Heroic Effort Stopped By Portuguese Man o War Venom

Heroic Effort Stopped By Portuguese Man o War Venom

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

After a remarkable solo attempt by modern-day adventurer Penny Palfrey, the 72-mile Kaieiewaho Channel remains one of marathon swimming’s most difficult feats. Penny was done in by a wall of Portuguese Man-o-War just before dusk on Saturday night, Hawaii time. Just after the 11-hour mark, Penny slammed into a wall of Portuguese Man-o-War that seared her every limb. “It was painful to watch,” said Forrest Nelson who was on her escort boat. “She has scars on every limb.”

After she hit the Portuguese Man-o-War, she was in a great deal of pain, but she continued on for another hour. She did not want to stop. At the 8:10 pm mark [12 hours and 2 minutes after her start], it was just too much. She didn’t want to stop, but there was no way she could finish. She was flying the whole way, swimming a shade over 60 km in 12 hours in 4-foot seas in 12-15 knot [wind] conditions.”

Portuguese Man-o-War, the bane of all warm-water marathon swims, are nearly impossible to see in the ocean while swimming. Their sting feels like a branding iron is deeply pressed into your skin. The sharp, severe, continuous piping hot sensation is nearly impossible to erase from your mind and leaves long red welts on the skin that can last for days.

The Portuguese Man-o-War has stinging venom-filled nematocysts in its tentacles that can paralyze small fish and other prey. The venom travels to the lymph nodes that can lead to even more pain. Even upon death (when it washes on shore), the The Portuguese Man-o-War can sting just as painfully as the live creature in the water.

Penny was on pace to complete the for under 30 hours. In the 12-15 knots, 4-foot swells, we were getting bounced around a lot. Penny was putting in a lot of effort just to put in a progress, not to go fast, just to move forward.”

The wind was always running perfectly perpendicular to our course, so she was always swimming in a trough. Feeding was tough in the swells,” recalled Nelson as Captain Don Jones was working hard to keep the escort boat close to Penny. Jeff Kozlovich and Bill Goding were alternating paddling next to her.

With every limb covered in painful scars, the encounter with the Portuguese Man-o-War smack started a downward spiral that ended up being impossible to recover. But for over an hour, Penny forged on despite the pain. “It was like I went through a web of a very large jellyfish.” Penny grit her teeth and continued to swim through to her next feeding. She knew that she may have to face these kinds of obstacles. But pain was too much and she was finally pulled from the water.

The ‘web’ was most likely a large smack (i.e., group) of Portuguese Man-o-War. As the sun was setting, it would have been impossible for Penny to see and avoid the small, light-blue colored creatures in the deep blue ocean.

“She was doing well. Very well. We estimated that she could have finished under 30 hours at the pace she was going. We were running a bit north of the rhumb line due to the winds. The plan was to take this until she got closer to Kauai. Then, depending on the currents near the island at that time, she would have had plenty of different opportunities for the final push.”

But Penny never got that opportunity.

However, the 47-year-old grandmother and one of marathon swimming truly bold adventurers, took it upon herself to challenge the monstrous 72-mile (115 km) Kaieiewaho Channel. In fact, everyone on that tiny boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, braving wind, waves and the elements, is an adventurer with a heart of gold: Captain Don Jones, Jeff Kozlovich, Forrest Nelson and Bill Goding.

After being pulled from the water, it took her crew another 3 hours to reach Kauai in Captain Don’s boat. Despite Penny’s scars and pain, she was smiling and joking with her equally courageous crew, knowing that she had given it her all. To cross the Kaieiewaho Channel, Penny was looking at a 30-hour period where everything came together: the winds, currents, marine life and waves in order for her to conquer the 72-mile distance. She was able to manage most of those, but was done in by a very small creature.

But famed UCLA basketball coach John Wooden defines success as a peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.

Penny certainly proved herself in the Kaieiewaho Channel and, in our opinion, is the very epitome of a successful marathon swimmer.

Copyright © 2010 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones