Ben Lecomte: The Longest Swim – 5,500 Miles of Science and Sustainability.

Hey Sentinels! I hope you all had an incredible summer! For my part, although it’s been great getting away for a while, it’s also a relief to be back to cooler weather! It’s been a hot one in the Mexican coastline.

During this period, I came upon a couple of amazing stories that I would like to share with you.

The first one below is about an astonishing expedition which is currently taking place just as you are reading this article.

The other one I will publish next week and deals with some insights I learned during my last surf trip to Puerto Escondido.

So, let’s get right to it!

The mission continues…

For the better part of this year, I have been dedicating a fair amount of time writing about ocean conservancy and disposable plastic awareness. This is an essential topic which is slowly gaining traction worldwide.

From heroes like Sian Sikes to ocean conservation organizations, such as Sea Shepherd and Surfrider foundation, environmental awareness and active involvement is key for our ocean’s survival.

My attention finds itself captivated once again by yet another extraordinary expedition: The Longest Swim.

This adventure is nothing short of mind-blowing. It involves an extraordinary individual and his desire to not only break physical and mental boundaries but also bring scientific fact about our oceans precarious condition: The Longest Swim’s main protagonist is Benoit “Ben” Lecomte.

Ben is attempting to swim across the Pacific Ocean in 180 days….let me write that one again folks…as you are reading this, Ben Lecomte is swimming, right now, across the Pacific Ocean, having started in Choshi, Japan and ending in San Francisco. That’s a distance of 5,500 miles, swimming an average o 8 hours every day!

Ben has trained for the last 6 years for this expedition, having previously swum successfully across the Atlantic Ocean in 1998.

“A team of researchers from 13 scientific institutions including NASA and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will conduct studies on 8 different subjects during The Swim. From plastic pollution to space exploration, this adventure will be a unique opportunity to collect data and learn more about the oceans and the human body in extreme conditions.”

Lecomte is not of this planet!

At the core, The Swim is all about scientific discovery…

Besides lending his mind and body for scientific studies focusing in human super endurance, the expedition has also other very clear objectives which will be at the top of the expedition’s priority list:

How the Fukushima nuclear disaster has affected the ocean.
The health of Phytoplankton.
The Gravity Effect (NASA).
Cardiovascular health.
Microplastic and ocean health.

Other challenges he will be facing will be low water temperatures, special nutrition needs, solitude, swimming through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (extending for a colossal 1,000 miles!), and ocean wildlife (including sharks…not the main concern when compared to swimming through swarms of jellyfish).

The supporting cast…

Ben has been joined by his faithful support crew of 6, traveling side by side during his swim aboard the “Discoverer”, a sturdy,  67 ft (20 m) steel monohull sailing boat Challenge 67. “Disco” as She is affectionately called by all the crew, was designed to take part in the legendary Global Challenge round-the-world race.

Disco’s deck and the main structure are in steel. This material is a favorite maritime construction due to its durability and sturdiness. The Pacific has some of the roughest weather patterns in the planet. Discoverer was designed to face impacts and challenging weather conditions, a given the crew knows they will have to endure at some point during their crossing.

And why a sailboat?

According to Ben and Discoverer’s skipper, Scotty:

“…a sailboat is an ideal choice since it will require for very slow sailing along Ben’s 6-month journey. Relying on an engine during this expedition, with no stop-overs whatsoever, was definitely not the way to go”.

So, wind power is the order of the day for Discoverer’s Seeker support crew. Other than Ben and the ocean, the Discoverer is the third main protagonist of this incredible story.

The Seeker support team and Discoverer

Preparation of mind and body…

Besides choosing the ideal transport for the crossing, Ben has also prepared himself by swimming countless hours in open waters, and of no less importance, learning and sharpening his mind by using visualization and disassociation techniques. Visualization is pretty straightforward to understand, as many of us who have practiced some extreme sport know,  having used visualization at some time or another, when facing challenging conditions out in the water.

Dissasociation, however, is entirely a different matter.

