This oral history interview is a project of the Historical Committee of the Outrigger Canoe Club. The legal rights of this material remain with the Outrigger Canoe Club. Anyone wishing to reproduce it or quote at length from it should contact the Historical Committee of the Outrigger Canoe Club. The reader should be aware that an oral history document portrays information as recalled by the interviewee. Because of the spontaneous nature of this kind of document, it may contain statements and impressions that are not factual. A full transcript of the video may be found below.
An Interview by Marilyn Kali
December 29, 201
MK: Today is Friday, December 29, 2017. We’re in the Board Room of the Outrigger Canoe Club. I’m Marilyn Kali (MK), a member of the Club’s Historical Committee. One of the Historical Committee’s projects is to do oral histories of longtime members. Today, it’s my pleasure to be talking to Harry Huffaker (HWH), also known as the swimming dentist. Good morning, Harry.
HWH: Good morning.
MK: Thanks so much for taking time from your vacation to share some of your memories of the Outrigger Canoe Club with us. Where are you living now?
HWH: I live in Ketchum, Idaho.
MK: Do you get back to Hawaii very often?
HWH: I do. I kept a home here for a while, in the event I got put into exile from Idaho. And then, I get back typically at least once, if not twice, a year.
MK: So, you can get into some nice warm water?
HWH: Yes, and I do the Waikiki Rough Water Swim periodically.
MK: Before we start, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your family, when and where you were born, and where you grew up?
HWH: I was born in Jackson Heights, Long Island (New York) in 1939, December. And lived there about a year and a half, so I don’t remember much about it. Then the family moved to Detroit, Michigan.
MK: And that’s where you grew up?
HWH: That’s where I tried to grow up.
MK: Well, it looks like you just had a birthday.
HWH: I did.
MK: How many years old are you?
MK: Well, you’ve had quite an eventful life. Where did you learn to swim?
HWH: When I was eight years old, I saw a notice on a bulletin board somewhere that the local swim team was having tryouts. So, I decided to show up and tryout for the team. But I didn’t think about the fact that I didn’t know how to swim. So, when they lined us up and said, “Okay, dive in,” I went right to the bottom, until somebody recognized me. I was pulled out code blue. It was a narrow escape. Some coach came over and says, “Go home and tell your parents you need to take swim lessons.” So, I did that.
MK: So, did you swim in a pool, or did you swim in lakes?
HWH: At that time, we lived right on Lake St. Clair. The club had a pool and the lake right there, so it was a combination of both.
MK: Where did you go to high school?
HWH: I went to Grosse Pointe High School, which is now Grosse Pointe South, because they built a new high school.
MK: And did you swim in high school?
HWH: I did.
MK: You had learned by that point?
HWH: Yes, and before that, from the time I was nine to seventeen, for a number of years, I swam at the Michigan Inter-Club swimming meets, and represented the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club.
MK: What stroke did you swim?
HWH: Mostly, freestyle and backstroke at that time.
MK: What year did you graduate from high school?
MK: And did you swim in high school, and win any championships?
HWH: When I was a senior, in 1957, I was the state champion in the then 150-yard individual medley, and established a national record. Which, I guess, technically still stands, because the next year, it became a 200-yard individual medley, adding the breaststroke.
MK: Well, that’s an interesting point. 150-yards, did they swim three strokes, or four?
HWH: Three. It was three all the way through high school.
MK: And what were the three strokes?
HWH: Butterfly, backstroke, and freestyle.
MK: And then the next year, you said that’s when they added . . .
HWH: They added a 50-yard orthodox breaststroke to it. Butterfly, and then regular breast.
MK: Did you go to college in Michigan?
HWH: I did. I went to the University of Michigan. And at that time, freshmen were not allowed to compete in any of the NCAA events. So, I swam on the freshman team. And then, graduated in 1961 and went to dental school.
MK: You swam in college?
HWH: I did.
MK: Did you have a scholarship?
HWH: Sort of. The tuition was only $90 a year, so it didn’t amount to much.
