On June 5 Ben Lecomte entered the ocean off Chiba Prefecture to begin his attempt at a record-breaking swim across the Pacific, with the aim of shining a light on ocean pollution and plastic contamination.
Now, almost six months and 1,500 nautical miles into the attempt and approaching the Pacific Ocean’s plastic accumulation zone (aka the Great Pacific Garbage Patch), the 50-year-old swimmer has had to abandon his attempt after his support boat, Discoverer, suffered irreparable damage to its mainsail in unprecedented storms.
“We’ve faced treacherous winds, rain and ocean swells that have forced us to alter our course, and the irreparable damage to the sail is an insurmountable blow,” Lecomte said recently from aboard the Discoverer.
This is not the first time the team has faced the prospect of failure. After swimming more than 500 nautical miles they were forced to pause the journey and retreat back to the Japanese coast in August, due to life-threatening storms and typhoons on a direct path to collide with the expedition. The most recent storms have finally forced the team to reconsider their onward journey.
Since setting off in June, Lecomte swam an average of eight hours a day and covered a total of 1,500 nautical miles to reach a tributary of the plastic accumulation zone. Throughout his journey Lecomte has encountered vast amounts of plastic that has been documented on his Instagram account and by his media partners, Seeker and Nomadica Films.
Lecomte hopes that despite the damage to the Discoverer, the team can still use this opportunity to conduct further research on the plastic accumulation zone, a 700,000-square-kilometer gyre of plastic material that floats halfway between Hawaii and California.
“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.”
In collaboration with 27 scientific institutions, including NASA and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, Lecomte and his crew have collected nearly 1,100 samples along the way in an effort to learn more about plastic pollution, mammal migrations, extreme endurance, the spread of radiation from the damaged Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and even long-term spaceflight.
Born in Paris, Lecomte became the first person to swim the Atlantic Ocean without a kickboard in 1998; the 5,980-km journey took him 73 days. With this expedition — more than five years in the making — he had hoped to become the first person to swim the Pacific.
“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 with The Japan Times in June. “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?”