KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) — A 49-year-old grandmother and veteran endurance swimmer scuttled her quest early Sunday 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, pushing her east so that she ended up losing ground just as she was achingly close to her goal, her husband Chris Palfrey said.
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 about midnight, just 26 miles south of Florida's Key West.
Palfrey treaded water as the crew briefed her on the currents and she ultimately made the decision to end the swim.
"Penny has been 100 percent focused on this swim for a year, so she was quite a bit upset. 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," her husband said during a news conference in Key West.
She was hospitalized Sunday, receiving IV drips and pain medication. Painful blisters and ulcers under her tongue made it difficult to talk. Her husband said it was too early to discuss the possibility of another attempt.
Her doctor said she was dehydrated and had low blood pressure, but remarked her blood work was fairly normal considering the swim.
"She was still strong, but 41 hours of continuous swimming ... she was physically exhausted," Chris Palfrey said. "It was really only her mental focus that was keeping her going. She was going really, really well but she only had a few more hours in her."
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.
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. Her support team consisted of more than a dozen navigators, handlers and medical personnel escorting her on the 44-foot (13-meter) catamaran Sealuver.
She said she spotted a few hammerhead sharks and her crew said they delighted in dolphin pods spotted on the ocean.
After Palfrey set off Friday from Cuba, a member of her crew was tweeting to fans regularly and her webpage was updated with her location every 10 minutes or so based on data from a GPS device she wore. 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).
She faced numerous challenges, 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 — with arrival sometime Sunday in the Keys if she had kept going.
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 tweeted, "Congratulations to Penny Palfrey for her valiant efforts. We all realize what a daunting stretch of sea lies between Cuba and Florida."