HAVANA — Penny Palfrey is trying to become the first woman to complete an unassisted swim 103 miles (166 kilometers) across the Straits of Florida without the aid of a shark cage.
The 49-year-old British-Australian dual citizen, mother of three and grandmother of two said Thursday that she was inspired to take on the shark-filled waters between Cuba and Florida last year when she flew from the Cayman Islands to Miami.
"I looked down, I could see this beautiful stretch of water, and wow!" she said. Palfrey got home and immediately began researching currents in the strait and its water temperatures, which are similar to a swim she made last year between Little Cayman and Grand Cayman islands.
"By then I'm already hooked," Palfrey said.
Australian Susie Maroney made the Cuba-to-Florida crossing in 1997 at the age of 22, but she swam with a shark cage. American Diana Nyad made two cageless attempts last year on either side of her 62nd birthday, but they were cut short by asthma attacks and jellyfish stings. Nyad plans to try again this summer.
Palfrey will be swimming without a wetsuit or a cage and relying on battery-powered Shark Shields attached to the boat and an accompanying kayak to keep the sharp-toothed predators at bay. The equipment generates an electrical field in the water that Palfrey will not notice, but will annoy sensitive-snouted sharks enough so they stay away.
To guard against Portuguese man o' war stings, which sunk Nyad's second and best attempt last summer, Palfrey will don a Lycra bodysuit that covers her down to her wrists and ankles whenever it seems jellyfish may be a problem.
"It's porous and non-buoyant so it doesn't aid me as a swimmer," she said. "In fact it's harder to swim because it creates drag and there's a lot more seams, so there's some chafing issues."
Palfrey had to call off two previous Hawaii swims due to Portuguese man o' war stings.
She was meeting with her crew and carbo-loading with a pasta dinner Thursday night in preparation of her morning departure from the Hemingway Marina in Havana. She expects to take 40-50 hours to swim to Florida, and said the currents will dictate where she lands.
A 44-foot (13-meter) catamaran dubbed the Sunluver will shadow her, carrying a support crew of navigators, kayakers, handlers, medical personnel and observers on hand to verify what would be a record swim. Every half-hour she'll sip a carbohydrate drink for nourishment.
Palfrey traversed the English Channel twice and also has completed a continuous swim from Gibraltar to Morocco and back.
Last year's 67-mile (108-kilometer) Caymans crossing is her personal best, but Palfrey said she's in good shape and 20 years of marathon swimming has her well-prepared for the 103 miles of the Florida Straits.
"It's further than I've ever swum before," she said. "I expect it to be very challenging, but I'm very excited about it.
Her attempt at the Florida Straits was delayed slightly by Tropical Storm Debby. Palfrey said Thursday that the weather and sea conditions look good for the next few days.
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