MK: Those were the good old days. What was your best stroke in college?
HWH: The individual medley, and freestyle up to 200-yards.
MK: So, basically a sprinter.
HWH: Yes, very much a sprinter. Well one time, the coach said, “Okay, now we’re going to do a 400- yard.” And I dove under the bleachers just to do anything to get out of that. I said, “400-yards! That’s sixteen laps of the pool.”
MK: Well, something happened, because you went from being a sprinter to being a channel swimmer. My goodness. Did you letter in swimming in college?
HWH: I did.
MK: Michigan had a swimming dynasty back in those days.
HWH: They certainly did. In five years they won four NCAA championships.
MK: Did you win any titles?
HWH: I was on the team, and swam in the finals, but I didn’t win. And then senior year, I was on a gold medal winning 400-yard freestyle relay.
MK: And you got All-American honors.
HWH: I did.
MK: That’s wonderful. Now, you’ve always been known as the swimming dentist. Where did you go to dental school?
HWH: At Michigan.
MK: And what year did you graduate?
HWH: I graduated in 1966.
MK: I’ve read that you spent some of your summers in England while you were in college. What did you do there?
HWH: Mainly, my first exposure to England was, I was in the middle of dental school and questioning whether that was the place I should be. So, I applied to medical school. And because most of the requirements in the medical school, like anatomy, physiology, bacteriology, biochemistry and those things, the dental school did not have their own department, so we took our classes in the medical school. And so I got accepted, with advanced credits because I’d already taken those courses.
So I decided it was time to take a time out, and I went to New York and got on the Bremen, and go off in Bremen, Germany knowing nothing. My knowledge of history and geography was almost nonexistent, because I wasn’t taking those kind of courses. And while I was en route, the Pope died, Pope Pius died en route. I thought, “Well, that might be a good place to start.” So I went from Rome, and saw the various white and black smoke come out of the church.
Then, I really didn’t have any itinerary for that summer, other than I’d travel around on trains and get to know it. So while in Rome, I purchased a Vespa motor scooter for $80 and rode it up to England, not knowing what country I was in. I didn’t know what the order of the countries were. And landed in England, and by then, I’d already had my fill of just being in a different place every day, and going to the fountains and museums and things like that. So, I got off the boat in Dover, I thought, “Well, this will be a nice place to settle down and get to know it better.”
So, I encountered an English bobby (policeman), who at that time, didn’t have guns or anything. They just had a nightstick. And so, I was just asking questions, and I asked him if they still swam the English Channel. And he told me that not only did they do that, but he was the secretary of the Channel Swimming Association. I said, “Maybe that’d be a fun thing to get involved in.” So he helped me get a place to stay and a job, took me under his wing. That was really the start of it.
MK: And you made your first attempt at the English Channel , , ,
HWH: In 1963. It was a vastly different culture at that time. I think there’d only been about twelve successful crossings. They didn’t have things like GPS. It was just kind of you show up at the beach, and there were about a group of six people that were aspiring to do the same thing. So we became kind of a social unit. They people were from all over the world. There was a Pakistani, before I knew anything about Muslims. There was a German baker, and an English bookbinder, a plastic surgeon from the United States. So, it was rather an eclectic group. I’m still in touch with those people today. A couple have passed away, but it just led to great friendships. That was the part that I enjoyed more than the actual swimming.
MK: Did you attempt it as a group?
HWH: No. It was just the solo swim. We would sit on the beach, and we’d look over at France and say, “Do you think we could really make it over that far?”
MK: How far is it?
HWH: Twenty-one miles.
MK: So you made an attempt?
HWH: I did, just before returning. I waited for good weather, which never really came. Just before coming back to Michigan I made an attempt. And I think I made seventeen miles or something, then I was pulled out unconscious because of hypothermia. I don’t remember anything about it.
MK: You were lucky.
HWH: I was. More than once.
MK: And then you tried it again another time.
