By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - Marathon swimmer Penny Palfrey, a 49-year-old grandmother, will try to break her own world record by swimming 103 miles from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage in what she admitted on Thursday was a daunting challenge.
Palfrey, who was born in Britain but lives in Australia, planned to start her swim across the Florida Straits on Friday morning from Havana's Hemingway Marina and hopes to arrive somewhere in Florida within 40 to 50 hours.
"Every single swim is individual. Each swim comes with its own challenges. This is a really big challenge, the Florida Straits, 103 miles," the well-tanned, muscular Palfrey told a news conference.
Her swim comes less than a year after American swimmer Diana Nyad, 62, made three failed attempts to cross the treacherous body of water that separates Communist Cuba from the United States.
The swim was completed successfully in May 1997 by Australian Susan Maroney, who unlike Nyad and Palfrey, used a shark cage for protection.
Maroney was 22 at the time, but Palfrey, who has three grown children and two grandchildren, dismissed the idea that her age could be an impediment.
"I think my track record speaks for itself," she said.
Last June, Palfrey captured the world record for what are referred to as "unassisted open ocean swims" by swimming 67.25 miles in the Cayman Islands, Cuba's fellow Caribbean country.
Her resume contains a long list of marathon swims, including twice across the English Channel, a round trip in the Strait of Gibraltar and three swims around Manhattan Island.
She decided to take on the Florida Straits after flying over on her way back from the record-breaking Cayman swim.
"We flew from Grand Cayman island to Miami and out of my window on the airplane I could see the Florida Straits. We flew over Cuba and I could see Miami and it was such a beautiful sight," she said.
She started researching the straits when she got home and before long, she said, "I was already hooked."
Palfrey has a 16-member crew and one boat - the 44-foot Sunluver - to accompany her.
As Nyad did, she will get liquids and food at regular intervals that she must take without touching the boat.
Equipment that emits an electronic current will be used instead of a shark cage to repel sharks, which can be frequent companions of swimmers in the Gulf Stream, which passes through the Florida Straits and up the east coast of Florida.
On her second attempt, Nyad had to quit after suffering severe stings from jellyfish and Portuguese Man o' War.
Palfrey said she will don a Lycra suit at night, when they are most likely to be out, to protect her from the same fate.
Under international marathon swim rules, she will not be allowed to wear a dive suit.
There were reports that her crew killed several sharks that approached during her Cayman Island swim, but Palfrey said that was not true and would not happen on this swim.
"We don't kill sharks. We love the ocean. We like to preserve the ocean," she said.
Palfrey had planned to make her attempt a few days ago, but had to wait for Tropical Storm Debby to stop churning in the Gulf of Mexico off northwestern Florida.
Now, with the storm gone and calm returning to waters of the Florida Straits, she has Mother Nature on her side.
The weather for the next three days is looking fantastic," Palfrey said.
(Editing by Tom Brown and Lisa Shumaker)