Her next feat: Swim the ocean
OFF THE COAST OF MIAMI - The catamaran isn't even out of Biscayne Bay yet, and already 56-year-old mother-turned-adventurer Jennifer Figge is giddy with excitement. She's squeezing into her wetsuit for a final test before her latest endeavor - one that even her own crew calls crazy.
The plan goes something like this.
She will swim 2,100 miles, from the Cape Verde Islands off Africa to Barbados. She'll do it in a shark cage attached to a sailboat, swimming for six to eight hours a day without rest. The journey will take about two months, and would make her the first woman on record to swim across the Atlantic Ocean.
"I'm saving lots of money," she joked. "I only have to buy a one-way ticket."
The way Figge sees it, she's been planning the expedition since she was 11 years old.
During a flight to Italy with her mother, a storm was brewing below the plane. While most children would have been scared, Figge had other thoughts.
"I told my mother, 'I hope that lightning hits the plane and we get to go down in the middle of the Atlantic and get into those cool life vests and swim the rest of the way,' " she said.
She and her family have always lived a bit large. Her mother was a longtime professional opera singer. Her husband was a successful banker who is now retired. And Figge's son, Alex, is a racecar driver in the LeMans Series.
It was through him that she found endurance sports. He asked her to stop smoking for his 7th birthday, and when she did, she had to replace her cigarette addiction with another habit.
The answer? The Davenport, Iowa, native completed the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa in 1990 with her husband.
She was hooked.
In all, Figge has now conquered more than 3,000 miles running and crossed almost 25 channels swimming (they have ranged from 8 miles in length to a few hundred miles), battling the elements all over the planet.
She fought through 8-foot swells and was stung by a man-of-war on her left leg during a 52-mile, three-day swim from Cay Sal Bank north of Cuba to Marathon Key last year. She outran hungry dogs during a 350-mile run across Romania. She swam through waters contaminated with sheep manure when she crossed the Straits of Tiran off Egypt, and wind gusts near 80 miles per hours lifted her off her feet in the Black Sand Desert during a 300-mile run across Iceland.
Each time, she was left wanting more.
"I haven't really had many challenges in life, so I have to challenge myself," Figge said. "Pushing myself to the limit is the only way I know how."
Figge would not be the first to swim across the Atlantic, but she apparently would be the first woman.
Frenchman Benoit Lecomte is believed to have been the first to record a trans-Atlantic swim. He swam 3,716 miles from Cape Cod to the Brittany region of France in 1998. The journey took him 73 days, with a stop along the way at the Azores Islands.
Captain Bill Ray, who has accompanied Figge on some of her swims, was approached about the trans-Atlantic journey last year. Figge gave him a blank check, and next to the "For" section at the bottom, she wrote: "Deposit to Swim Atlantic."
"I thought she was joking," Ray said. "Then I realized she wasn't kidding, and I thought this was crazy. But I was intrigued."
The plan has slowly come together.
The customized catamaran - fittingly named Carried Away - has a makeshift shark cage made of Kevlar attached to the back. The odd contraption, designed by a Miami-based team of engineers, has drawn stares and photos daily at the Coconut Grove marina in Miami.
The catamaran will carry Figge, Ray, a doctor, and at least one crew member and diver on a trek that will cost at least $250,000. The sailboat will be using its motor much of the way to slow down for Figge, consuming more than 700 gallons of fuel. Figge hopes to get sponsors to defray some of the cost, and Ray also has footed part of the bill.
But the physical endurance, especially for a 56-year-old, won't be easy.
Dr. Jerry Homish, a family friend who has sailed with her on other swims and will make this trip, estimates Figge will burn more than 8,000 calories a day. Her diet, which is still being worked out by a nutritionist, will load up on carbohydrates in the morning and protein at night, including Figge's favorite: cold pasta and potatoes. She'll finish off her day the same way she starts: with a caffeine-loaded soda.
"It will be an incredible physical and mental test not just for Jennifer, but for the crew, to be at sea for two months and not tire or go crazy," said Homish, an emergency medical specialist at the Holzer Clinic in Athens, Ohio. "But as impossible as it sounds, she is physically up to this. Her body can handle this sort of extreme endurance."
Figge, who trains above 8,000 feet at her home in Aspen, Colo., will swim in a wetsuit that deflects the sun's harmful rays. The workouts will be strenuous, causing her to vomit two or three times a day. Her main thoughts in the deep blue ocean, she said, will be trying not to break her rhythm - three strokes and turning for air - and concentrating on finishing her kicks.
"I've always dreamed about being this little thing in the big ocean," she said. "The cage is my playpen. It's like a big french fry basket."
The catamaran will be shipped to Spain or France this month, and the crew will sail it down to the Cape Verde Islands, where Figge already will be waiting, "waving to them on the beach so they can pick me up."
The crew is hoping to set sail Dec. 1, a day after hurricane season ends.
"They say it takes a message in a bottle 60 days to get across the ocean," Figge said. "So we're going to send out a bottle, and I'm going to try to do it in 57 days."
Christmas and New Year's Day will be celebrated in the ocean. Figge might even make a little tree for the boat.
She knows some will perceive her journey - and even her - as crazy. She's not sure they're wrong, but she's out to prove she can complete her swim.
"I wouldn't be doing this if I functioned on common logic," Figge said. "Those who don't know the impossible are the ones who make things possible."