By Diane Ako
She said she was going to do it, and she did. Marathon swimmer Penny Palfrey came to Hawaii in March with the intent to swim three Hawaiian channels in three weeks. She did better than that: she swam three channels in two weeks. Not only that, but she encountered tsunami surges, jellyfish stings, and marine mammal visits along the way.
Husband Chris Palfrey, also a distance swimmer, recapped, "On March 18, Penny, Forrest Nelson (a very good friend from Los Angeles) and I swam the Kaulakahi Channel from Kauai to Niihau, a distance of 17.4 nautical miles (approximately 30 km). The closest point to point course is 14.6 nm, but is it not possible to either start from or finish at, either of these two points.
The crew woke up at 3 a.m. to drive to Port Allen, Kauai, where they boarded Captain Don Jones' boat. "Don had assembled an excellent crew to help out. His deckhand, Calvin, we had met before. Josh, the kayaker, was full of excitement and really looking forward to the paddle. And Sean, our handler, was a fantastic waterman, solid as a rock and great at feeding and attending to our needs, even though he had never been on a channel swim before," said Chris.
The boat pushed off at 7:30 a.m. just east of Pacific Missle Range Facility, making sure to stay far enough away from sensitive military borders. A few dolphins near the boat offered a friendly hint of what was to come. "There was no breeze and only a one metre NW swell, but getting into the beach for a dry land start was tricky as we had to navigate through shallow water with lava rock below, between the waves breaking," said Chris. "After getting out through the break, we met up with the boat and quickly got into a rythym. Forrest and Penny are both faster than I, but we swam side by side at a comfortable pace. It took almost a half hour for the visibility to improve, but when it did, the shafts of sunlight going down into the deep blue were amazing. Visibility was over 30 metres (100 feet)."
Previous swimmers had seen several sharks, and the boat captain refers to this channel as the "sharkiest" channel in Hawaii. Would this happen to the Palfreys? Six and a half hours into the swim, four dolphins came within five meters to look at the show. "They were magnificent to watch: Streamlined, moving effortlessly and obviously inquisitive about the strange visitors. Whilst this was happening, I could see two white shapes way down deep (maybe 50 metres below us) which I assumed to be more dolphins."
"But then, it started to rise and I could make out the shape of the body. It was a humpback whale (the white things I first saw were its fins) and then a second whale appeared. They could also clearly see us and seemed to be checking us out, either from below or to one side or another, coming in as close as 25 metres. They stayed with us until the next half hourly feed and were simply amazing to watch."
After a time, a few more whales joined, coming so close, the swimmers could see the whales' eyes. In all, the whales hung out for two hours. "These amazing scenes took our minds off what was becoming a fairly brutal swim."
It was a very windy day, with uncomfortable conditions, including a currents flowing from three different directions. "Initially, they carried us from north to south. Then at around the half way point, they switched from south to north. And then, at the end, we got slammed."
"Quite a few people were on the beach watching us. But since Niihau is called the Forbidden Island, we suspect they may not have been there to offer a friendly welcome," wondered Chris. Swim time is around nine hours, coming into the (legal) high water mark on Niihau at 5:48 p.m. This was slower than they wanted, but with the high winds and huge waves, they were happy to even finish.
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