French swimmer challenges Atlantic

(7/17/98)

Swimmer may abandon Atlantic quest (8/11/98)

Frenchman plugs on, sets sights on Azores(8/12/98 CCT)

By KARIN PETRONI and KEVIN CASEY CONTRIBUTING WRITERS to The Cape Cod Times

HYANNIS - The seas were rough. The media frenzy around him was relentless. Still, Benoit "Ben" Lecomte was unexpectedly calm for someone about to embark on a 3,400-mile swim to France. Even after asking his girlfriend, Trinh Dang, for her hand in marriage, Lecomte was relaxed - even detached.

Ben Lecomte looks for his chase sailboat yesterday while aboard a press boat. (Staff photo by Vincent DeWitt)

Lecomte left Kalmus Beach about 3:30 p.m. yesterday under the cover of a gray sky and the peering eyes of about 150 onlookers and members of the media. The Frenchman from Austin, Texas, donned fins emblazoned with "Trinh, Will you marry me?" then stared at the ocean floor for a moment before parting a wave of cameramen to dive into the Atlantic. He plans to swim eight hours each day in two-hour shifts alongside a 40-foot sailboat, destined for the shores of Brest, France. During the next three months, the American Airlines sales representative will eat, sleep and ride an Exercycle aboard the boat when he's not making his way along the Gulf Stream. The first stage of his long swim is Nantucket Sound south of Harwich to the tip of Monomoy and Pollock Rip Channel.

Lecomte, 31, is swimming to raise awareness and money for cancer research in memory of his father, Pierre, who died of colon cancer in 1991. Thus far, he has raised more than $100,000 for cancer research. "I'm very nervous. I don't know if that's because you're all here or because it's a lifelong dream of mine I'm going to realize," Lecomte said at a press conference at Hyannis Yacht club before embarking on the swim. A group of children at the yacht club held up a sign they made with the words, "Swim, Ben, Swim." Dozens of young admirers were perched on a nearby jetty, scattered along the shoreline and packed into their parents' boats, hoping to catch a glimpse of the first man to swim the Atlantic - sort of.

Swimming almost parallel to the beach at first, Lecomte looked back to shore briefly, confirming his location and realigning his path. In one fluid motion, he altered his direction and headed toward the boats that dotted the horizon. Mother Nature was not on his side. An onshore breeze and swift current fought him as he swam the crawl stroke away from the coast. While Lecomte was protected by a small navy of Coast Guard, police and media boats, the intrusion of motorboats and windsurfers made the first leg of the voyage too treacherous for a reporter swimming behind him. Lecomte was surely oblivious to this activity with his head submerged in the waves, his neon-green snorkel the only evidence of his presence.

The silence may be Lecomte's greatest enemy on this trip. Just before he left, Lecomte smiled politely and said "thank you" to those wishing him a safe journey. He said that's what he will miss most - contact with other people. His sole companions on this journey are two guitar-strumming French sailors. Lecomte said he is not worried about weather problems or deep-sea creatures, nor is he concerned about the possibility that he might not be able to complete the epic journey. "I am not trying to prove anything to anyone but myself," he told the Times earlier this week.

Along with the sailboat, Lecomte will be swimming with a Shark Protective Ocean Device, an electronic field that repels potential predators such as sharks. He'll burn approximately 8,000 calories a day by swimming, which he plans to replenish with a heavy carbohydrate diet. At the start of yesterday's journey, there were 40 pounds of pasta on board. If successful and on schedule, he should land on the shores of Brest on or around October 10.

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Swimmer may abandon Atlantic quest

Cape Cod Times 8/11/98

By KARIN PETRONI

CONTRIBUTING WRITER

HYANNIS - Almost 1,700 miles into his swim across the Atlantic, Ben Lecomte's dream may sink. Overcome with loneliness and physical pain, the French swimmer is considering abandoning the mission near the halfway point of his journey. "I know the halfway point is close," Lecomte said through his spokeswoman, Colleen Turner, in Boston. "But it's only that, halfway." Lecomte told Turner yesterday that he has thought about quitting the 3,400-mile swim from Hyannis to France, but he is not ready to make that final decision.

Turner said that after a disturbing phone call from Lecomte yesterday afternoon, the swimmer sounded as though "he is losing his mind." "Sometimes I don't think I can conquer the loneliness," the 31-year-old Frenchman said. "The solitude is taking the greatest toll." Lecomte has had some company during the swim. Besides two guitar-strumming sailors in the support vessel, he has been accompanied by dolphins, sharks, turtles and jellyfish.