In an interview with AFP news, Ben explains:

“The mental part is much more important than the physical. You have to make sure you always think about something positive. When you don’t have anything to occupy your mind it goes into kind of a spiral, and that’s when trouble starts”.

Challenges and adversity the order of the day…

Through such distances and uncertain environments, far away as one could possibly imagine from any civilization, adversity is almost a daily affair.

It takes extremely clear objectives and clarity of purpose to get you through those inevitable rough patches, as Ben retells his experience during a difficult day:

“This morning the wind and waves were coming from the north and were stronger than yesterday. We still had to progress toward the north and this was going to be a challenging day.

Maria was back in the kayak. She communicated a few times with the crew on the VHF to verify that we were going in the right direction. Each time we took a break to feed me we felt we were pushed back from where we came from. Maria was drifting in the opposite direction, the wind and waves dragged her much faster than me.

She was trying her hardest to keep the pace but she was paddling slower than I was swimming. After a few hours, I knew I wouldn’t be able to swim for a full 8 hours at that pace because it was too slow and I couldn’t generate enough heat to stay warm.

At midday, we had planned to have Paul trade place with Maria. At that time Seeker wasn’t close to us, I could only see the top of the sails at the horizon. Maria gave them our position and corrected it a few times as we were drifting fast. After 45 minutes Seeker finally reached us but by that time I had waited too long in the water and was cold, I decided to get back on the sailboat and stop swimming for the day.
Even in those challenging conditions, Maria managed to collect a big 5 gallons clear plastic bottle…”.

Ben’s final thoughts…

And so what’s next for our lone hero’s awe-inspiring adventure? As I publish this post, it is August 29…Ben and Disco’s crew are located here, approximately 750 miles east of Choshi, Japan.

They have seen their share of natural wonders out in the deep sea, as well as constant reminders of our indiscriminate use of plastic waste.

Ben finishes this article, adding a final thought that we should all take to heart:

“What do I stand for? I am not against plastic, I am for a responsible way to use plastic, one that doesn’t pass on any liability down to the next generation. Like many people, I am struggling with how I can reduce my use and limit my impact. My bad habits are still entrenched in my daily life and like any bad habits I find it difficult to change them. I have a tendency to resist change and feel more comfortable sticking with the status quo.

I know how to push my physical and mental limits and how to get out of my comfort zone but I found it very challenging to stop my relationship with plastic, stop following the easy path and more convenient way when using plastic.

For the past few years, I have made some changes in my life to reduce my use of plastic and try to single-use plastic, but I have more to do. I am very fortunate to see firsthand how pervasive plastic is and how vast is the problem we have created. This is a very strong motivating force for me to make more changes.

I am very fortunate to be where I am and foster a unique relationship with the ocean. This has a profound impact on me, it is reshaping me as a person and redefining my role as a human being; I feel I have a responsibility to give a voice to the ocean.

Thank you to all you for following and supporting us. You inspire me to be a better steward of the ocean and I appreciate any feedback that would help me achieve it”.

Conclusion…

Ben’s commitment and candor are truly inspiring.

Like Sian Sykes, whom I have also mentioned in past articles, and her incredible marine conservation awareness odyssey in Wales, Ben has taken his interest and that of other ocean conservation organizations to a whole different level.

This is how involved we must be…not swimming a whole ocean, no. That’s for super-men and women like Ben and his crew.

But we can also be heroes, unassuming and perhaps a bit humble, in our daily efforts, but, together, we can make a HUGE difference.

I hope you liked Ben’s continuing odyssey in the Pacific. He is truly one of a kind, as are we all, in our battle to protect our fragile planet. Please share this article with your friends and loved ones.

They must know about Ben and what he is trying to accomplish.

Thanks again for reading and talk soon!

The Hidden Mystery Behind Scheck Exley

When Myth Becomes Legend…

Every sport has personalities which transcend and go beyond the ordinary.

These individuals, with their unwavering courage and persistence, their incredible vision and steadfast commitment to their beliefs, have left an undeniable footprint in our hearts and memories.

