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Palfrey ends Cuba-Florida swim amid strong current

Sunday - 7/1/2012, 1:56am  ET

Associated Press

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) - Endurance swimmer Penny Palfrey has abandoned her effort to become the first woman to swim unassisted from Cuba to the Florida Keys, ending her odyssey after almost 41 hours in the water and about three quarters of the way through the more than 100-mile swim, her support team said Sunday.

Andrea Woodburn, one of the team members, said by phone that the British-born Australian marathon swimmer halted her effort around midnight some 26 miles south of Key West because of a strong ocean current.

"She is fine," Woodburn said from Florida's Key West, without giving further details on Palfrey's condition. Woodburn said she had been in contact with Palfrey's boat and was told the swimmer had to get out of the water when she encountered too strong a current to continue in the treacherous Florida Straits.

The waters in the area are notorious for their fickle ocean currents, including the powerful Gulf Stream. But further details of whether she had encountered the Gulf Stream or a side eddy of that current were not immediately available.

Earlier in the day, Palfrey had been swimming steady and strong and reported no physical complaints other than jellyfish stings more than halfway into the swim, according to her support crew.

At about 8:30 p.m. EDT (0030 GMT) roughly 37.5 hours into the swim, the 49-year-old grandmother was 76 miles (122.31 kilometers) from her starting point at a marina in the Cuban capital, according to her website's GPS tracking report. At the time she was positioned about 30 miles (61.15 kilometers) south, 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 in full control of the effort, instructing team members who are accompanying her on kayaks and a catamaran as she kept up a torrid pace.

She is "physically and mentally strong," Woodburn said earlier in the day.

Hours earlier, Woodburn had said the conditions appeared ideal with bathwater-warm waters reported to be calm as the swimmer took aim for 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 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 for Palfrey on Saturday, her second day in the water, including the prospect of physical and mental fatigue and fending off dehydration, hypothermia and potentially dangerous marine life. At the rate she had been swimming, it had been estimated the crossing would have taken more than 56 hours to complete, slightly above her initial estimates. That would have put her on track for a Florida Keys' arrival sometime on Sunday if she had kept going.

Palfrey had been aiming for the record books 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. Her support team consisted of more than a dozen navigators, handlers and medical personnel escorting her on the 44-foot (13-meter) catamaran Sealuver.

Woodburn said that Palfrey was hydrated on the swim 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"

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.


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)