Penny completes the Molokai Channel

The original article is posted (with picture series) on the Chis & Penny Palfrey website since March 17th, 2011 at 3:23 am

On Friday March 11, 2011, coinciding with the terrible earthquake and destruction in Japan (our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with everyone affected), Penny created her own little piece of history by smashing the record for the Kaiwi Channel, from Molokai to Oahu.
The Molokai Channel, as it is commonly known, is 26.4 statute miles (42.5 klms) of Open Ocean. Known for its big, oceanic swells, rough waters, and potentially strong currents on the approach to Oahu, this is an extremely challenging swim. And to top it off, due to the distance, part of the swim will necessarily be done in darkness, in waters known to be inhabited by great whites and tiger sharks.
The difficulty is indicated by the fact that only 14 people (including Penny) have completed the swim crossing since 1961, when Keo Nakama made it across in 15 hours 37 minutes. Compare this to the English Channel (of 33.5 klms) with 1,300 successful crossings.
For those involved in Penny’s swim, the lead up was almost as challenging as the swim itself. The crew, Chris as handler, Steve Munatones  (from Huntington Beach) as swim advisor/media liaison and Jeff Kozlovich (Honolulu lifeguard) as kayaker  and Penny, flew across to Molokai early afternoon to link up with Jim Dickson (skipper) and Cody Vares (deckhand & alternate kayaker). After an early dinner, we bedded down at a local hotel before meeting the boat at 4.00am at Kaunakakai wharf.
At least, that was the plan. The siren blasts changed all that. At first, I (Chris) thought some bright spark had chosen 10.30pm as a time to start cleaning the reception area with a commercial vacuum cleaner. A couple of moments later, there was a sharp knock on the door by a big guy carrying a flashlight. “We’ve got a tsunami warning” he said, “you need to evacuate to higher ground!” We stood there for a moment, our mouths agape. Surely this can’t be happening. Jeff and Steven appeared at our door a couple of minutes later and helped us load our personal and swim gear into the hire car. From there, we just followed the line of cars up into the hills. We ended up at an indoor sports facility at Molokai High School.  
The people at the evacuation facility were surprisingly well organised and friendly. But with rock hard floors, bright lights and lots of noise from excited and nervous people, rest was near impossible. We were still committed to the swim, the question was when. A small TV was on, with a crowd of people in front of it, as the news started to filter through from Japan. And the other thing commentators were speculating on was how big the tsunami was going to be when it reached the Hawaiian islands.
To cut it short, we had three attempts at trying to rendezvous with our boat. At 4.00am, after the worst of the swell had apparently passed, we jumped in the car and headed toward the wharf. No go. The police had a road block set up and no one was getting through. The breakfast TV show said the tsunami warning would likely be cancelled at 7.00am. But when we reached the road block…sorry, still no go…and the officer had no idea when it would be over. So back to the high school again. Then finally, at a little after 8.30am, the warning was officially cancelled. We phoned Jim on the boat and eventually boarded at 9.00am. Penny said she managed maybe 1 hours sleep in the back seat of the Toyota Echo car we had rented. 
Upon rounding La’au Point at the SW tip of Molokai, we were greeted by angry swirling seas, partly due to the strong NE breeze colliding with the NW swells, and the added turbulence from the tsunami.  Penny jumped into this washing machine at 10.54am with Jeff at her side on the kayak. The first hour was very rough due to the wrap around effect of the wind from Ilio Point, at the NW corner of Molokai. But the seas never really settled down to become anything like comfortable, at any point on the crossing. Early on, there was a parade of spectacular marine life.
Penny swam right over the top of a humpback whale even before her first feed, whilst she could still see the bottom. And on the boat we saw quite a few whales spouting and breaching. In the first hour, we also saw a large group of spinner dolphins (I guess maybe 50, although probably many more) surfing several abreast on the wind waves, and occasionally leaping from the water, a couple of hundred metres from Penny. At the 3 ½ hour mark, we were also treated to the sight of a huge humpback whale doing a full breach less than 100 metres ahead of the boat. We were still staring at the foam left from its re-entry, when it did it again. Wow. We grabbed our cameras and waited, but the show was over. 
Penny swam hard in the first few hours, due to our delayed start. She knew the latter part of the swim would be done at night and wanted to make the most of the daylight hours. Possibly helped along slightly by some favourable currents, she covered an excellent (given the very tough conditions) 5.4 miles (9 klm) in the first 2 hours. I commented to Steven, that at this point, she only had the English Channel (21 miles) to go. And Steven, being one of the most knowledgeable people in the world of open water swimming, remarked half way through the crossing, that there weren’t many swimmers in the world who could handling the confused and conflicting 6 to 8 feet seas, hour after hour, as Penny did. He also commented, not only that, she made it look easy. 
Contrasting with my (Chris’) crossing in April 24, when I broke Jon Ezer’s 1974 record, with a crossing time of 12 hours 53 minutes, I was extremely fortunate to have ENE winds of less than 15 knots accompanied by a relatively gentle swell from the same direction. Whilst conditions for Penny improved a little after that first horrible hour, the comments in the swim log continued to be rough seas, very choppy or lumpy. It was a constant battle. She never complained though apart from a couple of comments stating to the effect that she was having to work hard in the conflicting swells.
Sunset was just after 6.30pm. And she still had 7.5 miles (approx. 12 klm) to go. We switched to clear goggles and gave Penny a light to attach to her goggles (channel swimming rules forbid her touching anyone or anything). And lights were attached to the kayaker and running lights on the boat were switched on. We were hoping that the wind and swells would subside with sunset, but it was not to be. Still 15 knots, ENE winds, NW swell, and waves from each of 5 to 6 feet. 
But she kept on making good progress toward Oahu. Diamond Head and the lights from the Honolulu tourist strip were like a huge far off beacon. And closer to our arrival point of Sandy Beach (the SE end of Oahu), Koko Head, stood out like a dark monolith against the night sky.
As we approached Sandy Beach, we could make out the line of street lights which marked the beach car park. And Steven phoned Beth Ann Kozlovich and Laura Miller who were awaiting our arrival and they were flashing their headlights in response to Jim flashing his fore deck lights. But those last couple of kilometres were very tough. As if to throw in one last challenge for Penny, she encountered a very strong current from left to right with 2.5 klms to go. At this point, we gave her her last feed (a mistake on my part) and figured she had 35 to 40 minutes to go. One hour later, 500 metres from the beach, she finally broke through that current. Jeff was on station with her to help her navigate between reefs and through the surf break and onto the beach. Jeff was awesome throughout, but particularly at this point, as straying off course would result in getting thrown by the breakers onto sharp rocks and reef.
She did it, finishing at 10.34pm, in a time of 11 hours 40 minutes and 33 seconds, breaking my record by a whopping 1 hour and 13 minutes. Oh well, at least we have kept it in the family. Penny is the 14th person to cross the Molokai Channel, and the fifth woman to do so. Penny and I are the first married couple to swim the Molokai Channel, and we currently hold the men’s and women’s records for one of the world’s toughest marathon channel swims.
A slightly more detailed report will follow when we return to Australia. We would like to thank our major sponsor for this visit to Hawaii, the Waikiki Parc Hotel. Their fantastic hotel was perfect for resting up and final training before the swim. Also thanks to Shark Shield for their continued use of their units, keeping us safe, particularly around dusk and after dark. Great peace of mind.