Tampa Bay Marathon Swim 2008

All the way to Tampa Bay

If anyone has any bright ideas about how to minimize the effects of jet lag, we’d love to hear them. Thirty two hours of sitting in planes and airport lounges with hardly any sleep is definitely not fun. We flew out of Townville, North Queensland on the morning of April, 14 and after stops in Brisbane, LA and Dallas, Texas, we finally arrived at Tampa, on the western coast of Florida. And then to wake us up, we had an interesting, but thankfully uneventful, 40 klm drive in our hire car down to our hotel near the entrance to the bay.

After a few relaxing days of pottering around, doing a bit of sightseeing, shopping and our final taper, we were ready to race. We were over the jet lag, had done the hard yards in training and were feeling good, and best of all, the weather forecast was looking favorable.

As with most open water swims these days, we found the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim on the internet. Penny and I had originally planned to swim it in 2007, but to cut a long story short, we ended up doing the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (MIMS) in New York City, instead.


But the bug had bitten, and when Tampa Bay’s race director, Ron Collins, replied to our enquiring email in really positive terms, we were hooked.

 Tampa Bay is Florida’s largest estuary and runs into the Gulf of Mexico. Being 28 degrees north of the equator, the climate is sub tropical and was very pleasant throughout our stay, in mid to late April.

The race course covers pretty well the entire length of the bay, and at 24 miles (approx. 38 klms), we were under no illusions that this would be anything but a tough swim.


Ron Collins was the first person to swim it solo, which he did in 1998. Since then, less than 50 people (including only 13 women) have been able to go the full distance.

The race was to start from a small beach in a cove, right on the doorstep of our hotel. Starting time would be 7.00am (just a few minutes before sunrise) to give us sufficient time to finish before dark. The course was relatively straight forward. After leaving the beach (near the bay entrance), we head off in a south easterly direction, and then taking a big arc to the left, we would then head north, north east for the next 30 odd klms, to the finish at Ben T. Davis Beach (in the upper reaches of the bay).


There were only two important things we, and our support boats, needed to take into account. First was the depth of the water. The bay was very shallow in many areas, and our experienced boat drivers stressed the need for us to head well offshore in the early stages of the race. The shortest distance on the map, clearly indicated that we should hug the coast when we took that left hand turn around Pinellas Point. But to do this would result in both swimmer and boat running aground, and an early shower.


Our boaties explained how, hundreds of years ago, pirate vessels which plied the Gulf of Mexico, used the bay to their advantage. Anytime they were threatened, the pirate boats would head up into the bay, and with full knowledge of its waters, they simply needed to sail around until their pursuers ran aground.


We were fortunate to have been assigned very competent skippers in Mike and Bernie, so we simply let them navigate.

The other factor in Tampa is the tides. Ron generally tries to start the race in the latter stages of the ebbing tide. So the tides are not a factor early on in the race. But by the time we round Pinellas Point (approx. 6 klm), we now have an incoming tide, of up to 1 knot, pushing us up the bay. Life is good whilst that is happening.

But of course, what goes in, must come out, and there is the catch. Unless you can swim really fast, the tide will again be ebbing, forcing you to fight against its growing strength, in the latter stages of the race.

You cross under two bridges during the race. The Gandy Bridge (approx. 27.5 klm mark) and the Howard Franklin Bridge (approx. 32 klm) cross the entire 5 klm width of the bay. Around 3 klm of each bridge is built on reclaimed land, and the other 2 klm crosses the water. An aerial shot of these bridges resembles an hourglass. When the tide is behind you, no problem. But unless we were well past the Gandy bridge when the tide started to ebb, the effect of its pull would be magnified, and the chances of finishing, remote.

Facing the starter in the pre dawn of Saturday, April 19th, were 8 solos and 10 teams. Whilst the field was small, it certainly didn’t lack quality. It seemed that Penny Palfrey (my better half) and Jose Serra, from Guatemala, would battle for line honours. Jose was first male finisher in MIMS 2007, and was training hard for a two way English Channel crossing. Not too much seemed to separate the rest of the field, Paolo from Italy, Dan, Samantha, Kim and Flavia from the USA, and yours truly, the “sun safe” aussie.