HWH: I went back in 1964. And by this time, I had some financial help from the swimming club. I did most of my training in Michigan, in the lakes. I started around Memorial Day, when it was the first possible time to go swim in a lake. I built up, over time. Every week I’d go to a different lake, of larger distances. And all the way up to Torch Lake, which approximated the English Channel distance twenty-one miles, and also the temperature. Then I did a there and back round trip across the Straits of Mackinac. And a number of lakes in between, ranging from eight up to twenty-one miles.
MK: You’d swim the lengths of the lakes?
HWH: Yes. Beautiful lakes, too.
MK: But cold.
HWH: Yes, certainly. Memorial Day they were very cold. I think Torch Lake was sixty-one degrees, which is usually the temperature that you could expect in the Channel. That wasn’t any problem. So I thought, “I’m probably ready.”
MK: So, you tried it again.
HWH: I did. I flew over there in August, and at that time, the temperature is fifty-six degrees. So, I was ready for sixty-one, but there’s a big difference between sixty-one and fifty-six. I got within, probably, a half mile of becoming the first person to swim the Channel under ten hours. And then, hypothermia again. Next time I remember is waking up in the hospital, which is mandatory so they can check you over. They said, “While you were in the ambulance, you really finished the swim, because your arms and legs were still moving.”
MK: You were on automatic pilot.
HWH: Yes, I was. And when I warmed up, I walked out of the hospital, went to a couple of social events like nothing ever happened. But, hypothermia is a real thing.
MK: So, that was in 1964?
MK: You graduated from dental school in what year?
HWH: 1966. And that summer, I was dedicated to have one more attempt at it. And so, I went in the early summer with some friends that I had met along the way that were swimmers. We would go to a different area of England every weekend for a competitive swim. It was quite a marvelous summer. Then I swam in the first Windermere International Swim, which they invited representatives from various countries to compete. But I did Ullswater and Coniston and swam over where Malcolm Campbell met his comeuppance, right over the boat. It was quite an adventurous time and summer.
Then, the weather was very disagreeable. When I landed at the airport, a friend picked me up. And I said, “What kind of a summer have you had?” He said, “It’s been spectacular. It’s only rained twice. Once for three weeks, and once for six weeks.” So, I was waiting for the proper time to do another crossing before I flew back. And I flew over on a student charter flight.
And while I was there, I already knew I was going to Hawaii, and there’s a residency requirement here. At that time, you had to live here a year before you could take the state boards and qualify to practice. Everything, physicians, and dentists, and lawyers. Right about that time, American Airlines was threatening to go on strike, which they ultimately did. And the last flight out coincided with just before I might have made my third attempt. The reason it was critical, was if I didn’t get here by August 28th, then I’d miss the cutoff for next year’s residency requirement. So, I left under duress, and flew to Hawaii.
MK: And what made you choose Hawaii to live?
HWH: It was another three by five card, that was posted on the student bulletin board. And ironically, if I hadn’t have taken the time off, that opportunity did not exist a year before. And, you were granted a temporary license, so I could practice dentistry. And it was out at Palama, Strong Carter Dental Clinic, with children. So it was like a year of internship. And I was sure I was probably just going to be there the year, and then return to Michigan. But one year led to thirty years.
MK: How did you find out about the Outrigger Canoe Club?
HWH: I was at Palama one day, and Bob Corboy, who was a member here, called me to have lunch. So I said, “Okay.” Then I learned he was in the insurance business, and probably read the pages of the newcomers. It was a good marketing situation for him. He brought me to lunch at the Outrigger. I was just overwhelmed. It didn’t take long to figure out that this would be a nice place to spend some time. Beautiful club.
MK: Was he your sponsor?
HWH: Peter George, and I think, maybe Bob was. I think we had two sponsors at the time. Peter George, who was also a dentist, was my lead sponsor.
MK: That’s wonderful. And so what year did you join?
HWH: In late 1966.
MK: Well, that didn’t take long.