In basketball, Magic Johnson & Michael Jordan, in Football, Tom Brady & Peyton Manning; in Soccer, Pele & Messi, in Formula 1, Ayrton Senna & Michael Schumacher.

In the ever evolving world of action water sports, legends, both living and dead, have also made a positive impact, leaving a legacy of excellence and commitment.

They may not be as famous as the mainstream sports heroes mentioned above. But their contributions cannot be denied.

Sheck Exley

In surfing: Laird Hamilton & Kelly Slater; in windsurfing: Peter Cabrinha and Robby Naish; and in extreme deep SCUBA diving, Jack Cousteau & Sheck Exley…when myth becomes legend.

It is because of this very reason, for their efforts, vision, and courage, that they stand out from the rest.

 

That is why, when one of these bright luminaries’ lives is suddenly and inexplicably snuffed out, the entire watermen community suffers, mourns and saddens.

For these are the rarest of individuals, almost super gifted, and to see their like again is very unlikely. Sheck Exley was such a rare individual.

Calculus Teacher, Karate Expert and Seasoned Cave Diver… At age 23!

Sheck Exley was born on April 1, 1949. His first cavern dive was at barely 16 years of age.

Diving has always been an expensive sport to practice. Cavern and cave diving even more so, since it demands special equipment and redundancy (two of each piece of equipment, in case of an unforeseen event).

Exley financed his passion by teaching math and calculus at a local high school in Florida. He also served as an aquanaut for 8 days aboard a Hydrolab Underwater Habitat in the Bahamas.

By the time he was 23 years old, he had accumulated 1000 cave dives under his belt.

At age 42, near his unfortunate passing, he had amassed a total of 4,000 dives.

He was also one of the few divers to survive a 400 ft dive (120 m) in open water, on simple compressed air.

He is one of eleven people, and the first, to dive below 800 ft (204 m), doing multistage decompression of up 13.5 hours, never suffering from Decompression Sickness.

Exploring The Deep Corners of The Earth…

Sheck Exley pushed the limits of extreme deep diving.

Like Reinhold Messner, Exley became famous by pushing the limits of the possible.

His expeditions into Nacimiento de Rio Mante (Mexico) and later on in Bushmansgat (South Africa) paved the way for extreme technical diving, advancing our understanding of diving at great depths“. 

Bushmansgat South Africa

In fact, Exley was so dedicated to the perfectionism of extreme deep diving, that he actually purchased Cathedral Canyon Spring, in Florida.

Once installed, he began the exploration of the spring system, which resulted in a world record penetration of nearly two underwater miles.

This alone was a tremendous accomplishment for the young diver. The fact that he made it solo in eleven and a half hours was a testament of his technical ability and sheer courage.

Rio Mante & The Sink Hole at El Zacaton…

For a few years after Cathedral Canyon Spring, Exley excelled at pushing the barriers of extreme deep diving, both in depth and distance.

His incursion and experimentation with Trimix  diving El Nacimiento De

Nacimiento del Rio Mante

Rio Mante (Mexico) allowed him to descend to a depth of 881 feet (another world record) without feeling the effects of nitrogen narcosis or oxygen toxicity. Trimix also shortened decompression times significantly during ascents.

It wasn’t until his expedition to Bushmangat (South Africa) that Exley suffered his first deep diving incident.

In 1996, he reached the bottom of Bushmangat but soon after he experienced a severe case of high pressure nervous syndromeHe suffered from uncontrollable trembling and blurred vision.

Having recovered from his bout with HPNS, Exley soon joined Jim Bowden, a 52-year-old adventurer and dive instructor from Austin, Texas, to sttempt a descent into the world’s deepest sinkhole: El Zacaton, Mexico.

El Zacaton…

This was it. If the Andrea Doria was considered the Everest of technical deep diving, due to its complexity and multi faceted approaches, El Zacaton was considered the K2…treacherous, unforgiving and deadly.

Into the Abyss and Beyond…

And so, on April 6, 1994, two of the world’s most skilled extreme deep divers plunged into the dark, murky waters of El Zacaton. (For an unsurpassed, detailed account of the Zacaton dive, please refer to this article by Sports Illustrated).

