February 11, 2009
Over the weekend, in between depressing news about the economy and the continued sagas of Michael Phelps and Alex Rodriguez, an inspirational story appeared on the Associated Press news wire. It detailed American Jennifer Figge's accomplishment in becoming the first woman to swim across the Atlantic Ocean. Many media outlets (including Yahoo!) jumped on the story that seemed almost too good to be true. That's because it was.
The AP originally reported that Figge swam from the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa to Trinidad (2,100 miles) in 25 days while escorted by a boat. She was said to have rested every night and hopped back in the water in the morning.
Figge woke most days around 7 a.m., eating pasta and baked potatoes while she and the crew assessed the weather. Her longest stint in the water was about eight hours, and her shortest was 21 minutes.
There were problems with the story from the start. A few of the less-important ones included the fact that Cape Verde is at least 2,400 miles, not 2,100, from Trinidad. And the African islands are about 500 miles off the western coast of the continent, meaning Figge had a huge head start on her trip across the Atlantic. (It'd be like somebody saying they ran across America after starting in Cincinnati.)
Those are trivial though. The real issue stemmed from the fact that swimming 2,100 miles in 25 days is impossible. (Some newspapers picked up on this.) It's infinitely more impossible when somebody only spends 21 minutes swimming during one of those 25 days. Michael Phelps swimming his fastest would take about 20 days to cover that distance. And that's his fastest pace, sustained for three weeks, without ever stopping. Impossible.
Yet, somehow, the AP ran the story even though a few seconds of thought and a pocket calculator was enough to disprove it. They ran a correction yesterday that read, in part:
Figge swam only a fraction of the 2,100-mile journey. The rest of the time, she rested on her crew's westward-sailing catamaran. Her spokesman [said] that her total swimming distance has not been calculated yet, but that due to ocean hazards including inclement weather, he estimates she swam about 250 miles.
Swimming 250 miles is nothing to scoff at; but it's not 2,100. To go back to the running-across-America analogy, this would be like driving cross country with a friend, and getting out of the car every ten miles to run one mile for the entire trip. That'd be an impressive feat, but nobody would ever confuse it with running across the United States.
In an interview yesterday with the AP, Figge avoids discussing the validity of her swim and instead says she "never intended to swim the Atlantic." That may be so, but she didn't do much to prevent most American news outlets from reporting that she did.