When athletes talk about aiming for Brazil in 2016, we usually assume they mean the Olympics. Not Ben Hooper. His plan is to swim across the Atlantic Ocean from Dakar, in Senegal, to Natal, Brazil – continent to continent – starting in March and hopefully arriving in May before the start of the Games in August.
The distance, as the crow flies, is around 1700 miles but Hooper expects to swim more like 2000. He’s aiming to be the first to complete a full Atlantic crossing.
Hooper’s vision of swimming the Atlantic stems from a childhood dream, and an awe of the great ocean’s “depths, mysteries and sheer power.” But while he’s been a swimmer from childhood too, he describes himself as being far from an elite athlete.
“I started swimming very young but had a near-drowning accident in Belgium,” says Hooper. “However, this only inspired me to become a better swimmer and as a teenager I took part in quite a few Swimathons and then did a few triathlons as an adult. As a swimmer I’m not anyone special but I have a definite affinity with water.”
So how will he cope with day after day of swimming in the ocean? To date, his long distance ocean swimming experience can be summed up in one word: none.
To answer this, Hooper tells us, with some pride, that Sir Ranulph Fiennes has agreed to become the patron for the Atlantic challenge.
“Not only is Sir Ran an inspiration for taking on and achieving the impossible, looking at what he’s done has shown me the importance of planning, training and preparing accordingly,” says Hooper. “It will be that, as much as my swimming ability, that will make the difference between success and failure.”
To that end, he’s surrounded himself by what he describes as “a great team.” These include: Nicki Gwynn-Jones, a Total Immersion (TI) swim coach; Dan Fivey, a personal trainer; and Clare Lait, a physiotherapist and a Great Britain age-group triathlete and who will be joining Hooper as part of his crew for the swim.
“I opted to train with a TI coach because of the emphasis on efficiency. I’m planning on swimming for six hours twice per day with a two hour break in between. I need to have a swim stroke that is sustainable at two to two and a half miles per hour for that length of time, day after day.”
That amount of swimming will be as much, if not more, of a mental challenge as a physical one – something Hooper is well aware of, but also he believes prepared for, thanks to his degree in psychology and career history in the military and police.
“You need to have the right mind-set and you need to keep your brain occupied,” he says. “I think what I’m learning about TI swimming will also help as it gives you a number of focal points to concentrate on while swimming such as my hand entry or hip roll.”
Hooper’s start date is still two years ahead but he’s planning on logging two million metres of training in 2014 and taking in a few long-distance open water swims including the Hudson 8-Bridges, a seven-day 120 mile staged swimming race. He’s given up work to concentrate full time on training, planning, charity fundraising and securing the all-important sponsorship.
“We’ve already had discussions with a few potential sponsors and there’s definitely interest out there in what I’m doing but there’s still scope for more to come aboard,” says Hooper. “This is going to be something unique and special.”
One thing Hooper was very keen to emphasise is his intention to swim every mile of the distance between his start and end points, and that those points are part of the continental land mass.
“There have been other cross-Atlantic swim attempts but those have either benefited from significant current assistance (e.g. boat drift while the swimmer was sleeping) or started from an island (e.g. Cape Verde) so while being fantastic achievements do not really qualify as crossing the Atlantic,” says Hooper.
The difficulty Hooper will face in ‘swimming every mile’ is what happens while he’s aboard the support boat resting or sleeping. The boat will inevitably drift. His initial idea was that using GPS he could return each day to start at the point he’d finished before. However, his support boat’s skipper, Roy Finlay, says it is totally impractical to sail back against the prevailing wind and current. And, as they will be at sea for three months, they won’t be carrying enough fuel to motor back.
Finlay believes he can limit overnight drift to about two miles or 60 miles per month using a sea anchor. The distance will be accurately recorded using GPS and Hooper will swim the additional miles towards the end of the swim by altering the finishing point.
Many long-distance swimmers use their endeavours to raise funds for charity and Hooper is no exception. The two he has chosen are SOS Children’s Villages and Macmillan Cancer Support.
“The children that SOS look after have nothing and some are facing monumental challenges. I consider myself very fortunate. I had a dream and now I’m living it. It only seems right that I use my position to try to raise funds for others.”
Hooper has named his challenge, “Swim the Big Blue” and you can find out more on his website at: http://www.swimthebigblue.com/