HAVANA— Marathon swimmer Penny Palfrey set out on a record bid to traverse the Straits of Florida early Friday, a 103-mile (166-kilometer) unassisted swim testing the limits of human endurance and the will of the high seas.
Slathered with sunblock and lubricant to prevent chafing, the British-Australian woman bade farewell to onlookers, dove headfirst into the calm, bathwater-warm seas off Havana and began stroking slowly northward with a kayaker as escort.
"There's a lot of work that's gone into this over the past year," Palfrey said, thanking her husband, her team and Cuban officials who helped facilitate the trip. "It's all coming together, and so exciting to finally get to this point where we can get started."
After her departure, a member of Palfrey's crew was keeping fans up to date via social media.
"Swimming strong. Great conditions. Some jellies, but not bad," read one tweet. She had covered 5.2 miles from the marina by midmorning.
Palfrey will have to fight through physical and mental fatigue while fending off dehydration, hypothermia and dangerous marine life. She estimates that it will take 40 to 50 hours to make the crossing, and the currents will determine where in Florida she comes onshore.
If Palfrey succeeds, she'll go in the record books as the first woman to swim the Straits without the aid of a shark cage. Instead she's relying on equipment that surrounds her with an electrical field to deter the predators.
Australian Susie Maroney made the crossing in 1997 at age 22, but with a shark cage. American Diana Nyad has made three unsuccessful cageless attempts, including two last year on either side of her 62nd birthday. Nyad called those off due to a debilitating asthma attack and painful Portuguese man o' war stings, but plans to try again this summer.
Palfrey, a 49-year-old mother and grandmother, is more than a decade younger than Nyad.
She was wearing a regular sporting swimsuit instead of a wetsuit, and planned to put on a porous, non-buoyant Lycra bodysuit that provides cover down to the wrists and ankles whenever jellyfish may be a threat.
That's particularly the case at night, according to her support team of more than a dozen navigators, handlers and medical personnel who were escorting her on the 44-foot (13-meter) catamaran Sealuver.
Palfrey is no stranger to jellyfish stings, which forced her to abort two past swims in Hawaii.
A 20-year veteran of distance swimming, her personal best came last year when she completed 67 miles (108 kilometers) between Little Cayman and Grand Cayman islands.
At a news conference Thursday, Palfrey said she was inspired to tackle the shark-filled waters between Cuba and Florida when she flew from the Caymans to Miami.
"I looked down, I could see this beautiful stretch of water, and wow!" she said. Palfrey got home and immediately began researching currents in the strait and its water temperatures.
"By then I'm already hooked," Palfrey said.
Friday morning she was upbeat and focused on the task at hand as she prepared to set off from the Hemingway Marina in western Havana.
Asked about the first thing she planned to do on arrival in Florida, she laughed and said, "get out of the water."
"Beautiful sea, beautiful sunrise. It's a lovely morning in Cuba," Palfrey said. "Thanks. I'm gonna get started."