HWH: No. At that time, it was $150 initiation and $12 a month for the dues. And considering I was only making $450 a month, it was still a stretch. And another attraction to come here was Greta Anderson, who was a wonderful Danish Olympian, and held the English Channel record both ways. She had failed in two attempts to swim the Molokai Channel. So, I thought that’d be some kind of compensation for not finishing up the job in England.
MK: So, how did you get started wanting to swim the Molokai Channel?
HWH: Well, I really took to channel swimming while I was there. It was just a different world than following a blue line for twenty-five yards and making turns. It was just an incredible experience for me to be out in the open water, and enjoying things. And between Greta, and still wanting to swim the channel, now I’d developed a keen interest in, which I wouldn’t have done had it not been for that summer. It wasn’t something I was thinking about, or would’ve gotten involved with, had it not been for that memorable summer.
MK: Many people would wonder why you would want to swim such long distances. What do you tell them?
HWH: Well, I guess the why was, I’d learned in England that I was pretty good at swimming distance. The whole culture of the sport, which wasn’t developed anywhere near what it is today. It was something to do for the year while I was waiting to take the dental boards. And so, I started swimming in the ocean, and trying to gear up for that. Also, Keo Nakama, just before that, he had become the first person to swim the channel, and that caught my attention.
MK: What kind of motivation does it take to swim for hours upon hours?
HWH: Well, there’s certainly a discipline for training, and mental toughness when you’re doing it. And I never thought too much about it. I always enjoyed the practice swims, and swimming in the ocean. You know, it’s hard to explain.
MK: So, how do you prepare to swim from one island to another? I know there’s training. So how do you train for a rough water swim?
HWH: At that time, there was no protocol about what to eat, or GPS wasn’t a function, negotiating or navigating a course. Various swimmers, who came in all shapes and sizes, would eat and drink different things, whatever they took a liking to. Today, it’s a lot more scientific than that. The GPS, if you’re a little bit off course, it self-corrects. And it’s actually cut two hours off the English Channel time, because you just don’t go off course at all.
My training consisted of Ala Moana Beach Park. And the marathon hadn’t started by that time, so the year that I trained at Ala Moana, the entire year, I never saw another swimmer. Not one. And you contrast that to today, there are standup paddle boards, and canoes, and swim clubs. But at that time, a lot of people went to the beach, but it was mostly, they’d sit on the beach and play with their kids in the water. But once I got past that, there was nothing to worry about running into.
MK: It’s about a mile long, the channel there?
HWH: It’s 1.2 miles. Well, the length is 1,000 yards. A round trip is 1.2 miles.
MK: How do you decide when you’re going to swim?
HWH: Well obviously, you try to look at the weather, and judge that. It’s a combination of when people are available to go with you, and the weather.
MK: So, what are the perfect conditions for a channel swim?
HWH: I’m not sure it’s perfect or ideal, but obviously flat water, calm water. But the first Molokai crossing, it got rather rough. But when the sea’s alive, sometimes you do better than if you’re swimming in dead water, which is calm water.
MK: I noticed that your Molokai swims were at night. What was the reason for swimming at night?
HWH: Well, swims of that distance, just because of the time involved to do it, results in night swimming as part of the dynamic. I chose to, I thought it was a lot better to start at night than finish at night, when you’re pretty well spent. There was night swimming involved in every swim. And so, the first Molokai swim, we calculated, well, maybe I’ll make it by five o’clock before dark, so you just kind of backtrack. So we started about four o’clock in the morning.
MK: So how do you decide where you’re going to start? You’re going to swim from Molokai to Oahu. How do you decide where the start is actually going to be on Molokai?
HWH: That was pretty much decided for me by Keo Nakama, because the only resource I had about where do you start and where do you hope to finish. He had started from near La’au Point. So I said, “That’s okay for me.”
MK: And then the finish is the closest place?
HWH: Well, you’re never sure of where that’s going to be. Keo came into Hanauma Bay. And I just happened to come in at Sandy Beach.
MK: Which is a little shorter?
