WHILE MOST TEXANS are chained to their desks this summer or, at best, navigating crowded roads on the way to South Padre, Austinite Benoît “Ben” Lecomte will be en route to the Breton coast of France. But his trip will be no day at the beach. Sometime this month, the 31-year-old will fly to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, hop off a 45-foot ketch sailboat equipped with an anti-shark electronic device, and begin the world’s first swim across the North Atlantic: a 3,200-mile, eighty-day course to Brest, France, that will also be the longest swim on record.
Lecomte, who moved to the United States in 1991 and later attended the University of Texas at San Antonio, was still living in his native France when he concocted his aquatic adventure. Why do it? “At first,” he recalls, “I thought about the ocean and bringing attention to the environmental aspects of it, like pollution.” But when his father died of cancer, he instead decided to make the swim a fundraiser for the Association for International Cancer Research. “I feel much closer to that cause,” he says. Since graduating with a degree in marketing in December 1995, Lecomte has lived in Austin, where he’s been training in earnest for two- to three-hour stretches several times a week in Barton Springs Pool, a partially paved swimming hole with a year-round temperature of 68 degrees. Last September he swam for 24 hours straight in the pool; this past May he swam for nearly that long in nearby Lake Travis.
Although it’s free to swim the Atlantic, a journey like Lecomte’s is costly, so he has solicited donations from individuals and corporate sponsors—some $145,000 to date. Part of the money has been used to charter the sailboat and hire a crew to tack alongside him at all times. The rest has paid for things like wet suits (he has eight), fins, and vast quantities of carbohydrate- and fat-intensive food, which he will eat during fifteen-minute breaks every two hours or so.
Summer is a season of few storms in the North Atlantic, and because Lecomte will be swimming with the Gulf Stream, the lowest water temperatures he’ll encounter are in the low sixties. Midway through his trip, he’ll hit the North Atlantic Drift, another warm current that he’ll follow the rest of the way to France. Both of these currents flow at an average speed of just under one mile per hour, so if Lecomte is in the water for eighty days, he will be pushed two thousand miles, meaning that he’ll have to do only two thousand miles of additional swimming. Even in choppy ocean waters, he’ll have to swim for only six to eight hours a day. “I’m not too worried about it physically,” he says. “The real challenge will be in my mind because I’ll have a very limited stimulus. I will have a lot of time to think about the future. It will be like being in jail.”