Today, in many countries in the Americas celebrated the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Bahamas on an island he named San Salvador on October 12th 1492. Over the course of three more trans-Atlantic voyages, the famous explorer visited the Greater Antilles and Lesser Antilles as well as Venezuela.
His initial voyage across the Atlantic, a novel traverse in the 15th century, reminds us of Benjamin Hooper‘s audacious attempt to swim 2,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.
Hooper plans to swim 2,000 miles from Africa to South America, swimming every single mile of the Atlantic Ocean throughout his traverse from Dakar Harbour in Senegal in western Africa to his expected finish in Natal in northeastern Brazil. His unprecedented stage swim will require him to swim up to 12 hours per day – in two sessions.
He will start each session after drifting a bit as he rests, eats and sleeps. It is practically impossible to start each session in the exact location where he exited in the previous swim because of the total amount of fuel required. The amount of drift while Hooper is on the boat will be reduced by using a sea anchor and the boat engine for control. The drift distance will then be added to the swim in order to ensure every single mile across the Atlantic is swum.
“When you look at the fact that we will need an oil tanker full of diesel, it ain’t practical. Instead, we will limit drift. We can get it down to a few miles per day or close to zero depending on weather and sea movement. The miles will be swum within the swim, as we will not swim in a straight line and during the doldrums where the sea is flat; we can go back during my sleep so I can get back in. We can calculate potential drifts at this point and use the Doldrums to our advantage to swim the mileage we will lose out the other side as we go down for Brazil.”
While the endurance sports community knows all about physical training and the open water swimming world knows all about acclimatization, what Hooper is setting out on is a tremendous psychological burden. His training of his mind is a most intriguing aspect of the Swim The Big Blue. We asked him about his preparations:
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What are you doing to specifically prepare mentally and emotionally?
Benjamin Hooper: Mentally, I am training in a multitude of environments and conditions under the guidance of those who are best equipped to advise on endurance, conditioning and physical fitness for my swim. This gives me confidence and safety mentally, that I can take on this epic challenge. For strategies, goal-setting, I am working more specifically with sports psychologists and counsellors. But like so many world firsts before, there is a lot that remains unknown, and we will not know until the swim is under way. Therefore, positive attitude and reinforcement from my team is not only vital now, but will be across the Atlantic.
Emotionally, this past nine months has been a roller coaster of stress, tears, mental and physical pain, excitement, elation, achievement and pure aggression at points. Not only does the training evoke emotion, but the stress of expedition organisation, being let down, pushing one’s self to the maximum to ensure I am best prepared for the swim, takes its toll. There are days where I question myself, days where I begin to wonder if it is possible. But then, I remember why I am doing this. Yes, for charity and yes, because it has not been done before but emotionally, I can draw on my daughter’s inspiration and that of her friends, the look in their eyes, the children and adults I have already inspired to improve their fitness and healthy eating, or simply trying things they never thought possible. Emotionally, this boosts me and reminds me that nothing is impossible, no matter how hard it gets, no matter how hard the swim becomes, my emotional and resilience preparation is now. Beyond this, I am unsure as to whether emotionally I can prepare myself for what is to come. Especially when we do not really know what is to come.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Do you have family, spouse or children? If so, have you ever been away from them for 3 months before?
Benjamin Hooper: I have a partner and 5-year old daughter, Georgia. They have been beyond incredible in support, inspiration and enthusiasm. Georgia still wants to swim with me across the Atlantic and has just achieved her next swimming qualification. Very early, but I am very proud.
In answer to your question, I have been away from them for extended periods of time, months at a time, and I am sure they would be grateful of the rest to be honest by the time November 2015 arrives. All I do is eat, live, breathe, swim, and train and prepare Swim The Big Blue. As Brock Lesner, WWE superstar, might say: “Eat, Sleep, Train, Swim again…”
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Does the possibility of death or serious injury worry you – or bring a thrill to this adventure?
Benjamin Hooper: Both.
To appreciate we are alive, we must come near to death and experience what it may be to lose all we hold dear, believe we own and possess in our modern lives and I have had both. I came into this expedition with my eyes open. Not only has my understanding from my past employment in the military and police lessened the fear, allowed for greater appreciation of life and how easily it can be lost or taken, but from my childhood and adulthood hero, nominal patron to my expedition, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the greatest living explorer in history and having followed his exploits I can see how death and serious injury can occur, be battled and overcome. If I did not have some fear, worry of death, then I would not be mentally stable.
But, I have already suffered drowning as a child and injuries in adulthood; so no reality check is needed. I believe if I train hard, prepare well and have the best team I can about me, we can reduce risks and minimise the fatality option. Hence why I have constructed not only an excellent training team to ensure I am as prepared as I can be but also putting in place seasoned medics, support crew on the boat and of course my divers, shark experts with experience of distance swims ensures that whilst I am in the water, there is a team to protect me every stroke of the way. My shark team are coming from Key West, Florida headed by Andy Olday, to sail with me. Knowledge cures fears and both my team and I are ensuring that the odds are in my favour as much as possible. We all believe I will make it, not just for me and the charities I support but my daughter Georgia and our sponsors too.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Very few people in the world can imagine the loneliness of open water swimming where so few visual clues are available. How will you deal with doing the equivalent of an English Channel swim every day for 90 days?
Benjamin Hooper: This is a good question and one I think about most days. It links to the mental and emotional game that will play out during the swim. It will be lonely, and I by swimming alone as the likes of Martin Strel did in training, will surely best prepare me for swimming alone. However, during the swim, I will need to be alert for what is beneath me as the shark risk is high, yet constantly being alert will drain resources mentally and physically. In training, I sing songs, listen to music and think about of stories and life. This keeps me company. There will also be elements that creep in from deep sub-conscious which I cannot control, and it is these thoughts, feelings, demons that I will battle alongside the natural elements. I believe there are huge unknown quantities here also, loneliness is something I will encounter and only when on the support boat will I enjoy limited company, and perhaps not feel so alone. This is where the support of my sports psychologist both in training and during the expedition, matters most. The mental preparation and ability to take one hour at a time, not think about the what if’s, keeping negative people and actions away from me during training and the expedition, talking by remote communication during rest to our psychologists, will all contribute to reducing fears and keeping the biggest variable under control, my mental well-being.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: That sort of self-induced isolation is probably only equivalent to explorers walking to the North or South Poles. How does one psychologically prepare for that?
Benjamin Hooper: I am working closely with my support team in understanding the physical, ocean, and myself. Psychological strategies are being discussed but as I know from past experience of lone, long-distance, songs in your ears or head, keep me going. I also have to accept psychologically that the risks are there, isolation is a given and that nobody knows what the outcome will be: mentally or physically. As I said previously, we can draw on psychology supports now, during the swim and the support crew as a whole will play a part in ensuring my success physically and mentally.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What have you done in your life that will help you in this attempt?
Benjamin Hooper: I have always swum. It’s funny in some ways, drowning when I lived in Belgium as a child and been brought back to life on the pool side, had the opposite effect. It only made me more determined to swim and although I am not a professional swimmer, I’ve never competed for GB or county level, I have always swum. Long-distance 10 km, triathlon and some charity swims too. My affinity with the sea continued with PADI scuba and free-diving too, all of which helps with confidence and understanding in what is to come. My resilience and mental strength from service with the military and police, will also support me during training and the swim itself. In these roles, endurance, mental resilience and the ability to adapt to new circumstances and calmly in emergency, all come to help me at this point now and the swim expedition.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Lastly, the need to be extroverted and exploit your ability to market and promote this event seems in contrast to the fundamental introverted nature of marathon swimmers. How do you balance that ying-and-yang in your personality?
Benjamin Hooper: The bottom line is I don’t. I am who I am, and I love talking to members of my community and the public in general whether it be corporations or charities, children or members of my training facilities. I am a little extrovert, but I also enjoy the solitude and introversion that comes with swimming. Like most things in life, it is not black and white, the ying and yang flow like a river, entwined and always going forwards and I adapt to the situation I find myself in at any given time. This is also where it is key to have a team with mixed strengths, experience and attitudes. Medics will offer support physically; psychology and physiotherapy will aide mentally and emotionally, and the sailing crew including a friend of mine John Rogers, will certainly bring different motivations, viewpoints and considerations to the expedition.
All of which will see me overcome the challenges daily and succeed in this epic swim. Most important of all, is that I stay true to myself: Every single mile will be swum – nothing is impossible.
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