HWH: I guess it might be. I don’t know. I always thought of it as about the same distance.
MK: How do you prepare psychologically?
HWH: Nothing special. I worried about it more before the actual swim, about what’s down there and what’s swimming around. Once I got in the water, it was like, this is as easy as being home.
MK: Logistics for something like this must be horrendous. You need an escort boat?
HWH: Right. That’s another thing that’s evolved over time. In 1967, I don’t think the surf ski or some of the outrigger canoes, one man canoes had been thought of. It was an escort boat with a paddle board, surfboard, which people would take turns from time to time . . .
MK: Swimming with you?
MK: They swam on either side of you, or they swam in front of you?
HWH: Usually we just had one in the water.
MK: Did they swim next to you?
HWH: Well, it depends on the sea conditions. Ideally, they take their direction from the escort boat. So, I would follow the surfboard as closely as I could. And then, they would be communicating with the boat about a little bit more this way, or little bit more that way. That was the theory, but in reality the first swim was too rough for that. And diesel fumes became a problem. So, I spent most of the day literally leapfrogging. I’d swim ahead, the boat would come up and give me direction, and then he’d stop and I’d swim ahead. That’s the way we did the first swim.
MK: How many people make up a support crew?
HWH: Typically, I don’t know, you know, you’ve got a boat and a captain, and maybe a person that could spell the captain. I think we had three paddlers. And sometimes you might even have an oceanographer. Typically, maybe five or six.
MK: Who pays for everything, for the boats and the fuel?
HWH: It’s not all that expensive of a sport. There’s no hotel involved. We went over in a boat and swam back, got out and came down here and took a shower, and I went to work the next day. But the Outrigger was very gracious in providing personnel. I didn’t know anybody here, so my friends were kind of assigned to me. That first swim, there’s Mike Holmes, and John Marshall, and Ron Haworth, and Bruce Ames. And along the way, we managed to become great friends.
MK: And they were your paddlers? Who was your boat driver?
HWH: On the first boat, it was somebody I met. I went to a scuba diving event at the HIC or NBC or whatever their initials were at the time. There was a person there that just had a display about taking people scuba diving. We got to talking, and I ended up using his boat, named the Scuba Bell, and his name was Roy Dameron. That’s how he became involved.
MK: Now, how did Outrigger support you, and I guess, sponsor you on your first swim?
HWH: Well, mostly providing support, you know the people I didn’t know, and here’s someone that knows the channel. And Mike Holmes was that person that seemed to have the most experience. I don’t know what more there is to it. There were some expenses. Some people might have been reimbursed for expenses they had.
MK: Well, when Ron Haworth did his oral history, he talked about how he’d been asked by the president of the Club to do publicity for your swim, and go out and write about it. He said that’s how he first got involved. And he wrote columns about it in the newspaper.
MK: And wound up getting so involved that he became one of the paddlers alongside you.
HWH: Yes, about three or four times he did. Let’s see, it wasn’t so much about publicity as it was, once the swim was taking place, communicating. And that was pretty archaic, too. They didn’t have cell phones and things like that. Just to notify people what I was doing, and where I was at any particular time. And then after that event, then the sport got a lot of publicity and became something that made other people want to do, just to maybe inspire them.
MK: Well, you were very successful on that first swim. You set a record.
MK: Now, when Keo Nakama did it in 1961, did you ever talk to him before the swim and get any pointers from him?
HWH: I did. He was absolutely wonderful. I knew he had done it. I thought at some point I would like to talk to him. But he made the first phone call. Just called to see if I wanted to go to lunch with him at the Tropics Restaurant, which now is covered up by the … going up to Ala Moana’s shopping center. So we had a delightful lunch, and I just asked him some questions. He just said he’d help in any way he could. That was very gracious. A lot of athletes would be threatened, or, “Oh, he’s going to do what I did. I’m the only person to have done it. What if he beats my time?” No, he was absolutely wonderful.
MK: What did you learn about yourself during that first swim?
