Ben Hooper – Swimming The Atlantic Ocean
An Interview With Ben Hooper
Ben was born in London, United Kingdom and is bidding to become the first person to successfully swim the Atlantic Ocean in full - every single mile. He will be aiming to swim from Senegal in Africa, to Brazil in South America - 2500 miles.
When and why did you get into swimming? Have you swam all your life?
It’s a very curious thing actually. I was born 6 weeks early with collapsed lungs in Lewisham, London and died in ICU. They bought in a priest to my cot to give me the last rights but somehow I survived and fought back! And then I drowned when I was 5 and half in a swimming pool in Belgium after a school lesson. I was resuscitated by a big Belgian dude on the poolside and he brought me round. But this experience actually kicked off my love of water. My water instinct was born and in my teen years I got into swimathons, triathlons, free diving, scuba diving -there’s always been something about the ocean for me. Wherever I’ve gone in the world if I see water I just have to go in, no matter what I am wearing.
That’s crazy. If you drown at five then I imagine for 99% of people they’d then have a phobia of the water and never set foot in a pool/the sea again. Sounds like it’s had the complete opposite effect for you.
Absolutely. As I say my water instinct was born from that day. It had the complete reverse effect and I can’t explain why. I was out on a boat yesterday, in the Keys in Florida, and was training and there’s just something about it. It’s almost like Ocean therapy, I can’t get enough of it.
Before we get onto the challenge [swimming the Atlantic Ocean], what did you do before?
I had a spell in the military, and police, and over the past seven years studied in Psychology.
So was work not particularly fulfilling?
It was more that I’d been sitting on this idea for a while and it was something I had always, always wanted to do. And I thought you know what if I don’t do it now, then some other crazy fool is going to do it and then I’ll always wonder “what if.” In my opinion it’s always better to try something and fail at trying rather than failing to try. And I totally believe in that. I did a lot of research and it had never been properly done before. No one has every swam every single mile between the two continents. I will become the first Human Being to swim one of the world’s oceans in full and that excites me greatly.
One of our other ZIDI Mentor’s (Sean Conway) swam from Lands End to John O’Groats and it was interesting to hear how it practically works. How does it work for you in the ocean?
There’s no two ways about it. It’s as close to the edge as it gets. Once we leave the coast of Africa we are kind of at a no return point. We will have two support vessels in the water. I will swim up to two 6 hour sessions in daylight hours. It will be between 15 and 26 miles per day. On the support boats I’ll have medics who are also trauma specialists. I will have a physio, an environmental researcher, there will be swim support, sailing crew, 120 days worth of supplies and my shark safety team.
So it’s not two men and a dinghy! It’s obviously a well thought out operation then?
It has to be. We’ve got sharks, jellyfish, 40 foot swells, cargo containers that are like icebergs which are just under the surface of the water. They’re always falling off the back of ships. Even though dolphins are cute, they weigh a hell of a lot and can get in the way. And on top of all of this you’ll have extreme weather. The water temperature will be very warm but the air temperature will be even hotter which brings all sorts of issues to the table, especially for me as a swimmer. Then throw in to the mix that I have to eat up to 12000 calories a day. It’s not something you can just rock up and do. I’ve bought in a specialist sports and exercise team to help me with my training and I’ve now been training for two years and I’ve swam over two million meters. You have to plan it properly to stand any chance of success.
There’s so many dangers and you’ve said you’ve always wanted to do it. When looking at it objectively do the dangers not outweigh the accomplishment. I.E. Isn’t this just too risky?
From my point of view knowledge beats fear. I’ve made a plan. I recognise this plan will change as like any battle you go into you have to adapt your plan to the set of circumstances that you are presented with. I would say this challenge is 60% and 40% luck. We can minimise the risks, but we can’t negate them. And I’ve been speaking with Ranulph Fiennes, who is my patron, on and off now for a long while and you look at Ran who is missing digits on both of his hands but he still climbed Everest. This is the nature of these extreme events and I am prepared for that, and I accept that.
Does the achievement outweigh the risks? Yes. Well I am, and I don’t mean this in a big headed way, inspiring people already. A paraplegic lady suffering with MS recently got in touch and she swam a mile for Maggies Cancer Care Charity and she said that was because I’d inspired her to do that. Secondly, the schools I’ve given talks at seem to have really energised the kids. They’re now talking about what they can do, and not what they can’t do. They’re talking about recycling plastics – so it’s creating awareness. Third point, importantly this challenge is for charity. And the 4th point, we are carrying out research – specifically effects of plastics in water. And if we get across, which we will do, and if we succeed, which we will do, then the impact it will have is huge. So, yes, the accomplishment outweighs the risks.
“From my point of view knowledge beats fear”
Amazing. And without meaning to put a dampener on it, what happens if you don’t make it? Like you say 40% is luck, what happens if that luck goes against you? How do you deal with that – especially after training for it for two years?
Once I finish crying into my wetsuit I will carry on swimming. The advantage we’ve got is we’ve got two support vessels. As long as I’ve got one functioning leg and arm, and the trauma surgeons are able to keep me breathing and alive, then we can get across. Beyond that, if it’s major storms we will batten down the hatches. If we suffer electrical damage we’ve still got wind power, and solar power.For me there is no downside here unless both boats sink, but even then the lifeboats are pretty cool. I’ll swim and continue to swim until we get there.
