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Man with local ties off on epic swimming endeavor

Ben Hooper is a former area resident who trained this summer at the Millsop Community Center

Ben Hooper, 38, walks onto the beach before his swimming expedition to cross the Atlantic, in Dakar, Senegal, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016. Ben Hooper has been planning to make the epic endeavour for more than three years to become the first person to swim the full 1,635 nautical miles from Senegal to Brazil. (AP Photo/Carley Petesch)

Ben Hooper is off and swimming, his goal to make history by swimming every mile of the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to South America.

The 38-year-old former police officer from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire in the United Kingdom, began his swimming expedition Sunday, leaving Dakar, Senegal, to head to Natal in northeast Brazil, a destination he hopes to reach come March. The swim is nearly 2,000 miles or 1,635 nautical ones.

He is joined in his attempt by a sailing crew, medical staff and an observer to verify his accomplishment. His day-to-day schedule will be swim about eight hours a day, then eat and sleep on the main boat.

Hooper has local ties, as this is where his father and stepmother, Anthony and Ruthi Hooper, reside, and he’s lived in Steubenville and Wintersville before. Hooper stayed with them earlier this year, from March through early June, training at the Millsop Community Center in Weirton six days a week. His father had encouraged him to come to Jefferson County for a spell as he trained for the Swim the Big Blue expedition that at that time had been delayed, but not abandoned.

Anthony Hooper offered an e-mail update on the expedition that has had its share of setbacks in the three years Ben has been preparing, training, fundraising and promoting, all to the theme of “Dream, live and achieve — nothing is impossible.”

“After Ben left Ohio (amidst tears from many people), he returned back to England to complete the preparations for his adventure and take part in some major charity events. He was really appreciative of his time at the Millsop Center in Weirton, and all the friends and support he had from there really helped inspire him (he still talks about certain individuals).

“The boat, Swim the Big Blue, set off from Lowestoft in England and has been plagued with problems since that day. Engine malfunctions (spares had to be brought in from Belgium), then electrical problems resulting in a week in docks, and she still was not out of English waters. The boat encountered severe weather in the Bay of Biscay which resulted in a torn main sail, and she had to put into port for repairs. Once under way again, the boat ran into more bad weather and limped into Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. This time, the whole sail needed to be replaced…..this was not an easy task and resulted in a two-and-a-half-week delay.

“It was while in Lanzarote that several of the team decided that they were not going to continue with the adventure for a variety of personal reasons,” Anthony Hooper continued.

“In the meantime, Ben had completed all of his charity fundraising obligations in the UK, said goodbye to his daughter Georgia and had flown to Senegal to begin his acclimatization training. This, too, was fraught with problems as when he landed, the customs people demanded an exorbitant amount of import tax for his specialty equipment,” he wrote.

“While the boat was in Lanzarote, the skipper decided he could no longer go on with the mission. He would sail it to Dakar, Senegal, but at that point would fly home. The stand-by skipper decided it was too much responsibility and would not carry on either.

“After the boat left Lanzarote, the wind died on them for six days, and they had to rely on the engines to make way to find wind, adding more time delays to the adventure.

“And finally the crew member, who also was his massage therapist, quit four hours before the now-delayed departure. At this point, Ben was becoming very anxious because if the delay continued much longer, then he would miss his weather window in the Western Atlantic later on (January 2017),” his father continued.

“Ben is a very resolute character, and he and I kept in touch by Skype. He told me that he conducted a number of interviews via phone and Skype for replacement crew and organized their travel for them. The original skipper had a change of heart and flew back. Ben also managed to recruit a couple of local kayakers to come along as well. All this time, he was training everyday and adjusting to the heat and humidity.

“The crew arrived on Thursday, Nov. 10th, and the start was scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 12th. But fate had one more thing in store for him. The tiller broke. He found a local craftsman who worked through the night and had it ready for him in the early hours of the next morning.

“But, all that notwithstanding, he stepped into the water at 10:30 a.m. local time on Nov. 13th and began his cross-Atlantic swim.

“At this time, he has already swum more than 30 miles. For folks who want to track this outstanding adventure, they can track him on www.swimthebigblue.com/trackben. Donations toward his charities also can be made here as well,” Anthony Hooper noted.

“I should mention as an afternote that there is a second vessel traveling with them. A delightful couple who are sailing around the world in their yacht, Maid of Crete. Extremely supportive and such nice people. Makes me feel a little happier about his safety.

“Depending on weather and conditions, he seems to be swimming at least 10 miles per day so far…..of course, with it being this time of year, daylight hours are reduced,” Anthony Hooper added.

During an interview this summer, Ben reaffirmed       the swim will be verified by the Guinness Book of World Records, with key objectives to raise awareness of environmental and ocean issues; provide inspiration (he nearly drowned as a child and has battled depression); and create a grassroots sports foundation while raising money for three charities: Maggie’s Cheltenham, SOS Children’s Villages and Addaction. It also will involve a documentary along with research in psychology of performance, endurance nutrition and health, expedition medicine, marine biology, oceanography and the environment.

And the adventure will be streamed online, meaning viewers will be able to view every minute of his trip on the official Facebook page, though Ben had mocked it would be akin to the excitement of “watching paint dry.”

The expedition is “a freaking awesome adventure, and it’s a huge world first. Every single mile of the Atlantic, and that’s a key thing — not just the first swim across the Atlantic — it is every single mile, and that’s what Guinness is looking for,” he had said this summer of the undertaking promoting transparency.

“It’s gotten huge, and that’s amazing,” Ben said of interest in the expedition then that had attracted national and international media attention.

Ben was born in London and moved around the United Kingdom with his family as his father served in the British Army. Anthony Hooper retired from the British Army after nearly 20 years, married Ruthi and moved to Steubenville. “She is originally from this area and had three sons by a former marriage, and all are here.”

The family also includes nine grandchildren, many of whom attend school in the Indian Creek Local School District.

During the summer interview, Ben said he had “put everything into this to show the world, children and adults alike that you can achieve anything you set your mind to.”

He added, “I’ve overcome death, physical and mental impairment, and I’ve got to do it. I owe it to my daughter, myself, my sponsors, my family. We’re going to do this.”

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