Monday, December 8, 2008

An Unprecedented Year of Open Water Adventures

Penny Palfrey from Australia became the first person to brave the treacherous 10K channel between Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands off the California coast, together with her husband Chris. Compared to the popular English Channel, the Catalina Channel and the Strait of Gibraltar, few people have crossed the various waterways of the scenic Channel Islands.

California’s Channel Islands, located north of Los Angeles, includes five islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara.

During a very busy 2008, Penny not only placed high at the 19K Rottnest Channel Swim, the 39K (24-mile) Tampa Bay Marathon Swim and the 48K (28.5-mile) Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, but she also took time to do two unprecedented swims in the Channel Islands.

In September, Penny became the first person to swim 45K (24 nautical miles) across the Santa Barbara Channel from San Miguel Island to the California mainland, taking 11 hours and 29 minutes to fight stiff winds and overcome cold water.

Earlier in June, Penny and Chris did a shorter, but more adventurous, swim between Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands. Penny finished in 2 hours and 30 minutes while Chris finished in 2:52.

Because this stretch of deep blue water is well-known for great white sharks, Penny used a Shark Shield to protect herself. Although Penny did not encounter any great whites, her escort crew did come across three blue sharks during Penny’s crossing. The chart on the left shows the meanderings of a tagged great white shark in the very area that Penny and Chris swam.

Scott Zornig, who has also pioneered a few 'firsts' in the Channel Islands, explains "There are more fatted elephant seals around those two islands than ants at a picnic."

On Penny’s crossing, the first blue shark was seen after 5½ hours in the water leisurely cruising along the surface with no interest in Penny. The second and third shark encounters occurred at about the 6½ and 8 hour marks when they cruised along Penny’s course. Chris recalled, "It was hard to tell how big the first two sharks were, but not so with the third, as it crossed our bow, no more than 10 meters ahead. Looking down, I would say it was very close to 3 meters long (allowing for magnification of the water). Whilst we were ready to pluck Penny out of the water, none of the sharks seemed the slightest bit interested in her."

The Shark Shield is made by an Australian company and was developed to help protect abalone divers and has since been used by pleasure divers, surfers and the military by emitting a signal to repel sharks.

Chris Palfrey explained why his wife chose to use the Shark Shield, "We contacted the company prior to doing the Santa Rosa to Santa Cruz Island crossing. Several people had told us of the predatory shark population in the area, so we thought it best to take precautions. We used the freedom unit, which is normally used by pleasure divers and surfers who strap it to their ankle by Velcro. The unit is the size of a fist, and the antenna is about two meters long. We didn’t like the idea of the drag while swimming, so we attached them to our support craft."

Chris went further, "We didn’t see first hand evidence of their repelling capability. But many people rave about it, so we would have no hesitation in recommending them. The main thing, regardless of whether a shark actually approaches you, is that they give you peace of mind, and allow you to relax and think about the job at hand. That is, reaching the land off in the distance. Given that they only have a five-meter range, the Shark Shield needs to be tethered to a kayak or IRB (inflatable rescue boat) which has the ability to stay close to the swimmer, as compared to the mother support boat. When Emilio guided me across the channel, we suspended the shark shield underneath the little IRB, and I stayed close to it, so it worked perfectly."

For her sense of adventure and her global search for tough marathon swims while maintaining a balance between family, work and swimming, Penny is nominated for the 2008 World Open Water Swimming Female of the Year.

It was certainly was an unprecedented year for the 46-year-old from Australia.

Copyright © 2008 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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