FLORIDA STRAITS (CBSMiami/AP) – Endurance swimmer Penny Palfrey muscled past the halfway mark Saturday as she pushed through the Florida Straits, enduring jellyfish stings but otherwise encountering perfect conditions in her attempt to become the first woman to swim unassisted more than 100 miles from Cuba to the Florida Keys.
The British-born Australian was swimming steady and strong and reported no physical complaints, according to her support team.
At about 4:30 p.m. EDT roughly 34 hours into the swim, the 49-year-old grandmother was 69 miles from her starting point at a marina in the Cuban capital, according to her web site’s GPS tracking report. She was positioned about 38 miles (61.15 kilometers) southwest of Key West.
Previously, her personal best was 67 miles (108 kilometers) when she swam between Little Cayman and Grand Cayman islands last year, according to Andrea Woodburn, part of her support team in the Keys.
Palfrey reapplied sunscreen and grease to prevent chafing and said the water conditions had been excellent other than the extreme heat. She even spotted a few hammerhead sharks and dolphin pods. Crew members said she was barking orders at team members accompanying her on kayaks and a catamaran as she kept up a torrid pace in a battle that tested the limits of human endurance.
She is “physically and mentally strong,” Woodburn said, adding that the bathwater-warm waters remained calm. “The conditions couldn’t be better and she continues to progress to the Florida Keys.”
The 20-year veteran of distance swimming is no stranger to jellyfish stings, which forced her to abort two past swims in Hawaii.
Palfrey set off from Havana early Friday. A member of her crew was tweeting to fans, while a webpage updated her location every 10 minutes or so based on data from a GPS device worn by the swimmer.
The GPS device showed she reached the halfway point near midday Friday, according to her website.
The daunting effort has been commonly reported as a 103-mile (166-kilometer) swim, however the GPS coordinates suggest it is more like 107 miles (172 kilometer).
Multiple challenges loomed as Palfrey endured a second day, including the prospect of physical and mental fatigue and fending off dehydration, hypothermia and potentially dangerous marine life. At her current rate, it would take her a bit more than 56 hours to complete the swim, slightly above her initial estimates. Woodburn believes if she continues the pace, Palfrey could arrive Sunday morning.
If Palfrey succeeds, she’ll go in the record books as the first woman to swim the Straits without the aid of a shark cage. Instead she’s relying on equipment that surrounds her with an electrical field to deter the predators. Her support team consisted of more than a dozen navigators, handlers and medical personnel who were escorting her on the 44-foot (13-meter) catamaran Sealuver.
Woodburn said that Palfrey is being hydrated every half-hour with a liquid concoction containing electrolytes and carbohydrates.
Australian Susie Maroney made the crossing in 1997 at age 22, but with a shark cage. American Diana Nyad made two unsuccessful cageless attempts last year on either side of her 62nd birthday, but had to call them off due to a debilitating asthma attack and painful Portuguese man o’ war stings. She has announced plans to try again this summer.
Nyad’s twitter feed displayed several messages focused on Palfrey’s effort.
“I’m sure our team will learn from her crossing,” one tweet reported. “Just as, I’m sure, Penny’s team has learned from Diana’s attempts”
Nyad’s trainer, Bonnie Stoll, tweeted “Right now, Diana and I are staying focused on Diana’s swim. We are in tunnel vision mode.”
Palfrey began the swim in a regular sporting swimsuit, but put on a porous, non-buoyant Lycra bodysuit Friday night to provide cover down to the wrists and ankles to fend off jellyfish stings. But as the sun rose Saturday morning, she changed back to the sport swimsuit.