Long-distance swimmer Ben Lecomte made waves when he crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1998—the first to do so without a kickboard. Two decades later, Lecomte attempted to repeat history by swimming across the Pacific, but was forced to stop when he reached Hawaii. Glory was not his end goal, however: the swimmer says this journey was focused on raising awareness about plastic pollution in our oceans. And today, his team announced a renewed quest to show what’s happening with plastic in the ocean by going to its epicenter, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Starting in May through September, a select group will visit the swirling gyre filled with plastic. And you could join them.
The groups says:
We are now seeking new crazy, fun, passionate, and skilled volunteers to help Ben on the next leg of the adventure! We’re looking for new crewmembers to volunteer on a 3-month swimming/sailing expedition from Hawaii to California. Positions include marine engineers, scientists, sailors, medics, influencers and plastic warriors available from May to September 2019. To help support Ben’s swim through the patch, while also collecting valuable scientific samples, with the goal to raise awareness on plastic pollution.
Previous sailing experience is preferred but not required. For your chance to be involved in this huge adventure make sure you like Ben’s Instagram and Facebook pages and send a introduction letter + CV to the team to firstname.lastname@example.org
Want to learn more? We asked Ben to tell us about his recent expedition and why he’s so fired up to personally expose what plastics are doing to our oceans.
Why did you want to swim from Japan to California, clear across the Pacific?
Ben: I wanted to use this swim as a mode of expression, a platform to learn more about our ocean and how to protect it. We partnered with 27 science institutions including NASA, Woods Hole, and Scripps. My crew collected over 1,000 samples for oceanic and medical studies. We also worked with NGOs and our media partner, Seeker, to share the story along the way on social media and seeker.com/theswim. The idea was to raise awareness on the impact we all have on the ocean, with a focus on plastic pollution.
I didn’t see this expedition as a race from A to B, but rather as an amazing exploration in a world we know very little about. In that context, my idea of success was to embark and inspire as many people as we can and help spread the word on big dangers for our oceans such as single-use plastic and microfiber.
Why that route in this ocean?
Ben: After I swam the Atlantic in 1998, the Pacific was the next mountain to climb. Our route followed the Kuroshio and North Pacific currents–I wouldn’t have stood a chance without them.
What pre-departure training did you need to do to be ready–both physically and mentally?
Ben: My physical training consisted of sustaining a pace of 120 bpm for an extended period of time, so a lot of cardio, running, and biking. Plus a bit of swimming, but not too much; I wanted to keep the pleasure for the expedition!
The big part of my training was mental: working on a combination of meditation techniques to be able to put my body on autopilot and travel far away with my mind. I had to make sure I could stay sane after eight hours of blue every day.
What’s your typical breakfast, lunch, and dinner? What’s a comfort food you enjoyed on the boat?
Ben: My before-swim breakfast was porridge with coconut milk powder, carbohydrate powder, dried fruits, and almonds. Also, an energy shake when I felt like it. During my eight hour swim, every hour I’d eat a piece of freshly baked bread and a soup of calorie-dense freeze dried food mixed with coconut milk powder and carbohydrate powder. For dinner, I shared a rich meal with the crew; I would take a double portion and usually wake up at night for more food or a calorie shake. The food I enjoyed the most was the bread made by our skipper, Yoav, everyday…the best in the area!
You had to swim upwind against some big waves. Isn’t it incredibly discouraging to try to make progress in those conditions? How did you motivate yourself to keep at it?
Ben: We had a rule on board: I didn’t want to know how many miles I did every day, so I wouldn’t actually know where I was! That was a way to focus on every single hour–I couldn’t wrap my mind around a 5000-mile journey. I allowed the crew to tell me about my progress in one case only, when I performed very bad. One day in the first two weeks (I believe it was day 15), I swam more than eight hours and covered…five nautical miles. It was due to the effects of a big storm passing nearby, blowing wind and waves against me. At first it was very discouraging, but with time you learn to differentiate between what you can and cannot control. The best I could do was just keep swimming, and it paid off a week later when I was covering over 33 nautical miles in the same amount of time.
What was your greatest physical challenge?
Ben: The battle with the weather was one of the greatest physical challenges. Every time I would go on the boat after swimming through rough conditions, I got very seasick–even though I was fine while in the water. That was the toughest thing to combat after a long, tiring day of swimming. More long-term physical issues from the journey were skin infections from the rubbing of the wetsuit and salt water, weight loss, and the cold temperature when outside of the core of the warm current.
Conversely, what was the most challenging situation mentally or emotionally?
Ben: Saying goodbye to my children in the water when I left Japan was really painful.
How did you deal with the monotony of swimming so many hours day after day?
