Swimming During A Tsunami Warning

Swimming During A Tsunami Warning

Courtesy of WOWSA, Molokai Island, Hawaii.

During the night of March 11st 2001, Penny Palfrey and her team were woken up in the middle of the night and told to immediately evacuate from their hotel rooms on the island of Molokai.

Deep in sleep in preparation for her Molokai Channel swim, Palfrey, her husband Chris and escort team had to gather up all their belongings within 10 minutes and rush to higher ground because of the news of a 9.1 magnitude earthquake in northeastern Japan [see video above] and an impending tsunami.

Palfrey quietly and calmly picked up her bags and took off, eventually spending the night before her Molokai Channel swim in an evacuation center in a local high school.

The government authorities in Molokai had received tsunami warnings that went into effect throughout the state of Hawaii in the middle of the night due to the devastating earthquakes in Japan.

At 10:30 pm the night before her planned swim, Palfrey, her husband and her team found themselves on high ground and totally baffled about their plans due to the potential tsunami that would devastate the Japan coastline and eventually hit various locations in the state of Hawaii.

As Japan was recoiling under the effects of the earthquake and tsunami, the Palfreys followed a line of cars and found themselves at Molokai High School gymnasium, one of the designated evacuation centers on the island. Unable to sleep on the bleachers, Palfrey had worry etched on her face, but she took the situation with surprising calm.

She remained focused on her goal of completing the Molokai Channel, a swim that her husband Chris Palrey held in 12 hours 53 minutes.

Meanwhile, her pilot Jim Dickson (shown above) was instructed to leave the wharf where he had been waiting for Palfrey’s as a safety precaution. Dickson and his son Codie left for deep water out of the impact of the surge that was expected.

The unknown and uncertainty reigned throughout the night. Neither the Palfrey’s nor Dickson could predict what would happen over the next 24 hours as they stayed glued watching the TV reports and listening to the radio news.

Remarkably, the swimmer and the escort pilot both kept faith that the swim would eventually come off and stood alert for any breaks or opportunities as the nightly news continued and as the dawn came the next morning on March 12th.

As the sun rose with the local tsunami warnings still in effect. Palfrey moved from trying to sleep on uncomfortable gymnasium bleachers to resting in the back of her rental car. At 8 am, Palfrey and her husband tried to drive to the wharf where Dickson was stationed, but the police had blocked all roads. There was no possibility of getting down to the water’s edge. Reluctantly, the Palfrey’s and their support team moved back to the evacuation center.

Palfrey and Dickson talked off and on, trying to learn if the restrictions would be lifted later in the day. But with every minute of delay, the weather continued to deteriorate. All the months of planning that had gone into picking the right time and place to start the swim had gone out the window. With no sleep the night before her 42 km crossing and all their prior plans gone completely awry, it was remarkable how tranquil and confident – at least externally – Palfrey remained in herself and her team.

By 9 am, the state authorities lifted the local vehicular travel restrictions and granted access to the wharf. Palrey and her crew raced down to the shoreline to witness the continued ocean surge from the tsunami that had broadsided the islands of Hawaii. The dynamic nature of the ocean’s energy between the islands was evident wherever one looked upon the shoreline. Yet, despite these ominous signs, especially upon a start of a channel swim, Palfrey and crew boarded Dickson’s Kihei Boy escort boat and drove full throttle to the start as Palfrey did the best she could as she prepared on the rocking boat.

As they reached Laau Point on the westernmost point of Molokai Island with Oahu a long 26 miles away, strong winds slapped them in the face and threw a relentless stream of whitecaps at them. For once, deep worry lines seemed to finally etch the veneer of Palfrey’s face. But she applied layers and layers of sunscreen and lanolin to protect her face and went through her normal stretching regimen and preparations.

She was ready to take on Mother Nature come literally hell or high water.

At 10:54 am, Palfrey jumped in the water and took off at her controlled 76 stroke per minute pace. Hour after hour, she maintained the quick pace and only occasionally commented that the conditions were less than ideal. “The water is kind of bumpy,” she smiled with a twinkle in her eye during her feeding stops every thirty minutes.

She gave strict instructions to her crew to constantly give her data that she needs to pace herself intelligently throughout the swim including how far she swam and how far she needs to go.

By the fifth hour, it was apparent that Palfrey was on record pace despite the less-than-ideal circumstances. “It was tough. I wanted to put in a big effort in the beginning so I could get away from [the Molokai] shore due to our late start. I guess I used up a fair bit of energy and I thought I would pay for it later, but I have done a lot of training. That last bit [of the swim] was hard getting into shore [on Oahu] with the full flood of the ebb tide.”

Palfrey acknowledged the tough stretch of water was also incredibly gorgeous. “It was great out there. It was beautiful. I swam over a whale before my first feed. I first thought it was a whale shark, but I also saw the bottom so I figured that it could not possibly be [a whale shark]. That was pretty amazing. I saw dolphins. I actually saw the fins.”

Every 30 minutes she stopped, but every so briefly. First a banana-flavored drink on the first feeding stop, then a chocolate-flavored drink on the second, then coffee-flavored on the third. Over and over again, but the stops were nearly always under 10 seconds. Reach, drink, listen and go. Reach, drink, listen and go. She was making an incredibly difficult channel on a particularly tough day look easy.

It was rough. The beginning was particularly tough. It never really settled down. It was hard work. I am satisfied. My crew was amazing; they worked hard. I knew everyone was tired after getting no sleep with the tsunami warning and asked to leave the hotel. It was a big effort from everybody.”

Palfrey’s effort resulted in a swim of 11 hours 40 minutes.*

Since first watching marathon swimmers from 1979, Penny’s swim was one of the gutiest swims I have ever had the privilege to witness,” said observer Steven Munatones. “She made one of the toughest channels in the world – on a particularly rough day under extraordinarily unusual conditions after a sleepless night – look simple.  Few others could have done that. She was amazing.”

Different scenes from Penny’s swim follow:

* Palfrey later repeated this crossing on November 30th 2011, completing the swim in 12 hours 7 minutes. Due to the crashing waves and dangerous onshore conditions, Palfrey started offshore in the water and therefore her swim was not officially recorded by the Hawaiian Channel Swim Association.

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Steven Munatones