Flipped Out

Meredith Phillips meets a Frenchman who wants to swim home.

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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 and body.

Mind and Body

Six and a half years ago, Ben Lecomte began training to swim across the ocean. At that time, he saw the challenge as an opportunity to publicize an environmental cause: the preservation of healthy ocean waters. (He feels much more strongly about his current goal, raising funds to research a cure for cancer.)

Because the hours of Ben’s job fluctuate from week to week, he hasn’t set a regular training plan. For him, a fixed schedule would be difficult to adhere to and would make training seem like a chore. Instead, he swims whenever he can fit in a few hours at a time.

Currently, Ben trains for two to three hours about six times per week in Barton Springs Pool. The 68-degree water allows him to acclimate to swimming long distances in water almost as cold as the North Atlantic Ocean will be, and the length of the pool allows him to swim an eighth of a mile without stopping to turn.

He alternates between swimming with conventional fins and what he calls a monopalme. Freestyle swimming with conventional fins taxes the arms, shoulders, legs and abdomen. With the monopalme, he streamlines his body by holding his arms out straight in front, and, with stiff knees, sends a wave similar to that of a butterfly stoke (but far subtler) through his body. This movement uses the strong muscles of the back and thighs. A snorkel allows him to keep his face in the water throughout the duration of both styles of swimming. During the actual swim, he’ll alternate between the two in order to rest his muscle groups.

At the end of September, Ben swam for 24 hours straight in Barton Springs Pool, alternating between these two techniques. Every half hour he stopped to eat or drink. Although he wore a wet suit, his biggest problem was the cold, but he finished 192 laps, totaling 48.5 miles, in that period of time.

Gearing Up

Relatively shy and unassuming, Ben Lacomte is conspicuous even at Barton Springs, the progressive public swimming hole in Austin where almost anything goes. On a warm day, his long stark body, clad only in a racing suit, is in sharp contrast to his garishly ornamented head and feet. The tight white bathing cap crowning his head is divided by a green breathing snorkel clamped to the front of his skull. This type of snorkel reduces drag and saves a swimmer the extra effort of turning his head one way or the other. For the Cross-Atlantic Challenge, he’ll be outfitted with an even fancier snorkel, this one with a valve that will keep his lungs safe from saltwater waves lapping over the top.

Long black rubberized socks covering his feet fit snugly inside either two black, razorlike, longer-than-normal fins, or inside the crowning glory of the entire ensemble (the monopalme, or monofin) a striated yellow-and-aqua fiberglass flipper that transforms Ben into a far-out frogman.

I was fortunate to have an opportunity to try out the monofin (a delicate, $250 item) firsthand. This flipper requires the motion of a wave passing through the whole body, starting with the arms, which are pointed out in front of you. Thrusting the hips back and forth while keeping the knees straight and finishing with a fleet sweep of your feet means you can go exceptionally fast and feel really forceful. But it also gives your knees and back a completely different workout than normal swimming does, and so can be slightly painful the next day. Aside from stuffing your feet into the tight rubber confines of the fin, the greatest challenge of the technique is determining when to breathe, since there’s really no opportunity to turn or lift your head above water. (Ben doesn’t need to raise his head because he breathes through the snorkel.)

A trans-Atlantic crossing requires a boat of at least 40 feet, which Ben intends to borrow or rent from a sponsor. He hopes to temporarily acquire a shark cage the same way. He believes that a 50-by-30-foot cage will give him enough leeway to swim safely without being thrown against the edges.

Ben plans to equip the boat with enough computer equipment and cameras to easily report his progress to the medical team.

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