Saturday, 12 November 2016

This guy named Ben Hooper, will swim from West Africa to Brazil, find out How and then Why

At first glance, Ben Hooper does not appear to be your stereotypical explorer. In fact, he seems rather more like a friendly policeman, which he is, incidentally. But appearances can still be deceptive.

The father-of-one, from Gloucestershire, is embarking on an expedition that would make even the hardiest outdoor type quiver with horror. In December, Ben Hooper will step on to a beach in Dakar, Senegal, and plunge into the warm blue waters of the Atlantic. He will not stop swimming until he hits Natal in Brazil. The distance is 1,763 miles.

But that’s only if he goes in a straight line. And swimming across the Atlantic in a straight line is a bad idea: “The currents in the centre are so strong, I’d never get there. It’s an absolute car wreck in the centre. Great for rowers, great for sailors, horrible for swimmers,” he says.

Instead he will go in a strange L-shape, heading south until he crosses the Equator before swimming back to the coast of Brazil. In all, if all goes to plan, it will take about 120 days:

Hooper, a former policeman from Cheltenham, will swim for about eight or nine hours every day for four months. “I will be staring at a blue wall. There might be some marine life, there might be sharks, dolphins, cargo containers, some garbage. But mostly just a blue wall.”

If you thought this was an impossible challenge, you’d be right: 4,100 people have climbed Everest, 1,340 have swum the Channel, and 12 men have walked on the moon. No one has swum the full distance of the Atlantic, continent to continent.

I find him very winning. Both his enthusiasm and his lack of egocentricity – something that seems to plague most explorers. But beneath the chatty exterior there is steel, not least in his determination to prove that an ordinary former bobby-on-the-beat can be a Boy’s Own hero. “You don’t need to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth,” he says

And he is deadly serious, spending the past two years training in the warm waters off the Florida Keys, while assembling a support team, including doctors and academics who will monitor his progress as well as marine wildlife and debris in the middle of the ocean. He has raised more than £100,000 of the required £150,000 funding through sponsorship.

But no amount of planning will fully prepare him for the obstacles he will face during the swim. There is the immersion in salt water – “amazingly horrendous, it scorches the back of your throat, especially in the heat” – and it will be surprisingly hot in the middle of the Atlantic, with the water temperature reaching a heatstroke-inducing 30-32C in the waters around the Equator.

Then, there are monster waves to contend with. “The maximum swells, you’re looking at 15ft waves. It’s like a rollercoaster. You get the tummy fright. And then …” he signals a huge plunge downwards with his hand. “But when they go the wrong way, it’s like trying to swim up a hill. It’s going to be very interesting.”

Other obstacles are rather more worrying. “I feel our biggest threat is the Atlantic oceanic whitetip – it’s a shark, and a big-arsed shark at that. They are a good seven to 10 feet, but they come vertically up in attack. So, I’d be the first to see it and the last one to go, ‘aargh!’.”

To combat predators he is wearing a camouflage wetsuit and using an experimental gas – released using an aerosol in the water – that replicates the smell of rotting shark cartilage. “Sharks just turn tail and run,” he says.

However, the biggest challenge of all is monumental boredom. Hooper says that his mind can play various tricks when he is on a long swim: unexpected odours – steak frying – or he hears voices of the people from his past. “How do you stop yourself from going insane? I’ve no idea.”
Only two other people have made serious attempts to cross the Atlantic using nothing but their arms, legs and a wet suit; but neither crossing was ratified by Guinness World Records because of the ‘‘lack of transparency’’ about the time spent in the water and the routes take

Like the previous attempts, Hooper’s will be an “assisted staged swim” – long stretches of swimming, with breaks on the support boat at night and in the middle of the day. These pauses will give him a chance to consume the required 12,000 daily calories – mostly boil-in-the-bag Vestey army ration packs.

But Hooper is determined that his crossing will be irreproachable, with the help of an observer on his support boat logging every mile, a videographer filming, and a GPS gizmo strapped to his wetsuit that will allow people back home to track him on their phones.

“Without taking away anything from [Lecomte’s] feats, we will do every single mile and it will be transparent. That’s the difference.”

For much of the time, the equatorial current will push him towards South America. “It could help me, but we can’t allow it to help me. That’s fundamental to the swim.” And for every mile that he is in the ocean, his team will calculate how much the current has helped – both while he drifts on the support boat and while he is actually doing his front crawl.

They will then knock off that advantage from his daily tally. “I have to swim every single one of those miles,” he repeats.

On the "Why"? 

He spent most of his teenage years dreaming of becoming the youngest man to reach the South Pole and wrote fan mail to Sir Ranulph Fiennes. “Ran wrote me this wonderful letter back saying it was absolutely doable, giving me advice. It was so inspirational.”

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