Swim Stroke Diplomacy: Penny Palfrey Tried to Swim from Havana to Key West / Yoani Sánchez

Looking north over the Florida Straits from Havana

She’s 49 with skin tanned by the sun, she’s called Penny Palfrey and this weekend she tried to swim the roughly 103 miles between Cuba and the United States. She left Havana at 7:00 in the morning on Friday and by 9:00 AM on Saturday she had covered close to half the distance, about 50 miles. Escorted by a kayak and without a cage to protect her from the sharks, the British-Australian swimmer tried to set a record long coveted by other athletes. The American Diana Nyad, 62, had also tried, three times in her case, without managing to cover the whole distance on any of her attempts.

In Penny’s case, we followed her journey via the GPS attached to her bathing suit, and through her Twitter account, @PennyPalfrey, we can get details on her location and physical condition. In her initial prediction she calculated a time of between 40 and 50 hours to get to Key West, but about three-quarters of the way there she had to abort her attempt. Strong marine currents working against her forced her out of the water before midnight on the second day.

The tenacious Penny was surrounded by a support group that included doctors, trainers, meteorologists, observers and two yachts with ultrasound equipment to ward off sharks and other predators. The first night some jellyfish caused her irritation and discomfort, but it wasn’t “bad” enough to suspend the swim.

Her point of departure was the Ernest Hemingway International Yacht Club to the west of the capital Havana, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. She dedicated her feat to this milestone and also — before launching herself on the sea — thanked her husband Chris Palfrey, the technicians who supported her, and the Cuban officials associated with the project.

The intense training prior to this effort took months of work and great physical effort, especially for a woman who is not only a mother but a grandmother. In 1997 the Australian Susie Maroney managed to cross the Straits of Florida, but she did it protected by an shark cage, so if Penny Palfrey had succeeded this time — with little protection — it would have been one for the record books. It would also have been an important accomplishment in her career, which has already landed her in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. She also holds the world record for the longest unassisted swim in history, 108 kilometers, set last year in the Cayman Islands.

Although she didn’t achieve her objective, Penny’s gesture should be measured not only by its sporting connotations, but transcends the competitive landscape to enter the political arena. This fragment of sea that Penny tried to cross has been crossed by thousands of Cubans who, in recent decades, have escaped from the Island.

The most notorious migratory incidents involving the Florida Straits have been the Camarioca Boatlift in 1965, the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, and the Rafter Crisis in 1994. But still, today, people continue to throw themselves upon the sea in the most precarious of crafts. On the same day that the British-Australian began her swim toward the United States, a group of eight Cubans was returned by the United States Coast Guard after being intercepted in their crude polystyrene raft. Thus, some exiles have been quite critical of the act of attempting such a feat in the piece of the sea they consider a “Cuban cemetery.”

For many who followed the news in the national media they couldn’t help but note a curious contrast: the apparent discrepancy between the police harassment against those who set sail in boats made in the United States, and the fanfare accorded to the exploit of Penny Palfrey.

Notwithstanding the variety of opinions, both for and against this sporting endeavor, the truth is that with every yard Penny advanced, the distance between both countries narrowed and became smaller. These two shores, so close geographically yet politically so distant, seemed — at least for one weekend — to be on the verge of touching, thanks to the arms of one woman.

Note: this post is updated from yesterday, when the swim was still in progress,

1 July 2012