Atlantic Antic

updated 02/20/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/20/1995 01:00AM

BY THE TIME GUY DELAGE, ALL alone in the middle of the Atlantic, spotted the seven-foot shark browsing at his legs, there was no chance for him to swim to safety—but he was sure he knew just what to do. "I lifted my leg and kicked him in the snout, which is very sensitive on a shark," he said later, adding with Gallic contempt, "It was a small shark, almost ridiculously small. A big bulldog would have scared me more."

Where does someone get the sangfroid to sneer at a shark? Probably the same place he gets the gumption—or the hubris—to swim the Atlantic. Delage, 42, began his solo crossing, the first of its kind, on Dec. 16 in the Cape Verde islands off western Africa and was due to finish late last week in Barbados in the West Indies.

Of course, Delage didn't actually swim every one of the 2,400 miles he traversed. He slept on a 15-foot catamaran survival raft—filled with 14 varieties of menus, a computer, a radio transmitter and festooned with little electricity-generating windmills—that was designed to float along at his swimming speed. While swimming, he held onto a floater with a desalination machine inside and used superefficient spatula-shaped flippers for the estimated 2 million strokes the crossing required.

Delage was prepared for the worst, with a shark gun and an emergency beacon. He was unprepared, though, for his one close call. As he swam in 10-foot waves without his floater on Jan. 21, one of his flippers broke. He was 450 feet from his raft when he managed to grab the end of the lifeline that trailed behind it, but that, too, broke. Swimming as fast as he could to catch up, he needed 2½ hours to get back on the raft. "Usually my heart beats at 62 to 64 beats a minute," he later reported. "It stayed at 90 until the next morning."

Throughout the crossing, Delage's physical state was monitored electronically for scientists in France, and the lonely adventurer gave a stroke-by-stroke account of his swim via radio. His tendency to include less-than-riveting details (the sea was "blue," he told his listeners, and his raft was "damp") annoyed some of his countrymen. A writer at the respected Paris newspaper Le Monde dubbed him "the mad swimmer" and sniffed, "The most pointless exploits are the most talked about." L'Equipe, a sports newspaper, questioned whether Delage was actually swimming. "At best," the article read, "he takes each day a refreshing—albeit dangerous—dip."

Delage—who spent three years lining up corporate and academic sponsorship for the voyage—was quick to dismiss his detractors. "There are always people who don't like this kind of project," he said. "Let them talk. Anyway, I've always said this was a scientific expedition, not a sports feat."

Delage, a flying instructor, showed his penchant for the beau geste early in life. The son of schoolteachers in a village 50 miles northeast of Paris, he swam the English Channel at age 18—not to make the record books but to be with a girlfriend who had gone to England. His most noteworthy exploit before the transatlantic swim, though, was a record-setting 27-hour flight from Cape Verde to Brazil in an ultralight aircraft.

Of course, the question arises: Why would a middle-aged man, married with two young children, take up this particular challenge? "I can give you different reasons," he said. "To extend myself. To see the scenery. To see if you can do this after 40." Moreover, he added, "I want to know the sensation of absolute solitude, 1,200 miles from the nearest coast. It's better to die in the jaws of a shark than in bed."

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