Ben: The game is to dissociate my mind from my body. I switched to autopilot and traveled away with my mind, far from the blue, the cold, and the salt. Every hour, I did a workshop where I kept my mind busy with something different. One hour I tried to relive a memory, focusing on the senses that are silenced during my swim: smell, touch, vision…the next hour, I would try to solve a problem or build an imaginary building. Keeping my mind busy was the most challenging part of the exercise; it’s mind over matter.
You’ve mentioned bioluminescent plankton, jellyfish, cresting waves, storms, lonely fish, plastic. What kinds of things did you encounter?
Ben: A lot of sea life. Every day we were welcomed by dolphins, turtles, whales, sharks, fish, plankton, birds…just take your pick! Going so slow allowed me and my crew to realize how full of life this blue world is.
On the other side, we were also petrified by the amount of trash in our way. It was not one but many, many pieces that we saw every day without even looking for them. Around the boat or in the water in front of me when I swam, I saw plastic several times a day. Nets, bottles, bags, boxes, packaging, balloons…it’s like seeing the dark side of humanity in the most pristine environment. It’s even scarier to think that this is only the tip of the iceberg–the core of the problem is invisible. Microplastic and microfiber pollute the surface water, intoxicating the entire food chain and eventually our bodies when it ends up on our plates.
Tell us about your experience in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Ben: We didn’t fully reach that area, but what was surprising was the amount of trash and microplastics that we ran into outside of the most concentrated area that everyone knows of. It’s wider than people believe it to be, and we look forward to comparing what we found throughout the ocean to that of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We saw plastic every day and collected microplastics each day of the swim. We are excited to go to the garbage patch in May to see what is happening there.
What was the greatest joy of the expedition?
Ben: The encounters with wild sea life–sharks, swordfish, whales, turtles. You find that no matter the size or type of animal, they are always very curious. They’d come to check me and the boat out, then go on their way. Even birds would come down. I had an albatross drop in and give me a fist bump with his beak.
What part of your gear kit was most effective at keeping you safe?
Ben: My wetsuit was the most crucial, as it kept me warm. We also used shark repellant, but I never felt in danger from sea life or the water condition.
You had pretty high-tech gear to protect you from some dangerous encounters—–your anti-shark bracelet and your Rad Band that filters the water of Fukushima radiation. Those are some pretty consequential “adversaries”––do these small devices really work?
Ben: Our science experts already knew the amount of radioactivity in the water was not dangerous for me. I could have swum in front of the Fukushima plant; the radioactivity level of the water is below what we get when being on a plane. I wore the Rad Band to study the variations of radioactivity across the ocean, and also to learn more about the currents, as radioactive cesium acts like a colorant to follow the movements of water.
The anti-shark bracelet did not prove to be efficient–it was more a backup than anything else. I had a shark shield, a bigger device that creates a magnetic field around me. But most of the sharks we met weren’t a threat at all, they just come by out of curiosity. We ran into a large Mako shark that swam with me for a while, but nothing more threatening than that. They are not my adversaries––they were good neighbors, and the risk of attack is minimal. We have to realize that we are the predator, not the other way around. We kill more than 100 million sharks per year. Knowing that, I’m more happy than scared when I meet one. They are essential to our ecosystem.
Why is it that you had to stop short of your final destination? How did you and the team arrive at that decision?
Ben: We had to go back to land twice and wait for a weather window to go forward, which pushed us further into the storm season. We were already up against some bad weather, but by the time we hit fall, we saw low pressure and stronger storms. Unfortunately, it’s something we couldn’t really control; we couldn’t maneuver as well as we wanted to. I was the only one willing to keep going further, but I couldn’t ask them to take on the risk. So, we made the difficult decision that being very far from land, running low on resources, and having a broken mainsail, we would sail to the closest location and continue to collect data along the way.
You said you did not reach your physical and mental limits before having to call the journey. Did you want to hit these limits? Why?
Ben: That was probably the most frustrating thing–I didn’t feel like I hated the water. I was very much still into the routine of swimming, and to stop before I hit that wall was frustrating. I was looking forward to seeing if I could push these limits further, but I didn’t get to do that.
What are you most proud of in this accomplishment?
Ben: The fact that we got home safely as well as the impact I’ve seen in raising awareness about taking better care of our oceans. The feedback has been very encouraging, which is something I’m very proud of. It’s given me the motivation to get back out there and try again.
So you think you’ll try this swim again?
Ben: What I want to do is resume it. I don’t know in what way…whether we just go back to where we last were and finish it, or swim across the Garbage Patch to collect more samples. We have a lot of data that I want to go back and get a better look at.
Where do you go from here? Mentally, physically, etc.
Ben: Right now, my focus is on working out the logistics of getting this swim together and continuing to raise awareness on plastic pollutions in the ocean.