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US swimmer's trans-ocean odyssey raises questions

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - A U.S. swimmer crossed the Atlantic Ocean this month - but did she swim "across" the ocean?

Common sense dictates that Jennifer Figge, a 56-year-old endurance athlete, can't claim to have swum from the Cape Verde Islands to the Caribbean island of Trinidad, a journey of about 4,023 kilometres, in 24 days.

It would be impossible for any human to swim the Atlantic without stopping. No boat can drop anchor in the middle of deep-water currents. Holding onto a fixed position each time a swimmer climbs onboard to rest would require an ocean of fuel.

The Associated Press had reported that Figge, of Aspen, Colo., swam 19 of the 24 days, and that she spent between 21 minutes and eight hours a day in the water, depending on conditions. The AP also repeated the claim of her representatives, who said she was "the first woman, and first American, to swim across the Atlantic Ocean."

Subsequently, after accounts of Figge's effort were questioned, her spokesman David Higdon acknowledged she probably swam about 402 kilometres of the whole journey.

At times, Figge pulled through ocean swells so high that she could barely see the top of the mast as she trailed the catamaran, swimming without a tether while her crew slowly motored ahead of her. But at night, when the seas were too rough, or when swarms of poisonous jellyfish surrounded the catamaran, she rested on board as the boat sailed west with the current.

As it turns out, the world of long-distance swimming has no rules governing such attempts.

"Because there is no organization that governs swims across the Atlantic, swimmers like Jennifer are able to define their own rules," said Steven Munatones, a coach for the USA Swimming National Open Water team.

Bob Duenkel, director of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said: "It's one of those calls that you kind of have to make because there are no guidelines, there are no rules."

Still, Duenkel said that if someone swam only a very small portion of the total distance, "it would be difficult to say you swam the whole way."

Figge swam east to west. She was following the methods of the first man to "swim the Atlantic" - a Frenchman named Benoit Lecomte who swam alongside - and rested on board - a boat that travelled from Massachusetts to France in 1998.

Reached Thursday at his home near Dallas, Lecomte said he did it the same way Figge did - taking frequent breaks on board a boat that moved toward his destination.

He said he doesn't know how many miles he actually swam - "It's a very good question" - and added he, too, took frequent breaks and swam no more than eight hours a day.

Figge's team had inquired about what it would take to qualify for the Guinness world records, but decided the requirements were too difficult to comply with. "Honestly, we looked at all the forms and requirements and Jennifer said, 'This isn't what the swim is about. Forget about it,"' Higdon said.

He said they never intended to deceive anyone.

"There are some people who misunderstood," he said. "This was never intended to be a record ... She thought it would be one type of experience, and it turned out to be another one."

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