While the loneliness eats away at his spirit, the salt irritates his skin. The boat has a leaking water-purifier, so Lecomte has limited opportunities to cleanse the salt water from his body. According to Turner, the salt is affecting his senses and making him nauseous. "Though I see the miles slowly racking up ... it seems that the days just don't move forward," he said. Lecomte, whose journey began on July 16 at Kalmus Beach, told his spokeswoman that a bout with seasickness complicated the first few days of the swim. Seasickness was not the only obstacle in Lecomte's way. Prior to entering the Gulf Stream, he struggled against strong currents and choppy waters. The effort reduced him to only 4 to 6 hours of swim time a day.

Being in the water for a limited time, the swimmer should be well-rested. But, according to Turner, the winds and waves make it impossible for Lecomte to sleep soundly. "The lousy weather has impacted him," said Turner. "It has impacted his sleep. Sometimes he gets thrown out of his bunk." After days of treacherous ocean conditions, some that prevented him from swimming, Lecomte glided into the Gulf Stream on the 11th day. The stream's 80 degree temperature and swift-paced water helped push the swimmer toward Brest, France, where he was expected to arrive in mid-October. As the Gulf Stream widens, the temperature decreases and the waters have chilled Lecomte to an uncomfortable degree. Turner said she plans on discussing the decision with him this morning. "This is not a man with a death wish," she said of Lecomte. "He wouldn't do anything stupid." Turner emphasized that Lecomte does have other options besides curtailing the swim. She said "he might try to take a couple of days off to gather his strength."

Lecomte, a sales representative for American Airlines, is swimming in memory of his father, Pierre, who succumbed to colon cancer in 1991. He also hopes to raise money for the Association of International Cancer Research. The most difficult stage of the swim awaits Lecomte at the halfway point. "Now the real hard work begins, between my swimming and god-willing, a favorable drift," he said. "Even though the halfway point is due, I still know that the hardest part is in front of me."

Frenchman plugs on, sets sights on Azores(8/12/98 CCT)

By KARIN PETRONI

CONTRIBUTING WRITER

HYANNIS - Despite the mental and physical obstacles, Ben Lecomte has decided to stroke on. Instead of swimming directly to Brest, France, Lecomte has re-routed his trans-Atlantic journey to include a stop at the Azores, a group of islands about 800 miles west of Portugal. "He needs to be on land ... and get the hell off that boat," said his spokeswoman, Colleen Turner, in Boston. "He is not in a strong enough mental or physical state to swim another 1,700 miles." The swimmer, who usually communicates with Turner via e-mail, had not been responding to any messages. Lecomte announced his decision to continue during a conversation with Turner via cell phone. He began his swim July 16 in Hyannis. The 31-year old American Airlines sales representative will swim during the 500-mile trip to the islands, where he will arrive in approximately seven days.

Turner said Lecomte has "hit a wall ... I don't know if he can make it past this." Turner said she asked Lecomte not to get in the water for the next couple of days. "He is not in the right state to be swimming," she said. Lecomte, ignoring Turner's advice, swam yesterday for about four hours. He plans on slowly increasing the swim time as he regains his strength. While on land, technical problems with the boat and equipment will be fixed and Lecomte will rekindle his spirit for the epic swim. "A visit to land, some human interaction would be good for his motivation," Turner said.

The swimmer's mental condition improved when he made plans to head for land. He told his spokeswoman on the phone yesterday that he was feeling much better. "Don't worry," he told her. "I'm not a vegetable yet." After nearly a month of treacherous weather conditions, unbearable loneliness, and physical discomfort, Lecomte "doesn't want to push himself to a stage where he reaches depression or dementia," Turner said. Turner said Lecomte was unprepared for the conditions and solitude that he faces on the water.

Lecomte's longest prior swim was 24 hours of swimming laps in an Austin, Texas, pool. Turner said he may have underestimated the unpredictable forces of the salty sea. "I don't think he quite expected it to be this difficult," Turner said. Lecomte told her he longs for the comforts of dry land. Lecomte, a 1995 graduate of the University of Texas at San Antonio, is swimming in memory of his father, Pierre, who succumbed to colon cancer in 1991. He is also raising money for international cancer research.

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