After several days of northerly (not good!) winds, race day was kind to us. We started into a light south easterly headwind with a small chop. Whilst not unpleasant, it did make for slow going for the first hour or so. But as we made our left turn, the wind and swell started to work in our favour. And after about two hours, the breeze shifted to a south westerly tail wind of 5-10 knots and remained that way for the rest of the day.


The water temperature, although cooler than we expected, at 20 to 21 degrees C, was certainly not too cold. The water quality and visibility was similar to my experience from a few Sydney Harbour swims. Viz. was 2 to 3 metres and the water had a greenish tinge. Again, it was fine throughout the day.

With a race this long, support boats were obviously essential. The race entry fee covered the boat, and Ron organized all of this for us. And for an extra fee, we could also obtain (optional) kayakers. We asked for kayakers, knowing this would make navigation and feeding much easier. And then of course, we had our handler (coach), whose job it was to give us information about what was going on above the water line, as well as feeding, and giving us anything else we needed.


With Penny was :

  • Mike, the skipper, who had swum in a relay on three previous occasions,
  • Sarah, the kayaker, with her big smile and boundless enthusiasm, and
  • Brooke, the handler. Brooke, from NYC was fantastic. She teamed up with Penny in last year’s successful MIMS. And since her fiancé, Dan Boyle, was swimming in a relay, she volunteered her services once again.

On my team was :

  • Bernie, the skipper, who had guided swimmers on six previous occasions,
  • Brent, who worked as a kayak instructor on weekends, to help fund his university studies, and
  • Neil, the handler. Neil hails from Perth, and had helped us on several previous Rottnest Channel Swims. Back in February, we told him about Tampa. It turned out he was going to be on an overseas business trip, and he offered to take a detour, and add a couple of days to his trip to help us out.

 Planning, coordination and teamwork are essential in marathon swimming, and the results we enjoyed were largely thanks to you guys and girls. Thank you all. You were awesome.

Back to the race. Penny and I are self coached and train together, using programs that she writes up. Her plan was to hold a solid, consistent pace for the whole race, and to try to maintain a stroke rate of 80 per minute. She knew she would have to do this to be competitive with Jose.

Since I am slower and with less experience, I was going to be a bit more conservative, and try to maintain a stroke rate of 70. We had arranged with Brooke and Neil to keep tabs on our stroke rate throughout the race, and to let us know if we were slacking off.


In long races like this, we always feed half hourly. By feeding, I mean carbohydrate drinks. We see and hear of swimmers who eat anything from bananas, to honey sandwiches, to dried fruit, and so on. When Captain Matthew Webb swam the English Channel in 1875, he fed on strips of dried beef, hot beef tea and brandy. So I guess anything might work for some people. But after much trial and error, we find that carbohydrate drinks and gels work best for us, and are easy to digest. And we try to keep drink stops down to 20 seconds or so, to minimize heat loss and time wastage.


Our races were pretty much uneventful, due to the favourable conditions. Going under the bridges was interesting. Because they were low to the water, our support boats had to leave us for a few minutes, to pass under the raised sections. We were very thankful to have the kayakers by our side for these bits.

With a small field like we had, we didn’t have any swimmers around us for most of the race, so we kept our minds occupied by concentrating on our stroke, watching our crew for directions and information, and ticking off the landmarks and time elapsed.


