Friday, December 4, 2009

This Fellow Had Something

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 © 2009 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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