HWH: I don’t know how much. You’ll learn that you did it, and you persevered, and hard work paid off. I don’t know that there are any other great revelations. Just proud that I did it.
MK: How long did it take you to recover from that swim?
HWH: Well, let’s see. I went to work the next day, so not long.
MK: You must’ve been in good shape. Now, it’s pretty cool out in the channel. How do you keep your body temperature up and not get hypothermia?
HWH: Well here, it’s a lot easier than it was in England. And the temperature here, I was quite all right with. When you’re swimming, you’re generating a lot of body heat. The differential wasn’t all that great to deal with.
MK: I know when I’ve seen swimmers come out of the English Channel, they’re always covered with, I don’t know, Vaseline or something on their skin. Do you use that when you swim here?
HWH: I did on both of my attempts in England. That was the thing to do. And since then, it’s not really the thing to do. It doesn’t seem to help that much. And it’s quite a procedure to slather it on all over, and then clean it up afterwards. So now, maybe they’ll do a light coating of some kind of oil to prevent chafing, and those kind of problems. But not a lot, it doesn’t contribute a lot to dealing with the temperature.
MK: Did you eat or drink while you were doing the swims?
HWH: I did. And again, there was no planned regimen to doing that. It was just kind of, when I feel tired, or more of feeling hungry, a cup coffee or some hot soup would feel good. But you know, today the swimmers have these very complex and complicated nutritional requirements and procedures.
MK: Do you carbo-load before the swim?
HWH: I don’t. Carbo-loading really came in with the marathon event, which didn’t start until the early 1970s. I have done it with running marathons. I employed it there, but not so much in swimming.
MK: So, the things you ate were soup and coffee?
HWH: Snickers bars are one of my favorites, which not many people do that today. They have to have these upscale . . .
MK: Chocolate will do anytime, right?
HWH: Candy bars.
MK: Can you tell us any stories about the swim? Any interesting things that happened?
HWH: Well, actually right after I started from La’au Point, about maybe an hour or two into the swim, our boat got a distress call from another boat that was going down in the channel. At first, we thought we’ll have to go assist them and deal with this another time. While that decision was being made, they said, “No, wait. We’ve got things under control. We’ve got the proper help. It’s not necessary for you to stop things.”
And about two days later, an article appeared in the paper about a fifteen-foot tiger shark with human remains in it. So that was kind of a wake up call, which I’m glad I didn’t know about at the time. There was a picture of the shark. They were doing a shark research program at that time, where they would purposely catch sharks to try to decrease the population, and to study. But I have a picture of that. I should send it to you.
MK: That’s pretty amazing.
HWH: And then there was a shark spotting, and we thought we would have that covered with the board next to you. And we had what they call a bang stick, which was a stick with a loaded shell, which would go off on impact if you jammed it into something. Then we also had a rifle on board. Well, in a perfect world the people on the boat would see the shark first. They see the legendary fin circling. Every time I saw a shark, I was the first one to see it.
And on that swim, I was quite a distance from the boat, because we were taking turns catching up and passing each other, I saw one swam deep. It came back closer to the surface and circled around. And at that point, I would’ve been more than willing to exit, but the surfboard and the boat were so far away, you just didn’t have much choice. And all this confusion, and the people on the front of the boat ran to the back of the boat. And the people on the back of the boat ran to the front of the boat. They didn’t know where the gun was. We didn’t do much in the way of dress rehearsal. Then the danger wasn’t there anymore.
MK: The shark left?
MK: Swam away and left you alone.
HWH: Yes. Not without scaring me.
MK: I bet. Was that your only shark encounter on swims?
HWH: No, I’ve had them on most every swim. Along with a wonderful experience with whales, swimming between Lanai and Molokai. And numerous pods of dolphins. And of course, the famous turtle out here in the channel, just off the Outrigger. They had a resident turtle I’m told it’s still there. On the reverse Molokai swim … And a lot of these things, a lot goes on at night, which you don’t even know what’s going on. So, you can’t comment on that.