One thing every competitor thought about at several times during the race was Dave Parcells. Dave had earned the title of King of Tampa Bay courtesy of his six race finishes. And he must have been a very tough competitor, having swum an English Channel two way crossing in an excellent time of 21:30, a few years back. Unfortunately, the 2007 race was his last. After covering about 14 klm, he was feeling quite ill, enough to call it a day. He got out, phoned his kids on the cell phone, and a few minutes later, he collapsed as a result of cardiac failure, and could not be revived. If there is a life here after, I’m sure he would have been looking down on Tampa 2008, and thinking :

  • Of Ron Collins, goodonya mate, for keeping the race alive.
  • Of Marv Siple, his skipper from last year, who must have gone through a lot of trauma, well done for coming back with your boat to help out this year. Even though, Marv didn’t have a swimmer, he was on the water all day, acting as a safety vessel. Unreal. [Marv’s son also skippered for a male duo team from NYC, although he may have got more than he bargained for, when they stripped off and swam naked for most of the journey].
  • Of the swimmers in the water, lucky buggers for having good weather.

Thanks to the conditions and an excellent crew, Penny finished in 7 hours, 51 minutes, 24 seconds, beating not only the men, but all the teams home. It was the first time a woman had taken overall line honours in Tampa. She also bettered the women’s race record of 9:08 which Gail Rice of Miami, set in 2002. Gail had also swum a time of 8:34, outside of the annual race. And Penny’s time was only ten minutes outside the men’s record of 7:41, held by Chris Derks (former USA 25 klm champion).

I also had a good race, finishing third overall, and second male, in a time of 8 hours, 49 minutes, 24 seconds. Whilst there are no official age group records, the previous best time for my age group of 50+ was 9:44.


Penny and I were also the first aussies and the first married couple to complete Tampa.

Of course, whilst the records will show that everyone who finished posted good times, open water swimmers are always at the mercy of the elements.

For example, Forrest Nelson, a friend of ours from Los Angeles (and a very strong swimmer) took line hours in 2005, with a time of 10:21. But unlike us, he had the joy of punching into a northerly headwind for 30 odd klms.


Everyone of us who swims open water, will get our share of good days and others, where you just have to be satisfied with getting to the other end. We’ve certainly had our fair share of those, so we’ll take credit for Tampa 2008. 


After the swim, we took a few extra days to explore southern Florida. The climate and flora, very much reminded us of Queensland. And there is no shortage of attractions. From the theme parks of Orlando and the Kennedy Space Centre, through to the tourist mecca of the keys and the glitz of Miami. Or like us, you might prefer the natural beauty and magnificent wildlife in the everglades.

We did a six hour guided kayak tour out of Everglade City (not what I would call a city) where we saw a huge array of birdlife as well as dozens of lazy alligators (ranging from ½ to 3 metres in length), which did not seem at all threatening, or bothered by our close proximity.


And a final must do in Florida, is visiting the International Swimming Hall of Fame, in Fort Lauderdale. Our good friend, Dr. Distance, showed us through the exhibits and treated us to a great day out, in his home town.

All this made for a really good trip away. But for us, the best part was renewing old acquaintances, and making new friends who share our passion for open water.


Whilst we are very much a fringe group compared to our pool cousins, there is something special about open water swimmers. We take on the elements and we face our natural fear of what may be lurking in the depths. Whilst we enter a race, in marathon swimming the competition comes mainly from within. And in a tough swim, it is fair to say that everyone who finishes, is a winner.


Post race, around the bar, everyone wants to know where you are from, what swims you have done and what they are like, what you have got coming up, and so on. Everyone has done their best, most have got to the other end, and there is a friendly and supportive atmosphere.


We wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Tampa to anyone who wants a big challenge and is prepared to train accordingly. For aussie swimmers, Tampa is almost the equivalent of doing a Rottnest two way crossing (our times were quicker coz we got a good day). Definitely achievable, but requiring a fair bit of commitment. Quite a few people have used this race as a lead up swim for an English Channel attempt.


But Ron Collins currently runs this race almost single handedly, and for this reason, he likes to keep it low key. So entries are definitely limited.

Ron can be contacted via his website, www.distancematters.com


Chris Palfrey

10th May, 2008.


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Open water swimming crossings and races in Australia and around the world. Stories and reports of our adventures in and out of the water.