – 140 days is looking unrealistic

The support boat continues to be plagued by misadventure and mechanical gremlins, with the latest news, on 4th December, stating that the forestay has separated from the mast and the engine is refusing to start. The generator has not worked since the first week of the trip. At least 3 days of swimming have been lost to jellyfish stings, two of those being the result of a serious Portuguese man of war confrontation, and one complete day has been lost because of boat problems. The tracker indicates that a short trial swim may have been attempted on Tuesday 6th December.

As the expedition continues, the route and methodology of the swim are becomingly increasingly at variance with the original intentions. The question is, is there a point at which the claim to be setting a world record becomes untenable?

Kate Robarts, December 2016

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