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Ben Hooper attempts the become the first man to swim the Atlantic Ocean

When you think of the great British explorers - Shackleton, Fiennes, Scott of the Antarctic - the mind conjures images of men with square jawlines trekking across vast expanses of ice, skin weathered from fierce winds and blistering sun, facial hair caked in frost.

At first glance, Ben Hooper does not appear to be your stereotypical explorer. In fact, he seems rather more like a friendly policeman. Which he is, incidentally. But appearances can still be deceptive.

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On Sunday, the father-of-one from Gloucestershire embarked on an expedition that would make even the hardiest outdoor type quiver with horror. He strode down a beach in Dakar, Senegal, and stepped into the Atlantic Ocean, where he began to carve a determined front crawl out to sea. He doesn't plan on stopping until he hits Brazil.

It is an undeniably mad plan, and it's worth noting that no one has ever successfully swum the full distance of the Atlantic before. But Hooper is absolutely determined to be the first.

"It's going to take death or a hurricane to stop me getting across," he says, sitting in his hotel room in Dakar. "More people have landed on the moon than have attempted the ocean. No human has ever swum every single mile of an ocean, so it's there for the taking."

Over the next 120 days, Hooper aims to cover 1,635 nautical miles (just under 2,000 land miles) with a support crew of 10, who will travel alongside him in two small vessels preparing his food (boil-in-the-bag ration packs), tending to injuries, and looking out for jellyfish.

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He'll swim for two four-hour sessions every day, beginning an hour after sunrise and stopping an hour before sundown (because the shark and jellyfish risk is higher at that time). At night, he'll sleep on board one of the boats, its anchor dropped where he stopped. If all goes to plan, he'll have Natal, the north-eastern city on the "nose" of Brazil, in his sights by the second week of March.

As if crossing the Atlantic were not enough of a challenge, Hooper's expedition has been plagued by setbacks from the start.

"We were due to go on November 1 and we had a technical hitch on one of the boats. Then on Tuesday as I was walking to the beach to step into the water, two crew members pulled out - one with family issues, the other just had a complete change of heart, or as you and I would probably call it, cold feet. I was distraught. I thought they were winding me up at first. It was insane."

Hooper, 38, had already postponed his expedition several times due to bad weather; now, at the eleventh hour, he had to replace a medic and one of his sailing crew. As we talk, he was awaiting two replacements to fly in and join him, in time to leave.

It has, he says, been such an exhausting journey already, that the swimming will seem like a breeze. "The breaking point for me was when my daughter called me very excitedly [last week] saying: 'Daddy! You're about to leave! It's so exciting!' At that point I thought my expedition was flat. I thought I'd lost it.

"Three years, 12 million metres of training, 400,000 pounds [$665,000 A] in sponsorship and everything is on the line for this. I've put everything I've got into this in every way possible.

"It has been an immense struggle to get to the start line. Now I am more determined than ever to get to Brazil."

At 182cm tall and 111kg, with a kind, open face topped with glasses, Hooper may not look like an Olympic swimmer. But he has been preparing for this challenge for three and a half years, training in the warm waters off the Florida Keys as well as six days a week at home in his local leisure centre, with the help of long-distance swimming experts at Gloucestershire's Hartpury College.

Ordinary: Hooper wants to show his daughter that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

Ordinary: Hooper wants to show his daughter that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Photo: Carley Petesch

A former policeman who served in the Army Reserve as a young man, Hooper has dreamed of undertaking an expedition like this ever since he was very young, when he idolised Sir Ranulph Fiennes - now his patron.

"I'd always wanted to swim an ocean, ever since I was a child," he says.

"My obsession with water began, oddly enough, after I nearly drowned at five years old in a swimming pool in Belgium. In adulthood, I've got into triathlons and freediving."

But far from being an action man with a cavalier attitude to this life-threatening task, Hooper seems a cautious, thoughtful soul, with a total lack of ego. He is clearly humbled to even have this opportunity, having exhausted his savings and raised investment from corporate sponsors to make his dream come to fruition.

It hasn't, he admits, always been an easy life - having been badly bullied at school, he has been plagued by bouts of depression, was forced to leave the police due to an injury, and last year sadly separated from the mother of his eight-year-old daughter, Georgie.

But this expedition has given him something to strive for, and he hopes to raise over $1 million for four charities with the swim.

"About three and a half years ago, my depression came back," he tells me. "I didn't want to go back to counselling, or go on medication. I decided then and there - I've got to turn my life around.

"I had a daughter to think about. I decided I needed to step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself. I don't know where I'd be today if I hadn't turned my attention to something that would drive me on."

Having been given what he feels is a second chance at life, Hooper is determined to make it a remarkable one. There are, however, a few obstacles in his way before he reaches Brazil in four months' time - 9 metre swells, deadly jellyfish and killer sharks, to name but a few.

Last selfies: Hooper poses with one of his team members before the swim.

Last selfies: Hooper poses with one of his team members before the swim. Photo: Facebook

You might imagine that anyone plunging themselves into the Atlantic for weeks on end would be decked out in a James Bond-style wetsuit complete with shark detector and jet pack. Hooper will be swimming in his trunks and goggles, like any other dad doing a few laps at the local lido.

"Sharks are definitely a threat. The oceanic whitetip particularly - they attack vertically so you don't know they're there until it's too late. But if you were worried about sharks, you'd never get in the water. And it'll be too hot - up to 30 degrees centigrade at times - to wear a wetsuit.

"We do have rotting shark cartilage in a can, which you release in the water, get inside the plume and it's meant to deter sharks.

"To be honest, I think the mental and physical strain, or one of the crew mutinying and killing us all on the boats, is probably more likely than a shark attack."

As we talk, he stops several times as someone on the Dakar street outside waves up at his window. The locals are baffled by this mad Englishman who is about to step into the sea and swim to Brazil. But for Hooper, this is what he has to do - to prove to himself, and his little girl, that he can.

"I want my daughter to see that a normal person can achieve the extraordinary. All I've got to do now is: swim, eat, sleep, repeat."

The Telegraph, London