When The Tsunami Hit, Penny Palfrey Took Off

When The Tsunami Hit, Penny Palfrey Took Off

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Swimmer Penny Palfrey of Australia has had all kinds of incredible experiences during her prolific career.

The Australian swimmer calmly faced a large Great White Shark off the waters of Santa Barbara in California when the massive shark glided silently and steathfully under her. “Not only did Penny think the shark was beautiful, but she also just kept swimming, not missing a stroke,” recalled Steven Munatones. “Even when she described the situation, it was like no big deal to her. She is so calm.”

Sharks also surrounded her during her Bridging The Cayman Islands swim that took her 40 hours 41 minutes to swim 108 km in 2010.

But in all my years in the sport, nothing was like the night Penny had to endure before her Molokai Channel swim in 2011. At 10:30 pm the night before her planned crossing, Penny, Chris Palfrey her husband, and I were awaken by loud shouts from the hotel staff on Molokai. They banged on our doors and told us that we had 10 minutes to evacuate the hotel due to a tsunami that would shortly hit the Hawaii Islands. At first, I thought it had to be some kind of overreaction or some kind of problem with unruly hotel guests. But the seriousness of the staff’s voices and their quick actions told us otherwise. So we packed up and got in the car.

The staff told us to go to the evacuation center at some high school. It was pitch black and we had no idea where to go. Chris wisely suggested that we simply start driving upcountry and head for the hills. So we did. Eventually, we saw the car lights of other people fleeing the shorelines of Molokai and just followed them.

We followed the line of car lights and this impromptu caravan found its way to Molokai High School. It seemed to be perched high enough away from the shoreline and the gymnasium was all lit up. It was clear that the local people had experience with tsunamis.

They greeted us with smiles and a genuine sense of aloha spirit. They were kind and compassionate and showed us where we could wait out the tsunami and where coffee and water were being set up. Their calm demeanor helped slow my racing heartbeat.

But I was only here because of Penny. She was the one who was scheduled to swim 42 km from Molokai to Oahu the next day. She was taking in everything in stride – there was no sense of panic and her outward appearance was just…serene…her face shined nothing but tranquility. I was so impressed and so inspired by her. As I was standing by her in awe, Penny had set up a little personal space on the bleachers in the gymnasium. Using her backpack as a pillow and her towel as bedding, she was the epitome of a zen-like calm.

Meanwhile, everyone in the gymnasium was glued to the period updates given by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the evacuation center. We knew there were tsunami warnings that went into effect throughout the state of Hawaii due to the devastating earthquakes in northern Japan, but it was uncertain the extent of the damage and wave height.

Penny and Chris Palfrey in the evacuation center on Molokai

Chris worked his telephone and was trying to figure out what to do next. There was nothing for me to do but wait and try to have the same sense of calm as did Penny and Chris who held the record of 12 hours 53 minutes across Molokai.

As Penny, Chris, and I were holed up in a high school gymnasium on the sloops of the volcano on Molokai, Penny’s escort pilot Jim Dickson (shown above) was instructed to leave the wharf where he had been waiting for Penny. Boaters, yachters and mariners were all told to leave their port or harbor and wait out the impact of the tsunami in deeper waters, out of the impact of the expected tidal surge.

Meanwhile, the unknown reigned and uncertainty continued. Neither Penny or Chris nor Jim and the local authorities could predict what would happen over the next 24 hours. Everyone stayed glued to their TV sets with their radios for the latest news.

I found it simply remarkable that both Penny and Chris both kept faith that per swim would eventually come off. They constantly stood alert for any breaks, updates, or opportunities. No one knew if the surge impact would be minimal or devastating.

Dawn eventually came and as the sun started to rise higher over the horizon, the tsunami warnings and lockdowns remained in effect. Penny had moved from trying to sleep on uncomfortable gymnasium bleachers to resting in the back of her rental car.  By 8 am, Penny and Chris were anxious and restless. I was caught up with their energy. They were not outwardly gungho, but their inner spirit in finishing this adventure was contagious. Chris hopped in the car and we drove down the foothills towards the shoreline. We tried to get to the wharf, taking all kinds of roads, but the local police had blocked all roads and there was absolutely no possibility of getting down to the water’s edge. Reluctantly, we headed back to the safety of the evacuation center.

