In May 2017 Ben Lecomte will set off on a beach for a swim in Tokyo. 6 months and 5,500 miles later, he will arrive in San Francisco, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. He will swim for 8 hours a day, burning 8,000 kcal a day for 180 days to raise awareness for environmental sustainability and the impact that we have on our oceans. I will be sailing alongside on Discoverer, or ‘Disco’, a 67ft steel hulled Challenge yacht, looking after Ben and conducting medical research on him. Disco is currently on route to San Diego under the command of our skipper, Scotty, for the final refit. After this, the full team will be brought together to sail across to Tokyo where we will set off on The Longest Swim.
So how did I end up in this position? Well, it starts with my sister, termed ‘the fixer’ by my parents. Thanks to her continuous spamming of opportunities from the Explorer’s Connect Jobs page, my brother has just spent three months at sea with Channel 4 filming The Mutiny, and another two brothers are being funnelled into prospective applications to join the British Antarctic Society. She herself spent a year in India through a job advertised on through the Royal Geographical Society. When, over a drink before Christmas, she showed me a link to join a crazy adventure with 9 complete strangers across the Pacific and back with a guy swimming along side, I wasn't exactly surprised. But she touched a nerve. Why, I thought, would I not consider dropping out of the surgical training programme I was enrolled in to join them for the rest of the year?!
Expedition-wise, the main prerequisite for joining The Longest Swim was enthusiasm for the project involved. After a Skype conversation and an overly keen email from me where I tried to mainly emphasise that I wouldn’t be too sea sick, I received an offer to join them. I headed home over Christmas to think about my life.
I am immensely happy and satisfied in my job as a doctor, but I cannot help but feel there is more to life at the moment than a quite intense and unrelenting training pathway. I know that my ‘end goal’ is to finish general surgical training, but being presented with this opportunity made me re-evaluate my career decisions. The training pathway traditionally does not allow for flexibility in ‘out of programme experiences’, so when I went to meet my Head of School to propose that I took a year out to go sailing around the world, I didn’t have particularly high hopes for a positive outcome. To be honest, I was really worried that he would categorically refuse to allow me to leave and bring to a head my inner conflict about the type of challenge I felt that I needed, and whether his programme offered it.
However, what followed was a hugely positive and momentum gathering meeting. I set out exactly what the opportunity would bring to my career in terms of personal and professional development, and to my training region in general. I was clear about my aims and reasons for joining The Longest Swim team and in return he was fair, frank and thorough with his consideration of the logistical aspects of taking time out and how it would affect my training.
My role as part of The Longest Swim team is as an Onboard Medic and Medical Scientist, responsible for the research we will be carrying out on Ben as he completes the swim. The research partners include NASA (and yes, ‘NASA’ might have helped sway the head of surgical training), University of Texas and the Institute of Exercise and Endurance Medicine. We will be conducting research into how the swim will affect Ben’s cardiovascular health using technology used on the International Space Station and also how swimming through the Pacific Garbage Patch with affect his own microbiome. Our medical support system has been set up in the UK through Medicine Offshore Solutions who provide telemed support.
Suffice to say, I have not taken a conventional route to my career. I took a year out after my foundation medical training to work as a dive medic in Madagascar for 4 months. I am only 6 months into a 2 year training programme at the moment and I am now taking time out again. Although some naysayers might disagree, I genuinely feel that I am not ‘running away’ from my day job. Instead, when opportunities to take challenges have arisen, I can't help but decide to take them and figure out the logistics later on. I firmly believe that you should be in charge of your own career and you are the best person to decide what is fundamentally going to benefit you in the longer term. When you have decided that there is no option but to take an opportunity, it is often easier to find solutions to facilitate it.
Being part of the Longest Swim Team will challenge me beyond belief, but I don’t feel like I progress unless I put myself in situations which are essentially difficult and stressful. I have been lucky to be able to take time out to join The Longest Swim, but it wasn't random. I made sure it was clear how my experiences would benefit both me and those responsible for my training. My advice to other people wanting to take time away from their jobs or training programmes to have adventures would be to propose an idea in a formal and thought out way which emphasises how the skills you learn will enable you to be better at your job. This, in the long term, will benefit those who are facilitating you going.
Words: Anastasia Benjafield
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