So again, it’s the preparation that gives you that confidence I guess. So what do your friends and family make of this?
My friends are extremely excited and proud and like me have the opinion that if you don’t believe in it then you won’t achieve it. So there’s a lot of belief there which is of great help. My daughter is 6 and she’s ecstatic.
So you’ve got a daughter? And you’re willing to put yourself through this type of danger knowing you could lose your life?
Yes absolutely. I want to inspire her. I want to show her that I am an ordinary guy who is going to achieve something extraordinary. I don’t come from a privileged background. I’ve had to build this from the ground up. This is about showing my daughter that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things. And I am hoping this will be something that gives her great pride and will help drive her, and her friends, in really pursuing her dreams and help her really attack life. Life is there to be lived, and that’s ultimately what I want to show her.
“I want to show her that I am an ordinary guy who is going to achieve something extraordinary.”
Fair play. That’s great. Fast forward 20 years and your daughter comes to you saying she wants to swim the Atlantic Ocean would you support her in that?
Absolutely. As long as I knew she’d sat down, worked out the risks, done the planning and research. I’ve been working 90 hour weeks for 2 years now – planning, training and chasing sponsors. It’s not easy. But I’d 100% support her.
A lot of people reading this interview will say “I’d love to do something like this, but I’ve got no money.” You’ve said yourself you come from a normal background so how are you able to afford to do this, to have the support crews, the people you’ve got helping you and to have no paid job for two years? Is that solely sponsorship and fundraising?
It’s more work than the training and the actual swim Steve. That’s the really difficult part of all of this – getting the money together. I am fortunate in that some people who have worked for me have worked for free. Without the generous support of people to pay for training, to give me time to pay bills, to supply certain things for free then I wouldn’t have been able to do this. It’s all about fundraising and getting sponsorship – you have to stick in those hours. I’ve got a guy letting me live at his house for almost free and all of these people truly believe in this expedition and the charity’s we’re doing it for and it’s humbling to me that they’ve given up their time for free. It renews your faith in people, it’s absolutely incredible Steve and I can’t wait to celebrate with them all on the finishing line.
You sound like such a positive guy. Has that always been the case or was there an event that kick started that?
Yeah I’ve always been quite positive dude and looking for my next challenge. I’ve written a crime thriller through Kindle. I believe that if you visualise what it is you want to do, and you actually put the hours in, then I firmly believe you can achieve things. Dreams aren’t easy to achieve and this won’t be easy but they are possible. Everyone said climbing Everest, going to the Moon were impossibilities. They can’t be done. But if you give it everything you’ve got and you make sacrifices, and believe me I have sacrificed a hell of a lot, then you are able to achieve the impossible.
“Everyone said climbing Everest, going to the Moon were impossibilities. They can’t be done. But if you give it everything you’ve got and you make sacrifices, and believe me I have sacrificed a hell of a lot, then you are able to achieve the impossible.”
When you complete it will the sacrifices be worth it?
I believe so. My target is to raise over a million for these charities and to really try and inspire young people and I believe when I complete this challenge those two things will happen and so yes it will have all been worth it.
So will it take 120 days to complete did you say?
Yes between 100-120 days, 2000-2500 miles depending on ocean movement and 12000 calories a day.
It’s unbelievable. If you’re completely honest, does this challenge, and all that it entails, scare you? Especially now it’s getting closer.
I stand by what I said earlier – knowledge conquers fear. I am not worried about the marine life, that’s the job of the team. If they fail they’re sacked and I am dead. My biggest fear and the thing that scares me most is failure. I am scared something will go wrong with me. Letting down my charities, my daughter and myself, plus everyone who has supported me would be just devastating. But it isn’t a fear that’s freezing me in place.
When you hit rock bottom, or a really dark place, what’s the thing that pulls you through that? Is there a place you go mentally?
It has to be down to me. Imagine swimming in the open water for 5-6 hours, twice per day, staring at a wall of blue. It’s lonely. You’ve only got your thoughts and everything you’ve smelt, felt or thought of in your past years come through at some point. So the motivation has to start with me. I then draw on the fact that what I am attempting is actually quite special and then I’ll think of all those that have made sacrifices to help me get into this position. And then the final place I’ll go is my daughter and my charities. What it will mean to them, especially the charities. They need this money. This isn’t about one guy on an ego trip, it’s about all these other things and that’s what will drive me when my skin starts falling off and I get covered in burns and jellysting stings – the wider impact of this challenge will get me through all of that.
Brilliant Ben. I really do wish you all the luck in the world. I know our readers will be desperate to get involved in some way. How can they support you?
I’ve got three charities that I am supporting which can all be seen on my site – swimthebigblue.com. On this site is also all my other updates, how my training is going and how you can get involved. I am also about to launch a crowdfunding campaign to help me pay for my shark safety team and also need some more money towards the 2nd support vessel. I always need more money through fundraising so anything that people can give would be magic. Let’s make history together.
Ben, this has been a brilliant half hour. Thank you so much for talking to me today. Me and all the team sincerely wish you all the very best. After speaking to you I’ve got zero doubt that you’ll achieve it and make history and we’re enormously proud to have you on board.
Steve, it’s been great mate. It’s so nice to hear that someone believes in you and understands why you’re doing it. Love the site, and look forward to the write up.