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Palfrey ends Cuba-Florida swim amid strong current

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British-Australian endurance swimmer Penny Palfrey begins her bid in Havana to complete a record swim from Cuba to Florida on Friday, June 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

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 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 swam nearly 41 hours after plunging into balmy waters near Havana on Friday. 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.

Her crew tweeted few details early Sunday 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.”

“She is fine,” Andrea Woodburn, one of the team members, confirmed by telephone from Key West.

Ms. Wooburn said early Sunday that she had been in contact with the escort vessel during the night and it was unclear where it would head next. She had no immediate details on Ms. Palfrey’s physical condition or the currents she had encountered.

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

At last report about 10 p.m. EDT Saturday — roughly 39 hours into the swim — Ms. 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 that 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 mph while swimming at her strongest Saturday, before her speed then slowed to 2 mph and less after sundown.

Earlier Saturday, however, Ms. Palfrey’s crew reported she had been swimming steady and strong in calm, tepid ocean waters that were virtually ideal for the attempt at the record books. She also had reported no physical complaints other than the jellyfish stings more than halfway into the swim.

Ms. Palfrey 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 catamaran Sealuver.

She said she spotted a few hammerhead sharks, and her crew said they delighted in dolphin pods spotted on the ocean.

After Ms. Palfrey set off Friday from Cuba, a member of her crew was tweeting to fans regularly, and her web page 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 swim, but the GPS coordinates suggest it is more like 107 miles.

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 was swimming, it was 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 because of a debilitating asthma attack and painful Portuguese man o’ war stings. She has announced plans to try again this summer.

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