Saturday, June 30, 2012

Ocean Endurance Champions: Palfrey and Nyad take on the Cuba-to-Florida swim

In July of last year, I was honored to join the team supporting Diana Nyad as she prepared to make her open ocean endurance swim from Havana, Cuba to the Florida Keys, a distance of around 103 miles.  Working with the shark watch crew, headed up by my friend Luke Tipple, I saw firsthand what is involved in this type of long distance swimming and what kind of toll it takes on the human body.  Diana did not complete the distance, primarily due to an unexpected asthma attack possibly brought on by some pain medication that was not her usual Tylenol-type, but her effort was a moving tribute to the determination of the human spirit.

Diana was preparing to make the attempt again this summer and she had enlisted Luke once again to organize a shark team.  A film production he was working on had to extend its shooting schedule, so Luke was forced to bow out.  Diana contacted me to see if I was available to take Luke's place but I was beginning work on the second season of Lifeguard! for the Weather Channel and that would keep me fairly busy through the summer.  Fortunately, Diana was able to assemble a team that I'm sure will do a great job in keeping an eye out for any curious sharks that may approach.

I was then surprised to hear the news this past Friday that Penny Palfrey had started  a similar swim.  This is not exactly the kind of sport that has participants lined up one after another, so I was caught a bit off guard, although I am sure Diana Nyad's team had been monitoring Penny's preparation for months.

Penny had received some unfair press last year following a 67-mile swim in the Caribbean, when it was erroneously reported that three sharks which had approached were summarily killed.  When the facts were eventually all sorted out, I blogged about some of the harsh treatment she received.  It was unfortunate that her accomplishment was overshadowed by some sensationalistic headlines but by the time it was all straightened out the press had moved on to the next news cycle.

Right now (Saturday evening), Penny is over the halfway mark and apparently doing well despite some sea jelly stings and a couple of curious hammerhead sharks.  Hammerhead sharks can be attracted to all the commotion of the swimmer and the accompanying flotilla of boats and kayaks, but they are also very skittish.  Of greater concern would be an oceanic white tip or a tiger shark on the prowl.  Fortunately for Penny - and unfortunately for the oceanic white tip - their numbers are not what they used to be, so encounters, while possible, are somewhat unlikely.  Sea jelly stings, dehydration, and rough seas are issues of greater concern.

Should Diana Nyad, who is watching for her ideal weather window, begin her attempt in the next few days or weeks, there is another concern: how the press will perceive this record-breaking distance, a distance that has stood more as a barrier to all who considered it.  Should both Penny and Diana succeed in their attempts, will the level of difficulty actually be diminished in the eyes of the press?  After all, the first moon landing was considered daring and dangerous, but by the third or fourth landings it was considered ho-hum and routine.

Hopefully, the press will recognize the distinguishing characteristics of these two swim events.  If Penny Palfrey succeeds, she should receive all the attention due for being the first. (Note: It has been done once before but with the use of a shark cage which not only protects the swimmer but also has the effect of calming the water.  Most swimmers today consider that an unfair advantage.)  If all goes well, she could arrive at the Florida shoreline early Sunday.

If Diana also succeeds in her upcoming attempt, it should be noteworthy because she is older than Penny.  Diana is 63 and returned to endurance swimming after a 30-year break from a career where she was considered the dominant female force in the sport.  Penny is 49 years old and has been consistently active.  Diana had attempted the Cuba-to-Florida swim earlier in her career and it has been a goal that she has set herself to accomplish once and for all.

So there is drama on several different levels taking place in the warm waters of the Caribbean.  A little rivalry between top-notch professionals, the impact of age, and for both swimmers there is the challenge of one of the most difficult swims ever attempted.  Nature throws out some tough roadblocks in the form of ocean conditions and currents, stinging sea jellies, sharks, and what limitations the human body must overcome.  Hopefully, these elements will not be lost on the press.  Ho-hum, indeed. 

Source: San Francisco Chronicle 

Post Script:  Just as I posted this story, I saw the headline that Penny Palfrey has stopped short of completing her swim.  After 40 hours in the water, she completed over 86 miles but a strong cross current made the possibility of her finishing unlikely.  Congratulations to Penny on one helluva of a swim.  Well, Diana.  You're up.

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