I’ve been an athlete my whole life. I played multiple sports from when I was a kid all the way through college, even running four marathons in the past three years. I’ve always looked up to and respected elite athletes. Reading stories and seeing the crazy feats they accomplish always inspires me. So now that I have the chance to swim with the legendary long-distance swimmer, Ben Lecomte, how could I turn that down?
July 15th was my break day on the boat. My first day off a few weeks prior consisted of sleeping in, catching up on some work, watching movies, napping and preparing dinner later that night for everyone. Most everyone hangs low on their days off. It is a lot of nonstop hard work living on a research vessel for 3 months so a day off is sought after.
However, for my second off day, I wanted to push myself. I wanted to test my physical and mental abilities and do a whole day of swimming with Ben. Get a work out in, keep ben company, and see how difficult it is to swim 6-8 hours in a single day.
Let me start by saying I have a newfound respect for Ben and all long-distance swimmers.
I woke up that day with butterflies in my stomach. That nervous/eager feeling athletes get before a competition. Why was I feeling nervous or eager? I’m doing this for myself and no one else. There is no competition. No one watching. Heck, no finish line. I did a quick yoga practice to prepare my legs, an even quicker resistance band workout to open my shoulders and Ben sat on the couch replying to emails. I asked him why he never stretches out. He responded so matter of fact “I see stretching as another workout. I don’t want to do that!”
An hour later we’re both on deck slipping into our wet suits and applying Vaseline to the downstairs, upstairs, and back door. Basically everywhere you can imagine Vaseline going. We’re lubed up and hopefully chafe-free for the day.
11:20 AM Ben and I both jump in the water and prepare the swim line. The swim line is a pole that hangs off the right side of the dingy. At the end of the pole is a 40-foot line that drags just a few under the water. Every 10 feet there is a colored flag. This way Ben swims straight and knows where he is in relation to the dinghy in front of him. The white flag closest to the dingy is his favorite position and we align there in the water. He goes just left of the line on the inside and I’m outside on the right. Ben stops at the top of every hour so this first split should be an easy 40-minute warm-up.
The hardest split of the entire swim, I think to myself. Or will it be?
My shoulders ached after just 40 minutes of swimming. Still waking up. I’m glad I didn’t wear my watch today because my mind can’t stop wandering to what time it is and how much longer until the top of the hour. The dinghy crew hands us our break food. A freshly ground dry meal in a shaker cup with warm water. Mine is the Mexican dish. Yum. Sucking it down warms my insides and energizes me more than I think. A slice of bread is next. Freshly baked that morning by captain Yoav. This bread is the real reward for swimming an hour straight! A quick sip of water and Ben has already put his goggles and snorkel back on for the next full hour split. Today’s conditions are perfect with no wind or swell so he wants to make the most of it. I try not to lag too much and we set off.
The dinghy stops. Top of the hour I hope but I know it hasn’t been an hour. A piece of debris is in the water, it’s a medium-sized fishing basket. A common item seen in the garbage patch. We inspect it for a few seconds but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. We begin to move on. Wow, I think to myself. I hope we stop every five minutes for something.
Break two begins the same way our first break started: Warm soupy Mexican dish, bread, water, and goggles back on my face quicker than I’d hoped. It’s time for another hour. My goggles are leaking and fogging. My ankles hurt. I think my fins are rubbing into them now, even through my booties. My shoulders still ache. I’ve only been looking solely at a deep blue color sprinkled with hundreds, thousands, most likely tens of thousands of bits of microplastic. I definitely don’t ever want to do this again and I’m questioning why I’m doing it in the first place. I could just stop. Hop on the dinghy and listen to music with Corbin and Heather, enjoy talking story for the rest of the day while Ben swims. But what kind of story is that!?
Break three couldn’t come soon enough. My head hurts from my partial braided hair stuffed into my wet suit hood and I quickly rip off my mask and goggles. “This sucks,” I say. I down as much Mexican dish as one can drink and I realize I may only be here for the bread. I try and re-position my booties so my ankles won’t hurt. I spit into my mask to help defog my lenses. We push into hour four and shortly in we’re stopped. A curious albatross flew in and landed just next to us. Sneaker break! I’m so relieved. The Alby gets a few bits of bread and then he’s off. A perfect stop.
