It seems unfair that after swimming 1,500 miles, Ben Lecomte had to cut his open ocean swim short. But when Lecomte waded into the Pacific in Japan on June 5, he was planning to swim all the way to San Francisco, California, roughly 6,000 miles of away, depending on about a million different oceanic factors. Lecomte, 50, was hoping to become the first person ever to swim across the length of the Pacific Ocean. But five months after he’d set out, after having to restart his swim earlier this summer when fierce typhoons blocked his passage, Lecomte was forced to bow out this week.
It was just too damn rough.
“We’ve faced treacherous winds, rain, and ocean swells that have forced us to alter our course,” Lecomte said aboard his support boat, which had its mainsail damaged beyond repair during a recent squall. “The irreparable damage to the sail is an insurmountable blow.”
His gear, in case you were wondering, was fairly straightforward. A wetsuit, goggles, snorkel, and swim fins were the business end of his kit. Lecomte also carried a GPS device. Each night he’d climb about his support boat to refuel and rest. He’d then be dropped off where, according to his GPS, he’d stopped swimming the previous day.
Lecomte was swimming not simply for the glory of crossing the Pacific as the first swimmer, or as a personal challenge, but to raise awareness about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the Texas-sized swirl of plastic trash floating in the middle of the ocean. His plan, in fact, was to swim directly through the garbage zone. Lecomte had just begun to reach it when he was forced to tap out.
“Needless to say, this is a deep disappointment,” said Lecomte. “But I am committed to the big picture and am hopeful about the opportunity to explore and examine this unique part of the Pacific.”
He swam eight hours per day and wolfed down about 8,000 calories each day to keep going. Lecomte remarked that the swimming itself, while taxing, wasn’t the most difficult part of the challenge. The real effort was occupying his mind while swimming. And swimming. And swimming.
Though, this wouldn’t have been Lecomte’s first trans-oceanic swim. Back in 1998, he swam across the Atlantic, becoming the first person to manage that bit of insanity. That journey took Lecomte only 73 days. His Pacific swim was expected to last between six and eight months.
Scientific research groups affiliated with NASA and Woods Hole were gathering data from Lecomte’s swim to investigate the garbage patch. The stress on the human body during an unprecedented physical effort like Lecomte’s was also being studied. The long duration of Lecomte’s swim was to enable scientists to conduct long-term studies on the health of the Pacific, with his support boat dragging a suite of sensors that recorded data along the journey.
“I have a deep connection with the environment — but unfortunately within my almost 40 years of swimming, I’ve seen big changes,” said Lecomte in an interview. “There is plastic everywhere; clean beaches I walked on when I was a child now have plastic. Do I sit back and not care about it? Or do I use my passion to shine a light on the issue?”
1,500 miles is a jaw-dropping distance; Lecomte hasn’t said whether he’ll try again, but it’s difficult to imagine he won’t.