On the second, reverse Molokai swim the biggest problem was, I got severely stung by jellyfish within an hour of the start. But we had postponed the swim enough times, and you get all these people together, so I just kept going. I had a reaction. Bruce Ames was paddling next to me. I remember I looked over and his arms and his legs were above the water surface. I said, “Are you okay?” And he said, “Man, I’m spooked.”
Actually, that was on one of the Alenuihaha Channel swims. But the jellyfish, I had an allergic reaction to it, where I was concerned that I was having trouble breathing. And then the biggest effect was that my legs, I couldn’t really use my legs for about six hours. But I could still swim. Then as we approached Molokai, we’re about a mile off the beach, Papahaku, and I saw another shark. Again, I saw it and none of the paddle board people saw it. So, at that point, first of all, I was on a high with endorphins and everything else going on. So I said, “This is it. It’s either me or the shark.” So, it was Bob Lundy and Rick Steere jumped in the water to keep track of it. That was another one.
MK: How did you swim with jellyfish stings?
HWH: Well, I got severely stung on the body. At one time, my throat was starting to swell up, but that went away. Then it was mostly, I was semi-paralyzed from the waist down. But, I was still going.
MK: And you finished the swim?
HWH: I did.
MK: You are very determined. What goes through your mind all the time you’re swimming, because some of these swims were twenty hours?
HWH: That’s right. A lot of that’s determined by what’s happening at any given time. If it’s very calm and placid, you can literally detach your mind from your body, and you just swim along like you’re having a cup of coffee with somebody. But other times, if the sea’s a little livelier, where’s the boat, where’s the diesel fumes, how am I going to get the food over to me. You’re critically aware of what’s happening right then. But other times it’s quite a treat to just swim in that beautiful water.
MK: Well I remember, when we used to swim long distances in the pool, we’d sing songs and do all that.
HWH: There was some of that. And today, in today’s world, there’s a little inch square iPod that can attach to your goggles, and you have fifteen hours of music. But yeah, I guess I thought more than I sang. I just thought about memories from the past, and friends. That was my distraction.
MK: Well now, you were the first to swim the reverse Molokai.
HWH: That’s correct.
MK: From Oahu to Molokai.
MK: Did you make it the first time, or were there . . .
HWH: No, the first time, that was one of the twenty hour swims. I just had an unbeatable current, which kept taking me further and further off course from Molokai. You know, I might swim in a mile, but I’d get pushed in the wrong way a mile. So, that was called after about twenty hours, but I still made it to work the next day.
MK: Has anyone else ever done the reverse Molokai?
HWH: Thirty-nine years after I did, Forrest Nelson swam it.
MK: Only one other.
HWH: That’s right.
MK: You’ve told us some stories about some of the species of aquatic life that you met in the ocean. You mentioned turtles. Did you see turtles out in the channel?
HWH: No. I’ve seen them in shallower water.
MK: What about schools of fish?
HWH: Lots of those. Whose species, I couldn’t even tell you what they were, but there were lots of them.
MK: Do you swim with them, or through them?
HWH: Most often, they’d be coming toward me, it seemed like.
MK: And then they’d veer off?
HWH: Yeah, they didn’t stay around too long. But I’ve had dolphin stay around a comfortable amount of time.
MK: Tell me a dolphin story.
HWH: Well, one of the more memorable ones was, I was just in a training swim. And I never worried about sharks too much between here and the Hilton Hawaiian Village. And I’m out there, and I was by myself, and I saw this tiger shark. That caused a bit of concern. And before I could get too worried about it, three or four dolphins swam out from the Sheraton Waikiki. I guess that was one of their local habitats. The shark was never a problem after that. Dolphins will actually butt sharks.
MK: They were protecting you.
HWH: You bet they were. The other one was when on the first Alenuihaha swim, we started from Upolu Point, and that night before we’d been invited to Pierre Bowman’s house for a wonderful, wonderful mutton dinner, and he brought out the movie of their annual shark hunt. It’s where they use a cow, and slaughter it. Then they let it out on ropes off the shore. Then the sharks come up and feed on it. This was a big entertainment moment for us.