Penny, Chris and Dickson talked off and on throughout the morning via the telephone. They collectively decided to see if the restrictions would be lifted later in the day. Whatever they were game for, so was I. But, there was now another reason for worry: for every minute Penny’s start was delayed, the weather started to deteriorate. Stronger winds came up and we could see whitecaps off in the distance. All their months of planning that had gone into picking the right time and place to start the swim seemed all for naught. Thinking back, I had never seen a swimmer and her crew face so many obstacles before the start of a channel swim. Both Penny and Chris had little sleep and certainly did not plan on spending the night worried and restless on gymnasium bleachers. Yet, it was remarkable to see how confident Penny remained in herself and her mental preparation.

By 9 am, the authorities had lifted vehicular travel restrictions and granted access to the wharf where Captain Dickson had been waiting. We drove fast towards the shoreline. I was shocked to see a phenomenon that I had never witnessed before: the continued tsunami surge that had broadsided all the islands of Hawaii. Waves were going OUT from the shore to the ocean – it was like the entire ocean had gone mad. Things were not normal. There appeared to be a lot of pent-up energy in the ocean between the islands of Molokai, Maui, Lanai and Oahu. Yet, despite these ominous signs that scared me, Penny and Chris boarded Dickson’s escort boat, Kihei Boy. Dickson drove full throttle to the start as Penny prepared her swimsuit, cap, goggles and other gear on a rocking boat where it was not easy to stand.

La’aa Point on the westernmost point of Moloka’i Island

As Captain Dickson reached La’au Point on Molokai Island with Oahu a full 42 km away, the winds slapped everyone on the boat in their faces. There was an angry ocean with a relentless stream of whitecaps staring at them.  Finally, I thought I saw worry was etch itself on the veneer of Penny’s face. But she never faulted. She applied layers and layers of sunscreen and lanolin to protect her face and went through her normal stretching regimen and preparations.

It was obvious that Penny was ready to take on Mother Nature come literally hell or high water.

At 10:54 am, Penny jumped in the water and took off at her controlled but furious 76 stroke per minute pace.  There was no way that Penny could make it into shore. The surf was too much and shoreline conditions were too turbulent to risk getting close to Molokai. So she swam as close to shore as she could safely do*, reversed her course, and started off on her traverse to Oahu in the most uncertain conditions possible. Later, Ralph Goto, the Ocean Safety Administrator on Oahu, told me, ‘We could not believe you were out there.’ Honestly, neither could I. This was a life of true adventure.

Hour after hour, Penny maintained a quick pace and only occasionally commented that the conditions were less than ideal. ‘The water is kind of bumpy,’ she said with a quick smile and a twinkle in her eye during her regular feeding stops every thirty minutes.

She gave strict instructions to her crew – ‘give me data’ that she needed to pace herself intelligently throughout the swim, including how far she swam and how far she needed to go.

By the fifth hour, it was apparent that Palfrey was swimming on record pace despite the less-than-ideal circumstances. She said, “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 their fins.”

Every 30 minutes Palfrey stopped, but she only had to eggbeater ever so briefly. First, she had a banana-flavored drink on her first feeding stop, then a chocolate-flavored drink on her second, then coffee-flavored on her 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 a well-oiled machine, making an incredibly difficult channel on a particularly tough day look almost impossibly easy,” said Munatones.

After she landed on Oahu 11 hours 40 minutes 33 seconds after a bumpy swim, she reflected on her crossing, “It was rough. The beginning was particularly tough. The ocean 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.”

Her effort was more than an hour faster than her husband’s previous record, but since she had not swum from shore to shore, it was not an official swim.

Official or not, Munatones was in complete awe, humbled with Palfrey’s monumental effort. “Since first watching channel swimmers in 1979, Penny’s swim was one of the gutiest swims I have ever had the privilege to witness. She made one of the toughest channels in the world – on a particularly rough day under extraordinarily unusual conditions after a sleepless night in the midst of a tsunami continuing to pound the shorelines of all Hawaiian islands – look simple.  Few others could have done that. She was more than amazing.”

Different scenes from Penny’s swim follow:

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Steven Munatones