Aloha Dr. Harry Huffaker

Aloha Dr. Harry Huffaker

Dr. Harry Huffaker, shown on left at the age of 50 after 18 hours in the channels in Hawaii, has had a remarkable open water swimming career and was inducted this year in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame.

The Daily News of Open Water Swimming has previously written articles about Dr. Harry Huffaker.

Below are two that touched upon his marathon swim successes as well as his dramatically disappointing failures.

Throughout his career, Harry faced scary night swims, sharks, jellyfish, massive ocean swells and extremely strong currents during unprecedented swims in the tropical waters of Hawaii, but he always fought back and returned to conquer the major channels of the Hawaiian Islands.

During his 1967 Molokai Channel swim, Harry saw a large shark and was going to immediately get out, but when he looked for the support boat, the shark was between him and his boat, which was too far away for an easy escape. Fortunately, the shark swam away – as did Harry towards his goal which he finally reached after 16+ hours.

After the initial shark encounter as told by Julia Steele of Hana Hou Magazine, Harry ran into another unexpected issue. “Four hours into the swim, the support crew received a distress call from another boat going down in the channel. They were going to cancel the swim in order to render aid, but other boats in the area radioed they would help. Although no survivors from the sinking boat were found, a large shark that contained human remains was caught the next day.”

But as Harry continued to grow his dental practice in Honolulu, he kept on swimming and planning his next adventure in the pre-GPS era.

Julia writes about Harry’s first crossing of the 30-mile Alenuihaha Channel between the Big Island of Hawaii and Maui

During a pre-swim dinner only hours before he was set to become the first person to swim from the Big Island of Hawaii to Maui, Harry recalls the time he had been told by his host that there was an annual shark hunt off of the very starting point of his 30-mile channel swim. The locals kill a cow, drag it out to sea, watch the sharks swarm in. The host brought out the video and showed Harry the shark frenzy.

Certainly blood and hungry sharks are not exactly the type of imagery that most marathon swimmers want in the hours leading up to a night swim in shark-infested waters that had never been done before. But this was actually Harry’s second attempt at the Alenuihaha Channel. His first attempt ended after 17 hours when strong currents off of Maui defeated him. But, true to his pattern of success, his second attempt ended as he walked upon the shores of Maui…this time after 20 hours.

Before his successful Oahu-to-Molokai crossing of the Molokai Channel in 1972, Harry failed in an earlier 20-hour attempt when he hit currents off of the islands. True to his nature, Harry tried again and again came up against two notorious obstacles in tropical waters – a huge brood of Portuguese Man o’ War and a tiger shark. When he stung unmercifully and repeatedly by the Portuguese Man o’ War, his throat ended up swelling and he had to swim without the benefit of his legs because the large influx of toxins temporarily paralyzed him below the waist.

Later, with only a mile to go, he saw a menacing tiger shark lurking below him. Circling, circling slowly. As he told Hana Hou Magazine, “It’s either me or the shark and I’m not stopping.” The shark circled a few more times only to disappear as Harry forged on to notch another channel under his belt.

With a slew of channel swims was behind him, Harry wasn’t about to slow down as he hit the age of 50 in 1989. As a fundraiser for the Rotary Club, he decided on a triple-channel charity swim: from Lanai to Maui, then Maui to Molokai, then Molokai back to Lanai. After starting out in calm seas, he completed his first leg without problems. On his second leg, the winds came up and blew him off-course although he was able to struggle to the finish.

On his third and final leg, there were high surf advisories in effect and he had to call his swim off after spending 18 hours in the (literally) high seas. But donors poured in and Harry raised US$225,000 for college scholarships.

As Harry, an international representative of the Channel Swimming Association, enjoys his well-deserved retirement in Idaho, we salute his renowned channel swimming career, his spirit of adventure and his relentless tenacity to see through his marathon swimming goals:

1. Second person to cross the 42K (26-mile) Molokai Channel (Kaiwi Channel) in 1967 from Molokai to Oahu
2. First person to cross the Molokai Channel from Oahu to Molokai in 1972
3. Three times across the 8.8-mile Maui Channel (Auau Channel from the island of Lanai to Maui in 1987 and 1989
4. First person to cross the 9.3-mile Kalohi Channel in 1989 from Molokai to Lanai
5. The 8.5-mile Palilolo Channel from Maui to Molokai in 1989
6. First person to cross the 30-mile Alenuihaha Channel from the Big Island of Hawaii to Maui in 1970

Remarkably, it took another 39 years before Penny Palfrey and Linda Kaiser replicated Harry’s feat in the Alenuihaha Channel, both in 2009.

As he was described from a young age, Harry is one tough kid.

And he has a lifetime of success to show for it as a pioneer of Hawaiian channel swimming.

The second article, entitled ‘This Fellow Had Something’, was from December 2009:

We previously reported on Harry Huffaker, arguably the greatest dentist-adventurer of all time and a member of the Hawaii Swimming Hall of Fame.

In our story, we mentioned that Harry attempted an English Channel crossing. Harry shared with us a letter from December 28, 1963 written by Peter Frayne about Harry‘s his attempt on the Channel.

Peter’s letter provides an insider’s view and great insight into Harry and the bygone days of Channel swimming 45 years ago.

It was in July, the telephone range and “Is that Mr. Frayne?” I wanna swim the Channel,” was my first introduction to Harry Huffaker, American Extraordinary.

Within an hour I was to meet what seemed to me (and I have a vast experience of these types, having pounded the best in the Gateway of English for over 17 years) a typical student, bumming his way round the world just for kicks. Sneakers and sweat shirt, jeans and a jerkin, 4-day stubble and a wide smile – that was Harry.

I sized him up in an instant – this lad just didn’t know the enormity of the task – wait until I told him what it cost – how much he would have to train – then he would change his tune. So I let him have it. A boat and pilot will cost you £75, and more if you use him for training; accommodation is not cheap and not easy to find, you will need extra food and the Channel Swimming Association fee is 8 guiness. You will have to train until it hurts, and is that water cold. Within a couple of weeks, you will have to stay in the water for 2-hour spells and later on sprinkle in a few 4-hour stints, and then if you can manage it – a 7-hour turn. All this before you can seriously think you have a chance. I told him of the flood and ebb tides, either of which can take you miles off course. And, I said, “You have to be a pretty good performer to start with.”

“I can swim,” says Harry with quiet confidence. “I swam for my college, I still want to have a go.” Was I mistaken, was this young man really in earnest, had he got what it takes. He was soon to show me.

The next day, he applied for, and got a part-time job at a hotel with food thrown in; a room in a boarding house near the seafront and has acquired a track-suit. And what is more, he showed me his prowess in the harbor. For someone who has not swum competitively or trained for over a year, the performance was first rate. His speed through the water compared favourably with an extremely fast Pakistani long distance swimmer who had been in constant training for years. Yes, this fellow had something – but would he keep it up? He did.

Harry got stuck into the arduous task of bashing up and down the harbor in the still, very cold water of the English Channel, knowing that he had to accomplish in two months, what most aspirants would build up to in 12. In fact, Comdr. Forsberg (our President) who broke the England-France record in 1957, trained for 2 hears for this swim in mind. So little time with so much to do, but it didn’t daunt our Harry. Within a few weeks, he was swimming marginally faster than our Pakinstani friend. To speed up his training, he got a job at a near-by holiday camp that boasted a swimming pool. Naturally he was the swimming instructor, but I have a sneaking feeling that most of the instruction was on himself.

Than of all things, out of the blue, Harry got married. How could such a thing happen to one of my swimmers? I was stunned. It was unheard of. A swimmer, in the middle of his training to swim the Channel, getting married. But it didn’t upset the schedule as I thought. His wife, Chris, urged him to even greater efforts, and Harry responded. His parents too, who at a moments notice flew to England for the wedding, were as keen as mustard and stayed on for the big swim. Every day you could see Papa Huffaker walking along the seafront, stopwatch in hand, gazing out to see at Huffaker Junior punching through a loppy sea.

Training sessions were stepped up – a long swim in the open channel organized, but enthusiasm cannot replace experience, and time cannot be replaced by tenacity. And experience, and time were two things that Harry did not have. There never will be a short cut in training for what is one of the premier marathon events in the world. The four successes in 1963 showed this. Each one had a history of long and arduous training behind him and the experience of other long distance events to boot. Whoever heard of a sprint swimmer making his debut into long distance swimming with a bash at the English Channel? But that’s your Harry.

At 5.55 a.m. 14th September, goggled and greased on Griz Nez beach, he stood with Abdul Malek and waded into the cold surf. Conditions were fair to good and hopes ran high. But the sages were right, damn them. No-one, no matter how good, could succeed in the Channel at the drop of a hat. It was a valiant swim. It could not be called a failure.

I saw Harry in the local hospital an hour after he was landed at Dover. Still greasy and tracksuited and that Channel look in his face. I could see that he had had a beating. Those waves smacking you in the face can be cruel. But although disappointed, he was not downhearted. “I’ll do it next time,” he told me. He learned a lot during that swim, and I believed him.

This man has the potential of a top class long distance swimmer, who would shine especially in tidal swims where his speed would be a vital factor. Given the time to train sufficiently and free from financial worries, I can see Harry contending for top honours in any international long distance event he cares to enter.
I sincerely hope he has this opportunity.

Peter Frayne, Assistant Secretary Channel Swimming Association.

Harry surely took advantage of all the opportunities he later created for himself.

Copyright © 2010 by Steven Munatones
Steven Munatones