Can she do it?
Can Australian swimmer Chloe McCardel conquer the Gulf Stream, eddies, waves, tides, fatigue, sleep deprivation, extreme sun, dehydration, boredom, thunderstorms — and the dreaded stinging jellyfish — to accomplish a historic feat that the determined Diana Nyad and world record-holding grandmother Penny Palfrey could not?
Can McCardel, 28, become the first person to swim 104 miles from Havana to Key West without flippers or in a wave-breaking shark cage?
“It’s the hardest swim in the world today,” McCardel said before a recent training session in Key West. The swim is also a logistically daunting feat that requires tens of thousands of dollars, a knowledgeable crew and the ability to deal with the Cuban government.
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But in just six months, McCardel and her husband, Paul McQueeney, also a long-distance swimmer, put together the epic quest. They remortgaged their home to raise $150,000 to help make it happen.
McCardel began her swim at 9:59 a.m. Wednesday from the Hemingway Marina in Havana. Once she hits international waters, 12 miles from the Cuban shoreline, GPS trackers will begin reporting her progress on www.chloemccardel.com
Meteorologist Bill South of the National Weather Service in Key West said the next few days look good for a long swim with winds primarily out of the east at about 10 knots, seas of two feet and the chance of rain averaging 40 to 50 percent. As McCardel gets closer to the Keys, the wind should die down. “But I still wouldn’t try it,” South said.
Currents also appear favorable, so McCardel might be able to avoid being pushed off course and use the Gulf Stream to help forward progress during the 60 hours or so she expects to be in the water.
McCardel has swum the 21-mile English Channel six times, including two double crossings and an attempt at a triple crossing that put her in the hospital for hypothermia and lung issues. It’s also where she met her husband.
After her latest crossing of that channel last year, she sought a new challenge and targeted setting a world record for longest open-water continuous swim between two points of land. (Palfrey holds the record for her 67-mile swim in the Cayman Islands in 2011.)
The couple decided in December that her record attempt would be crossing the treacherous Florida Straits, after Nyad announced last year she would not make a fifth attempt at her lifelong dream.
“We knew for Diana it was such a personal and almost spiritual journey,” McCardel said. “But when she said she’s done, we didn’t think she would mind if we stepped up and had a go of it.”
She also was looking for a place to swim where she wouldn’t have to worry about hypothermia.
McCardel said she is optimistic she will succeed where others have not because of her “X factor” — a science team led by Mitchell Roffer, president of Roffer’s Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service. The team includes oceanographers from the University of Miami and the University of Southern Mississippi.
“We try to reduce the luck factor and increase the skill factor by adding the science,” said Roffer, a former collegiate swimmer.
They will use satellite infrared images that provide hourly sea surface temperature and ocean color to identify the different currents.
While Nyad’s biggest problem on her last three attempts was jellyfish, Palfrey came upon an unexpected eddy about 20 miles from Key West that pulled her away from the coast and her finish line.
“The Gulf Stream itself, that’s a piece of cake,” said Bill Cottrill, a volunteer meteorologist with McCardel’s crew who also helped with Palfrey’s attempt. “The only thing that changes is the speed. The center of the stream is faster than the edges.”
Where the navigation ran into trouble during Palfrey’s attempt was dealing with eddies, whose currents run opposite that of the Gulf Stream and can be 1 to 30 miles in diameter.
“We ran into what’s called the North Wall Effect on the north side of the Gulf Stream where it runs into the tidal flow coming out of the Keys,” Cottrill said. “We’re going to solve that this time.”
Kayakers will drag a shark shield that creates an electro-magnetic field that provides an uncomfortable feeling in shark’s snouts, and some other shark repellent material.
Capt. John Bollinger, who has driven the boat for three of the latest crossing attempts, said the crew saw no sharks, although Palfrey saw a few hammerheads swimming beneath her.
As for the jellyfish, McCardel said she had a biochemist back in her hometown of Melbourne create a special concoction to deal with them. “But I don’t know if they will get out of customs and arrive in time,” she said.