Endurance swimmer forced to end record quest

A 49-year-old grandmother and veteran endurance swimmer had to give up on her quest yesterday to become the first woman to swim unaided from Cuba to the Florida Keys, unable to close the gap on the last 26 miles of a more than 100-mile ocean odyssey.

Penny Palfrey had fended off painful jellyfish stings while keeping an eye on hammerhead sharks as she attempted the crossing without a shark cage. But her support team said the tricky currents of the Florida Straits proved to be her biggest obstacle, thwarting her achingly close to her goal.

All told, the British-born Australian athlete had been swimming nearly 41 hours since plunging into balmy waters near Havana, Cuba, on Friday to start out. She was about three-quarters of the way into her swim when she gave up the effort, just 26 miles south of Florida’s Key West.

Her crew tweeted few details early yesterday of the end of her quest, but said: “Penny Palfrey had to be pulled out of the water ... due to a strong southeast current that made it impossible for her to continue her swim.

“Penny is presently on her escort boat being taken care of by her crew.”

The Straits are notorious for their fickle ocean currents, including the powerful Gulf Stream. But whether she encountered problems with the Gulf Stream or a side eddy of that current or some other were not immediately apparent.

At 2am yesterday, roughly 39 hours into the swim, Palfrey was 79 miles from her starting point at a marina in the Cuban capital, according to an online GPS tracking report. She was positioned about 28 miles south, southwest of Key West.

But two hours after the 10pm Saturday report, it appeared based on GPS data that she had made difficult headway before scrapping her effort. GPS data released online suggested she had been averaging as much as 3 m/h while swimming at her strongest on Saturday, before her speed then slowed to 2m/h and less after sundown.

Palfrey had sought to become the first woman to swim from Cuba to the Keys without the aid of a shark cage. Instead she had been relying on equipment that surrounded her with an electrical field to deter the predators.

Australian Susie Maroney made the crossing in 1997 at age 22, but with a shark cage.

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