Suffice to say that Bowden and Exley were both determined to reach the 1000 ft milestone. This was their descent; their K2.

Many months of detailed planning and logistics had come to this moment.

The proportions were staggering: if you were to place the Empire State building inside El Zacaton, one could step onto its main observation deck where the observers and reporters were standing.

And thus began their descent into darkness.

After eleven minutes, Bowden had reached 898 feet when he noted that his gas reserves were lower than expected. Deciding to abort the dive, he ascended, going through a 9-hour decompression period.

Exley went on, the water so dark that he never knew of Bowden’s decision to abort. He would remain alone to the very end.

18 minutes into the dive, one of the safety divers, closely watching the bubble stream of both divers, noticed that Exley’s stream had stopped. What followed remains one of sport’s greatest mysteries.

The Mystery Unfolds Before Disbelieving Eyes.

Exley’s wife, Mary Ellen, descended to 279 feet to verify if the flow of bubbles had been diverted by some obstructions or ledge but they had not.

El Zacaton had taken a singular human life and left very few clues.

What happened to Sheck Exley during those 18 minutes?

Typically, a demise of a solo diver, under such adverse circumstances, left very few leads to go on. The people that knew Exley were certain of one thing: he did not panic.

Cave diving is to open-water scuba as flying an F-16 is to piloting a Cessna, and Exley was the ultimate definition of grace under pressure, even under the most harrowing of circumstances.

Breaking The Sheck Exley Code.

As if to defy El Zacaton’s deadly clutches, three days later, Exley’s body was recovered when the guideline was pulled from the cave.

What the rescue team saw left them speechless: Exley’s body appeared to be wrapped intentionally with the guideline, around his arms and valves of his dive tanks.

His dive computer read a depth of 879 feet.

It is speculated that Exley, seeing his imminent death, proceeded to do this in order to prevent any rescue attempts. At these depths, it would be suicidal.

It was also concluded, after a careful analysis of the incidents leading to Exley’s death, that he probably suffered from HPNS (oxygen-induced tremors and incapacitating).

But where the mystery really tightens its grip is with the primary dive tanks.

For reasons which remain unknown even today, Exley’s primary dive tanks became depleted sooner than calculated. It is conjectured that he had to switch to his “travel mix”, clearly not suited for such depths, exacerbating an already dire situation.

It is also believed that he also tied the surrounding guideline to stabilize a failed ascent attempt. His BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) was unable to fill with air from his “travel mix”, making things even worse.

At some point, many experts believe, Exley lost consciousness, eventually leading to his death.

One thing that everyone who has studied his untimely death is that there is no single factor that leads to tragedies like these, but more likely, a series of disastrous events.

These events result in situations that not even experienced individuals like Sheck Exley could have foreseen.

Reckless daredevil or pioneer and visionary?

Whatever you want to make of Exley’s life, one thing stands true above all. He left a legacy of safe, responsible practice in an inherently dangerous activity.

He pushed the limits and thrived in extreme situations. Like Schumacher, Hamilton, or Baumgartner, Exley knew exactly the risks of his craft.

Just like an experimental jet pilot, a great measure of his job was pushing the limits of what was possible.

In the end, Exley paid his awesome, jaw-dropping intrusions into the deepest places of the world with his life.

But isn’t this search for the unknown, this fiery curiosity, to see what is just beyond the next cave, part of what sets us apart as a species? We are explorers.

And as long as there are watery chasms to explore, there will always be that thirst for exploration. Like Sheck Exley? Probably not. He stands in a different dimension, in the halls of human exploration, along with Messner and Scott.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you think? When do you push to transcend? Or would you rather take a step back and let others take the risk?

Reckless risk is suicidal; some say, however, that this kind of risk is its own reward, whatever that means.

Calculated risk, on the other hand, is the path taken by explorers, pioneers, and visionaries throughout human history. Where do you stand on this?

Please offer your thoughts on the space below. I am looking forward to reading your comments on this!

Thanks for reading and I hope you liked this article.