The dinghy comes to a halt. A quick hour I think! Sheesh, it’s taken four hours and I’m finally into my swimmer’s high. That euphoric state that clears your mind while exercising. It’s basically thinking without thinking. It usually happens to me within 20-25 minutes of running yet its taken four hours of swimming. “This is really difficult” I mumble. I try not to talk too much in the hopes of saving energy. At this point, I’m incredibly uncomfortable. Breathing through the snorkel I have to be careful not to inhale too much saltwater. A mistake I’ve made six times too many in the day already. That being said I haven’t had a full inhale of my lungs for the past four hours. I’m working on 3/4 oxygen. My lips and mouth are dried out and taste like salt and my jaw is starting to hurt from biting onto my snorkel. I’ve got a serious headache and my body feels tight in my wet suit. Since I didn’t finish all my soup on the last break the crew hands me my leftovers. Cold Mexican dish. I forcefully swallow the bottom of the shaker and let them know I’ll just stick to bread. Ben and I both gear up and kick into hour five.
Why are we stopping? Now I’m annoyed. My mind has been cleared and I’m not focusing on time. But this is too soon. Let’s just push through this hour! I look up to see a small ghost net just in between Ben and I. This is the second we’ve seen today. Apart from all of the hidden line that I’ve seen just a few feet under the water. Right. We’re also out here to research, document, and collect trash and debris. We chuck it onto the dinghy. Along with five other plastic bottles, a plastic bag, a 5-gallon gasoline container and other small plastic scraps that were picked up by Corbin and Heather. We push on.
Okay, maybe this isn’t too bad. It’s slightly meditative. When was the last time I’ve been quiet and had thoughts to myself? Sure, I’ll go hours back home and not talk to anyone. But I’ll text people, open Instagram, respond to an email, or watch a show. I haven’t had my mind to myself for this long in a very, very long time. The dinghy stops. And I’m roasted at this point. It’s 5 o’clock, the usual time Ben calls it a day. “This is seriously difficult” I relay to the crew. I’ve got my pruney fingers crossed that he calls it for the day. But we started late. We decide to take a few photos for content and will finish off the hour once the content portion is finished. I tell Corbin to take as long as he wants.
At this point, I am so ready to get out of my wetsuit, eat a proper warm meal, put some sweats on and curl up into bed and never swim six hours in one day ever again.
Ben swam the day before and the day before that and will swim the next day and the next day and the next day and the next month and a half straight until he hits his 300NM mark. He’s already ticked off over 160 nautical miles.
A glorious 40 minutes pass and the dinghy starts to pull forward. Only 20 minutes left and I’ll have completed my goal. This is a slow 20 minutes.
Why is Ben not next to me? I figure this is the final five-minute sprint finish after I see his fins in front of my face. I pick up my pace. I just keep looking ahead to see if the dinghy is slowing down. But it’s speeding up. I swear five minutes have passed and Ben is still pushing the pace. I am beyond dead at this point. 5 more minutes and finally we stop. “Screw you Ben” I tell him. He laughs, smiles, and high fives me. “Great finish!” Ben is stoked. I’d like to think I helped push him for a fast finish but really I was just trying to keep up.
I rip my mask and snorkel off. Remove my hood off to relieve the headache pressure. My hair is a single dread. My ankles hurt and I hope I don’t have to lift my arms at all the next day. My neck is also aching from looking down and cheating my vision left for 6 hours. I was only stung by one jellyfish on my hand. I’ve seen jellies get wrapped around Bens face that had 2-3 foot long stingers. Today’s conditions are the best I could ask for. Some days Ben goes out in 10-15 foot rolling waves. With gusting winds. Oh, and today was short. Just 6 hours.
Ben has completely downplayed this whole swim thing the entire time. I always assumed it’s difficult and tiring but I had no idea. We ask him every day, “Ben, how was the swim today?!” “Good” is his usual answer.
Ben is an elite athlete. He enjoys the swim but he doesn’t have to be out here pushing his body each day for months. He doesn’t have to drink ground up dry meal for lunch. He doesn’t have to swim in the middle of the great pacific garbage patch. But he’s doing these things to raise awareness to a bigger problem. He’s doing something bigger than himself. Shedding light on the world’s plastic problem.
Days on the boat we see thousands of plastics – Big, small, and usually micro. But if you dip yourself under the waves and swim for a few hours you witness even more destruction. I was given that opportunity and witnessed the tragedy of the things that lie just below the surface. Just before hopping back into the dinghy I thanked Ben for letting me join him and let him know it would be my last time.