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76-mile mark ends grandmother's attempt at Cuba-to-Florida swim

July 01, 2012|By Matt Pearce
  • Penny Palfrey is helped by a crew member before beginning her attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida. She had to stop early Sunday.
Penny Palfrey is helped by a crew member before beginning her attempt to… (Getty Images )

Take a map, draw a line 76 miles north from Havana, and make a dot.

That’s where 49-year-old grandmother Penny Palfrey had to stop her unbelievable, 41-hour, no-shark-cage, jellyfish-infested, 100-plus-mile quest to swim from Cuba to the Florida Keys.

It is solely because we are talking about a world record that we use the word “only” before “76 miles.”

(Also, did we mention that Palfrey is a grandmother? And that she’s 49? And that she swam for 41 hours straight?)

Palfrey was trying to become the first woman to swim between the two countries unassisted, without a shark cage to ward off the hammerheads.

Australian Susie Maroney, 22, used a shark cage in 1997. She also hallucinated about monkeys while swimming and marked her triumph by fainting on live television while talking to reporters on the beach.

Palfrey gave up when her 12-member support crew, escorting her on a 44-foot catamaran, briefed her on the tricky currents of the Florida Straits, which were causing her to lose ground, the Associated Press reported. She was hospitalized on Sunday to receive IV drips and pain pills, her tongue blistered by salt water, her jellyfish-stung body dehydrated and exhausted.

The sea between Florida and Cuba has long been a distance filled with hope and resentment, a space which Cuban refugees have risked everything to cross while anticommunist exiles in Miami dreamed and plotted of doing the same. For Cubans, the crossing has sometimes meant death, as in 1994, when a Cuban Navy ship rammed a boatful of refugees and killed 41.

But that space has also been an amateur athletic frontier, particularly for a few who are older in body but younger at heart.

Diana Nyad, a 62-year-old American, made two unsuccessful attempts last year, and plans to try again this summer.

At age 64, Walter Poenisch, a retired baker, made the crossing with a pair of flippers in 1978 after being seen off by Fidel Castro. Poenisch clocked in at 34 hours and 15 minutes — though the New York Times later reported that he’d taken some time out of the water. His only witnesses were his wife and a small crew on an escort boat.

Palfrey, a British-born Australian, had been “100% focused on this swim for a year, so she was quite a bit upset,” her husband said at a news conference in Key West after the swim, according to the AP. “There were of course some tears. She didn't know what was happening until we told her, so it took a few minutes while she took that in.”

Instead of a shark cage, Palfrey was using equipment that surrounded her with an electrical field to ward them off, according to the AP.

“Congratulations to Penny Palfrey for her valiant efforts,” Nyad tweeted after Palfrey’s failure. “We all realize what a daunting stretch of sea lies between Cuba and Florida.”

 Palfrey’s husband said it was too soon to talk about another attempt.

At 49, Palfrey is one year younger than the American embargo on Cuba, which bans most trade and travel between the two nations and which has long crippled the Cuban economy. The island nation remains a popular destination for many Canadian and European tourists, who can travel freely to the country.

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