The enormity of the 68-mile sea swim Penny Palfrey did is on par with any human endeavour ever taken. Climbing the Himalayas, circumnavigating the globe in a sail boat, trekking thousands of miles across the most severe terrain…her Bridging the Islands swim between Little Cayman and Grand Cayman a few weeks ago, deserves the same props as of any of them.
The fact that Palfrey is a 48-year-old mother of three and grandmother to one and is built more like a ballerina than a Amazonian makes her feat all the more remarkable. It’s not just a woman’s record either, no man has ever swum further.
Born in Scarborough, England, she moved to Australia in her teens and holds both nationalities. Married to Chris, a fellow marathon swimmer, Penny was brought over from Townsville, North Queensland, by Frank Flowers and daughter Dara Flowers-Burke for the record attempt to help promote the annual Flowers Sea Swim a few days later. The interest generated and worldwide media exposure made it all worthwhile.
The idea began around nine months earlier when Frank was looking for something to enhance the 19th staging of the one mile swim. Palfrey was contacted and it did not take the couple long to accept.
“Caribbean? The Cayman Islands? That sounds like a really beautiful place to visit,” says Penny. She is talking to some schoolchildren from East End Primary at the conference room in the Brasserie in George Town. “But I had some homework to do too. I had to find out the distance between the islands, what the water temperature was going to be, currents, figure out what size team and how many boats I would need and the support crew.
“So I was doing a lot of work with the swimming, many miles a week but also lots of preparation. I know Mr. Flowers was working very hard to find sponsors, airfares, flights and accommodation. Lots of things went into this swim.”
Four flights and 30 hours later the Palfreys arrived. If they had any initial reservations, they were quickly dispelled, welcomed by a big banner and raft of dignitaries, including cabinet ministers.
After a couple of days her first swim was completed, the 5.4 miles between Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, setting a new record in the process. It took just under two hours but was really a precursor for the big one. The water was pretty choppy and Palfrey was amused that the media people on the support boat were sea sick.
Her epic swim was delayed for a few days because of rough seas which was a chance for more team bonding. They even watched a video together and a movie, Heart, as part of a morale-boosting exercise.
Palfrey started in the early hours of Saturday 11 June and was able to gauge progress by change of crew every three hours. By the next morning exhaustion was setting in but there was still 30-odd miles to go.
Strong currents made it difficult. Struggling with a swollen and sore mouth, aching limbs and jellyfish stings, she kept going by thinking of all the support there that were willing her on. The sun went down and she felt bad because kids would be waiting on the shore and it was getting late.
Finally, just after 10pm on the Sunday night, 40 hours and 41 minutes later, she emerged at Morritt’s Tortuga in East End to hundreds of cheering well wishers, a mass of dignitaries and media attention to be driven by ambulance to George Town Hospital for medical attention.
“There were lots of wonderful people screaming and cheering when I finished. I didn’t think I looked my best just then but it wasn’t a beauty competition. I was able to walk up the beach and raise my arms. It was a great experience.
“I actually thought I would be crawling up the beach so I was very proud of myself that I could walk.” Well that’s an understatement. It was a culmination of a lifetime in the water, starting aged three with dawn training sessions from nine.
One kid asks if she got bitten by a shark. “No sharks bit me but I didn’t bite any either!” Electric shark shields helped, plus the protective influence of her crew.
Penny’s sons Daniel and Martin, daughter Nicole and grandson Toby were all clocking her progress Down Under as was the whole of Townsville.
She arrived in Australia as a backpacker at 19, did bar work and waited tables initially before becoming a swimming teacher. She met Chris and they brought a small accounting practice which they built up but recently sold although Chris is still working in it.
Her first open water swim was at 12 in the River Thames in London which must have been pretty yucky because of its notorious pollution levels. “It was pretty cold but I loved it. My next one wasn’t until I was an adult in Townsville. That was fun so I started looking for more and built up from there. “
“I did my first real marathon in 1993 after my third child was born but eased back for a few years because of work and children. Chris supported me in doing the 22 miles of the English Channel in 2006 and there’s been no stopping me since.
“My longest before this was 42 miles, so this was a big jump. Although I had trained for this distance for two years for the last two years and unfortunately was unsuccessful in two attempts in Hawaii (she was stung by Portuguese Man-of-War jellyfish) so when this opportunity came along it was a fabulous opportunity.”
Chris and Penny intend to swim the Tsugaru Strait in Japan in September, which is ‘only’ 20 kilometres. Chris will do a single crossing and Penny a double depending on how recovery from the world record effort has gone.
She has high praise for the Flowers Sea Swim. “It was incredible,” she says. “I’ve never seen such participation, the positive atmosphere, the feel of it and everyone staying afterwards, the Premier being there. It was just absolutely amazing and unfortunately the doctors asked me not to swim it and rest. Chris swam it and thoroughly enjoyed it and hopefully next year I’ll take part in it too.
“People are so excited over my world record. My mum lives in a tiny village in southern Portugal and it even made her local paper and all the villagers were celebrating. It’s so wonderful.
“The people here have been amazing too. I’ve had a few visits to the hospital for check ups and every time I go people want photographs. The Cayman people are just so excited, so are the children. I’m very proud that I’m the person to have done it and I’m really enjoying feeling so special.”
Despite her achievements, the Palfreys have to generally fund their global swims. “It would be great to get a sponsor. At the moment Chris and I fund all our swims ourselves and it is very expensive.
“The Bridge swim was wonderful because Mr. Flowers put so much support into it and managed to get a lot of sponsors and it was all covered. It would be nice to have a few more swims like that and even just to have help with air fares and accommodation, that sort of thing. Frank and Dara have been amazing, incredible, so positive and enthusiastic. It was wonderful to be with them.”
What about retirement? “I’ve had that since the age of 15 but why stop doing the thing you love? I really love it. What would I do? The gardening and clear my house? No, I think I would rather swim.
“No matter what age you are, swimming 68 miles you’re going to take your body to the limits, but I think that a mature woman is more capable of that and I do intend in the future to bring my swimming down to a less challenging level.
“So in 10 years I’ll be looking forward to swimming 10ks in Key West or here.
“So it doesn’t have to be 68 miles, even just 500 metres, but I hope always to be in the water.”
“There’s no chance of my kids beating this record,” she laughs. “But they’ve all swum to club level and have those life skills and can do life saving.
“Now they can use it for water polo or triathlon, just for fitness. Swimming is such a wonderful skill to have. They think I’m crazy for doing these ultra swims but they kinda get it.”