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 where he has achieved an incredible numbers of successes, but nearly always after 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 ot 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.
Copyright © 2009 by World Open Water Swimming Association