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Ben Hooper On Swimming Across The Atlantic Ocean

Courtesy of Ben Hooper, Expedition Swimmer & Leader, Swim The Big Blue, Atlantic Ocean.

Ben Hooper, a British swimmer, attempted a solo stage swim from Dakar, Senegal to Natal, Brazil, starting on November 13th 2016.

After 33 days traversing westward in the Atlantic Ocean in which Hooper swam a total of 18 days, the swim was abandoned on January 15th 2017. During these 18 sessions in the Atlantic Ocean, Hooper swam a total of 160.6 km or 4.9% of the anticipated total distance, swimming under his own power.

During his time in the water, Hooper swam in a jammer swimsuit made of porous textile material, a pair of swimming goggles, a single latex swim cap on occasion, and a pair of earplugs. He did not wear fins, use a snorkel, or use any kind of neoprene wetsuit or headwear during his swim where he was accompanied by an escort boat “Big Blue” and guided by a single kayaker from Dakar, Senegal.

Feeding during his time in the water adhered to standard English Channel swimming rules and the logistics of the stage swim adhered to standard World Open Water Swimming Association rules with the exception of the days where swimming was not safely possible due to turbulent conditions, unanticipated weather, medical and health issues, or boat technical problems.

His escort crew included Captain Nigel Taylor-Schofield (UK), Chief Mate Russell Sandbach (UK), Observer & Medic Pamela Mackie (UK), support crew member Ophelie Vtn (France) and kayaker Mamadou Sene (Senegal). After abandonment, all members of the stage swim went onto Fortaleaze, Brazil, and then subsequently returned safely to their homes in their respective countries.

Hooper and his team anticipate a subsequent attempt to be made at a later date. He gave a report of his effort after returning home:

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What did you feel when you and your team finally decided to officially abandon the attempt?

Ben Hooper: It was the most difficult decision of my life and over the 3 hours we debated and looked for a technical solution to fix the mizon mast shroud and allow speedy collection of me in an emergency from the water, all I could think about was letting my charities, daughter and sponsors down. In the end, we could not find a safe solution and this placed me as the swimmer, at greatest risk of not being retrieved from the ocean. We made the decision and live on film, and I felt utterly devastated – 3 years training and preparation and expedition management 7 days per week 80+ hours per week. As did all my team. The worst feeling in my life.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How many times did you want to abandon the swim, but then decided to carry on, during the attempt?

Ben Hooper: At no point did I ever consider abandoning the swim.

Five days after being saved having suffered a severe reaction to Portuguese man o war and dying on the boat, I was back in the water and swimming again. It was the skipper and chief mate and medic with a satellite telephone consulting with London Trauma consultant Paul Schofield, who ultimately had the safety say and, of course, exhausted all options to keep the swim going. After the mast shroud incident, as a team we called it, for safety is everything and the risk is high enough, without worsening the probability of tragedy. There was no room for gung-ho bravado. I still was not happy abandoning the swim but I cannot go again if I am dead. I still believe it is better to have tried and failed, than failed to try and push one’s boundaries and see the world for what it is. Inspire others and be inspired.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What did you learn from this attempt?

Ben Hooper: First, we realised that the swim is possible for the swim was not the issue; technical issues on the vessel were [the issue], and ultimately, following freak weather was our downfall.

Second, we learnt that a more capable vessel for weather when it is not as predicted, to allow for greater fuel and faster sailing to avoid hurricane force storms or at least stand a better chance of riding out in them before swimming again.

A third item, is that we would without a doubt manage our own social media from the boat and this would require a vastly more expensive communication package from Inmarsat, not Iridium. This may prevent the speculation, slander, lies and outright vulgar commentary being made by those not on the vessel and with no idea of what they are talking about. My daughter sadly read a lot of this and she is only 8.

Further, we would be able to manage our communications and trackers better with adequate power sources as this was an issue on our boat within days when the brand new generator broke down.

Overall, we have learnt that humans are unpredictable, but when we need to push ourselves beyond our limits, we can achieve this no matter what or who tries to get in the way, sabotage the swim or simply is as unpredicted as the weather. The key to success next time, is improved vessel capabilities of power, communications and a slightly different vessel specification, and not organising and training for the expedition 90% on my own.

We did indeed recognise our limitations, but as nobody has ever done this properly before, every single mile, there was no support book or support manual for what to do. We made the swim as good as we could and knew how but from this, we have learnt so much that we could take forward and improve the probability of the outcome being successful or indeed help others wishing to try the same feat. Whether this be fundraising and sponsor management, sourcing vessels or indeed support for an attempt on board during a swim crossing.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What will you do differently on your next attempt?

Ben Hooper: Apart from improved vessel capabilities, we would adjust the diet to include greater support carbohydrates, meats and mood-lifting treats such as Mars Bars and good coffee. I lost nearly 3 stone in weight between swim and diet, yet was eating around 8000 calories per day (as much more I could not physically cram in). I would bring more music to sleep next to and we would increase sailing crew numbers to allow better rotation for the weather is not always as forecast and historically predicted. I think we would also need to allow for 160 days as there were days where currents were so strong I was swimming backwards or in 3 hours managed just 600 meters.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What were some of the thoughts and recommendations of your escort crew that you will take into consideration on your next attempt?

Ben Hooper: The boat change, improved foods as our better food supply for treats and Christmas were on the second support boat we got separated from. More washing soap for clothes and electricity for charging…an item we had for a while, but then became a spared luxury thanks to ingenuity of Skipper and Chief mate. Oh, and swim faster.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Do you anticipate attempting the same course? Around the same time?

Ben Hooper: We set off at the most appropriate time of year, after hurricane season and indeed took the shortest route at approximately 1,635 nautical miles, but will review all weather, current information, and indeed the route for a second attempt.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What did you first say to your family upon finally meeting them back home?

Ben Hooper: When I first saw my daughter, I hugged her so tight her eyeballs almost popped out. She grabbed my beard of considerable length and grey colours, and uttered the words, “It feels like a sheep’s bum, Daddy” – I knew I was back.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Did you change in any way out there on the Atlantic? Or as a result of this attempt?

Ben Hooper: Yes, physically I have some issues still following the jellyfish attack and injury in Brazil. I lost huge amounts of weight and mentally, I have realised I am stronger than I ever thought possible. To have got to the startline was the biggest challenge and accomplishment, and the amount of resilience was required in abundance, but out in the Atlantic Ocean, I found myself reflecting on what I have done right and wrong; errors in my life and the good things I have done; family and daughter and ultimately, this all kept me going. But the knock on effect is that I am more introspective, less willing to be pushed around and tolerate people who have their own agendas and am a better judge of character now than ever before. I have also made some incredible friends for life. It was an emotional rollercoaster, but one that has enriched my journey and life and as I am now hearing, has inspired others, which is what this is ultimately, all about.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Do you anticipate any changes to your training and preparation for the next attempt?

Ben Hooper: I think training-wise, 6 days per week and 15-20 km sets per day is ideal still. However, another increase in gym work for additional leg, glutes, core support and ensure I have a physio on board would help. I also feel, having reliable team around me to handle PR and sponsors will allow me to focus more on training which ultimately, will allow me to focus on some increasing of speed; aiming to go from 3-3.3 km per hour and sustain closer to 3.6 km per hour over 20 km in the ocean – not pool swimming, improving my gears for current conditions and focus on training more not business.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What did your sponsors and charity organisations say to you after the attempt was abandoned? Will they join you on the next attempt?

Ben Hooper: The feedback has been supportive from sponsors and charities alike and so far, most sponsors remain with me. Again, changing PR management to being from the boat will improve sponsor relations in the future.

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