MK: Where is this?
HWH: Just off Upolu Point.
MK: On the Big Island.
HWH: And then someone happened to mention, “Well, we just had that last week, too.” In darkness, I was standing on the rock at Upolu Point, thinking about … So, I jumped in and started swimming. And I noticed under my body, shortly after the start, I heard what sounded like a ball bearing roller skate wheel. And I looked down, and there’s this stream of white bubbles that swam right under my body. Bruce Ames was paddling, and so I stopped. Bruce had both his arms and legs out of the water, and I asked him, “Are you okay?” And he said, “Man, I am really spooked.” Then we got some flashlights, and it turned out that it was a school of dolphin. Not the shark.
MK: Such adventures. We know that paddlers and people on boats often get seasick when they’re in the channels. Did you ever get seasick while swimming?
HWH: I didn’t. I think when you’re moving with the waves and up and down,… I’ve been sick plenty of times on boats, and it doesn’t take long, but not in the water.
MK: Well after you did the reverse Molokai, you kind of disappeared from swimming for a while. Did you take up another sport?
HWH: I got more involved at that time with sailing. And also, running marathons. I did eighteen of those over time. Three or four locally, but then I would combine where there was a marathon and … not just to go run a marathon somewhere, but maybe in a particular locale that was an interesting place to be afterwards. So I did one in Greece, one in New Zealand, Australia, the Redwoods in California. That was my interest at the time. Plus, I wasn’t a runner, and I was curious as to how far and how fast one could become a decent runner. The first one was, I think, over four hours. But then, I did run one under three hours, so I qualified for Boston and did that in 1979.
MK: That’s … Heartbreak Hill.
HWH: That’s wasn’t fun. And normally, you wouldn’t even notice it. It comes right at the end. You definitely notice the incline there. Just like Diamond Head here. Just before coming into Kapiolani Park, normally you just wouldn’t think anything about it.
MK: Did you train for marathons, or did you just try doing them?
HWH: No, I trained. Regular runs three or four times a week. I think I got up to almost sixty miles a week.
MK: Well, you mentioned sailing. Did you sail with the Outrigger?
HWH: I owned a Pacific Cat here with John Marshall. Then I got an exposure from another Outrigger member to sailing in the open ocean. I really loved it. But anytime I was sailing, I found I wasn’t allowed to do much. Other people had the knowledge and how to do it, and they could do it. So, I decided the only way I’m going to learn this is to get a boat and learn it. So, I bought a forty-foot sailboat and enjoyed many interisland sails. And then single handed to Bora Bora.
I took a year off every ten years to do something different. And they all had different dynamics. But in 1980, I think I was on my third sabbatical already, I decided I wanted to sail down to some of the South Pacific islands, Marquesas, Tuamotus, the Tahiti chain. And so, that did not work out quite as planned, it that I, on two occasions, lost the mast and had to find my way back here to have another mast put on. And finally succeeded, and had a wonderful time.
MK: How do you sail without a mast?
HWH: Well, a couple ways. When I lost the mast, I didn’t lose the whole mast. I lost it, maybe a couple feet off the deck, because the mast was strapped to the keel, fortunately. A lot of masts are strapped to the deck. Then you do lose the whole thing. Where this broke, there was still enough to jerry-rig a very modest, small sail. And between that and occasional power, but you don’t have enough fuel. You’ve got to save that to charge the batteries and do that. But, I just limped back to Hilo and had a new mast put on.
MK: So, you sailed a lot in the Pacific?
HWH: Well, I sailed the boat from California to here when I purchased it. Then sailed on somebody else’s boat that was moving here from Santa Barbara. And then later on, I flew to Tahiti and sailed back with some friends there. It’s been a great experience.
MK: Did you enter any regattas, sailing regattas?
HWH: No. I crewed with a nice couple, the Shorthoses, