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Australian swimmer sets off from Cuba for Florida

Published June 12, 2013 10:36 am

Swim • Swimmer heads into the night, braving sharks, stingrays and strong currents.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Havana • Australian endurance athlete Chloe McCardel stroked through the open waters north of Cuba on Wednesday, determined to become the first person to swim the Straits of Florida nonstop without a protective shark cage.

The 28-year-old from Melbourne had covered about 12 miles (19 kilometers) by late afternoon, her team reported via social media. A boat that set out with her from Havana's Hemingway Marina was joined by a second support vessel that had sailed from Florida.

In the morning, a smiling, upbeat McCardel arrived in a pink 1950s Chevy convertible at a rocky jetty in western Havana. She carefully adjusted her black swim cap and goggles while her husband applied grease around the edges of her suit to prevent chafing.

"As confident as I can be. I think it's all going to work out well," she said of her chances. "It'll be tough, though. It's not going to be an easy ride, but we'll get through it as a team."

McCardel then jumped feet first into the water at 10 a.m. sharp.

Based on the afternoon update, she was averaging about 2 mph (3 kph) as she headed into her first night, a pace that would get her to Florida quicker than anticipated if she kept up that pace.

McCardel had said she expected to take about 60 hours to arrive in the Florida Keys, a little more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) to the northeast of Havana, braving sharks and jellyfish along the way.

The weather report for that time period called for clear skies. The sea off Havana was flat and glassy Wednesday, precisely the ideal conditions that McCardel's science team had forecast.

The strait has been busy the last three summers, with fellow marathon swimmers Diana Nyad and Penny Palfrey making four failed attempts at the crossing between them since 2011.

Australian Susie Maroney successfully made the swim in 1997, although she did it with the benefit of a shark cage.

"It is the hardest swim in the world today," McCardel said Tuesday at a news conference in the Cuban capital. "No one has been able to achieve this. It's possibly harder than winning the World Cup or getting a gold medal."

The challenge also outstrips by far, at least in terms of distance, anything she's done before. McCardel, who has twice made a double crossing of the English Channel, said the most time she's spent in the water continuously is 25 hours.

She is swimming under English Channel Marathon rules, which means she cannot touch her support boat or hold on to anything. Nor can she wear a full-body wetsuit, which would help protect against exposure and jellyfish stings, or use a shark cage.

A piece of equipment called a Shark Shield creates an electromagnetic field around her in the water, discouraging the predators from getting too close.

McCardel plans to stop every half hour or so to sip an energy drink, preferring that to solid foods.

She and her team have spent the last nine and a half months planning the trip and studying others' attempts to try to figure out why those athletes were unable to complete the swim.

The team picked June for the attempt in a bit of a tradeoff: While seas are warmer later in the summer, this month typically sees lower concentrations of box jellyfish, whose dangerous stings have scuttled past attempts.

They even took the lunar cycle into account. Moonlight attracts jellyfish to the surface, and that should be less of a problem as she set off under a new moon.

McCardel said she believed she could succeed where others fell short because she assembled an unprecedented team that includes scientists on land who are experts on the Gulf Stream current that flows through the straits.

They will be crunching data in real time and feeding information to her support boat, a 44-foot catamaran dubbed the Sunluver, so the mission can dodge things such as the powerful eddies that have swept other swimmers off course.

"The advantage that this gives us is that we can foresee 10, 20, 30 kilometers ahead," McCardel said. "So if we can slightly change our course to avoid things in the future, we're less likely to get picked up by an eddy off the Gulf Stream and pushed in the wrong direction."

Still, she acknowledged there was no way to guarantee nature's cooperation.

"The Gulf Stream ... it's like a wild animal," McCardel said. "You cannot predict it that much in advance, so you cannot take historical data from Penny Palfrey or Diana Nyad's swim and say, well, this is what happened to them, therefore if we don't do exactly the same then we'll have a better outcome."

It would seem an unlikely dream for a woman who didn't even learn to swim until she was 10 years old.

McCardel, who makes a living doing first-aid training, and her husband took out a second mortgage on their home to finance the $150,000 in costs associated with the swim.

So far they have made about half of it back through sponsorships, and leaned heavily on volunteers and donations. She's also hoping to raise money for cancer research and to support people who suffer from the disease.

At the marina Wednesday morning, McCardel was just about to hop into the water when suddenly she turned around and called out for her husband, Paul.

"I love you," she said, giving him a quick kiss. "Thank you. Bye!"