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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Stage Swimming Across The Atlantic Ocean

60-year-old Jennifer Figge is getting ready to set sail on her fourth continuous stage swim across the Atlantic Ocean.

She will soon take off from Brava in the Cape Verde Islands off of Dakar. Brava is about 400 miles (640 km) off the coast of Senegal in western Africa. She will head to Antigua in the Caribbean Sea, although her final destination is weather dependent.

where she will start her adventure towards the Caribbean Sea. Figge will be escorted by Captain Tamas Hamor and First Mate Sara Hajdu, a pair of experienced cross-Atlantic sailors from Hungary.

In her previous three stage swims across the Atlantic, she has departed from Cape Verde and landed on shores of Trinidad. "We follow the North Equatorial Current between 10-15 degrees N. of the equator," explains Figge. "This is what I love about the sport. You cannot control an ocean; you simply embrace it for all that it holds. We take a six-hour plus block of time, each day and get the most we can out of it. The hours are really determined by the action of the day, and since my diagnosis of Atrial Fibrillation, the EKG."

Swimming across an ocean where anything can happen and a quick escape to land or safety is out of the question is arguably the most potentially risky type of open water swimming. Under those conditions, safety protocols and precautions take precedence at all times. "I swim every day that Captain Tamas allows. His decision is based on visibility, wind limits that we have established with experience, and any mechanical issues with the Catamaran.

Dangers and safety definitely comes first. As once you are out [from land] 150 miles, you are on your own. A helicopter only has fuel capacity for 300 miles, round trip. [Previously], we have gone 3 weeks without seeing another boat."

And they are reminded of very real dangers constantly. "When I dove into 30-foot seas in 2009, it took 21 minutes with 2 engines in full thrust reverse to get back to me. The possibility of being lost in heavy seas is real, but it is at the same time, such a thrill to be in those huge rollers coming off the African coast."

There are occasionally a loss of steering and transmission problems that prevent Figge from getting in the water. She also has had to be moved when she runs across longlines filled with bait in the middle of the Atlantic left by fishermen.

And sharks are always a very real possibility. "I am not migrating alone. It is their home, the oceanic white tip sharks. There was also an 8-meter baby humpback whale swimming directly behind me. When I saw its shadow, it looked like a small airplane. But there are more moments of joy than terror. I have swum along with 30 pilot whales for hours as well as countless dolphins and many leatherback turtles.

But the same jellyfish proliferation that is showing evidence along the coastlines is even greater in the middle of the oceans. "I spent four days swimming through a jellyfish and Portuguese man o war breeding ground. It was pure pain as they hung on my face. Fortunately, I didn't have any allergic reaction to them."

But when conditions are right and judged safe to swim, Figge usually dives in the Atlantic before 9:30 am, 2 hours after a huge plate of potatoes with olive oil and Parmesan cheese.

Folklore states that it takes 60 days for a message in a bottle to cross the Atlantic. "So with arms and legs, it should take less time," predicts Figge. "It would be interesting to compare travels with [crossings of] previous centuries, but we don't use any sails on our boat. We just drift naturally in the wind and currents. Our rule is no sails or engines forward."

Figge is supported by a crew of four Hungarians and a doctor from Spain. They take great care of her and can stay in connect with the outside world via two satellite phones that have 500 prepaid minutes each.

And the experiences she has gained are thoroughly interesting to hear. "I have been in a shipwreck where my boat was sunk off the shores of Tobago following the first Atlantic crossing in 2009. The Coast Guard came and asked, 'Are there any children on board? Are there any women?' The Captain answered, 'Yes, there is a woman, but she can swim.'"

There is an inner fire in her belly that becomes evident when she discusses her stage swims across the ocean. "Seriously, for me, the middle of the Atlantic Ocean IS my destination as it is the most romantic place on earth."

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