Flipped Out

Meredith Phillips meets a Frenchman who wants to swim home.
Wed December 31, 1969 6:00 am

On Halloween morning at Barton Springs Pool in Austin, Ben Lecomte could have passed for an extraterrestrial manatee, or maybe even a mermaid convalescing with a respirator. But he wasn’t costumed in observance of the holiday. He breathes through the neon green tube and wears a single enormous fin on his feet about six times a week.

As a warm-up, Ben splashes, crashes, and generally disrupts the water before settling into a strong mechanical crawl aided by a pair of long, black fins that have been repaired, or at least reinforced, with duct tape. His stroke becomes quiet in its rhythm; he’d be difficult to locate if it weren’t for the snorkel radiating up through the dark of the pool. At times, he stops at the wall to squirt water or a liquid charged with electrolytes into his mouth, or to change into his special footgear, a fiberglass monofin that spans a distance of about three feet to the front and sides of his own feet, both of which tuck inside this giant yellow flipper.

Benoit Lecomte’s plans are far more serious than his outfit suggests. This thirty-year-old native Frenchman left his home near Paris five years ago to move to San Antonio and now lives in Austin, where he is training for the challenge of his lifetime: a trans-Atlantic swim from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Brest, France.

Swimming to France? The prospects of sharks, hypothermia, and exhaustion don’t even seem to faze Ben, who’s been training for this for a long time. “I’ve done different types of sports all my life from a very early age, and I’ve had the idea of crossing the Atlantic for about eight years now. I like the adventure of it.” Adventure aside, he wasn’t moved to complete the Cross-Atlantic Swimming Challenge until recently. In college he planned to use the publicity generated from the stunt to promote healthier oceans, but now wants to further a cause that’s even closer to his heart. Motivated by the death of his father, who lost his life to cancer at the young age of 49, Ben intends to swim his way to raising thousands of dollars through sponsorships that go towards research of the disease.

The idea of swimming an ocean, a common metaphor, is an opportunity for Ben to fuse his love of adventure, the athletic prowess that he shares with his brothers (a marathon ish Channel (which is about 20 miles wide, to put it in perspective) would say the word “swim” does not apply once you involve equipment other than a human body, a swimming suit, and a tub of Vaseline (for warmth). “If you use a kickboard, are you really swimming? If you use a wet suit, are you really swimming? If you use a monofin, are you really swimming?” queries Ben, who predicts that certain aquatic purists won’t perceive his exploit as an actual swim.

Until June of 1998 when he plunges into the Cross-Atlantic Challenge, Ben is focusing on training in Austin’s Barton Springs, soliciting sponsors, and selecting the research organization that will oversee proceeds from his efforts.

The 100-Day Swim

There’s a solitude to swimming which, in moderation, is useful in clearing the mind of clutter. But unlike other endurance athletes, a swimmer can’t just turn and run their mouth once they get tired of meditating. Ben seems confident he can get into the physical condition required for such a feat, but he envisions his isolation from the world will be a challenge. “You have a very limited stimulus in the water. You cannot say, ‘Tonight I am going to watch a movie,’ or ‘I am going to go out.’ It’ll be like being in jail. I will have lot of time to think about the future.” Preparation for prolonged solitude is a mental factor equally important to the mind power it takes to get one’s body to go the distance. “I’ve been trying to visualize exactly what can happen, and what I should expect, and try to focus on it and figure out a way to deal with it.”

By Ben’s estimates, his trip will take about 100 days and cost nearly $145,000; the bulk of which will be paid for by a corporate sponsor. From Cape Cod, he’ll take the quickest route across the chilly Northern Atlantic he can find, following first the Gulf Stream and later the North Atlantic Drift. He’ll most likely dock in Brest, a coastal town in France. Throughout the swim, Ben will be insulated from the cold water (with temperatures in the low 60s) by a customized wet suit and booties, and safeguarded from sharks in a 50-by-30-foot shark cage. The shark cage will be attached to a 40-foot sailboat, staffed with one captain and a crew of at least two people, that will carefully weave and tack alongside him to assure that the progress of the boat does not affect the progress of the swimmer. For six to eight hours a day, he will swim at a speed of about two nautical miles per hour (a nautical mile is the equivalent of 1.15 landlubber miles), and stop every two or three hours to rest and refuel in a small raft. The raft will be detached from the boat whenever he is at rest. He will spend nights adrift in the raft, under waterproof blankets. “At night I will sleep. It will be like a regular job,” he says. (Apparently, sharks don’t go out of their way to eat long-distance swimmers napping in rafts.)

While Ben swims, rests and sleeps, he will be pushed along by the slow but steady drift of the ocean. The Gulf Stream and Northern Atlantic Drift are currents that flow at about one nautical mile per hour. Taking resting and sleeping time into account, Ben will be pushed a greater distance than he will actually swim.

During the swim, a crew member will watch him at all times. To test his progress, Ben recently completed a 24-hour stint of swimming, proving he has great control over his mind

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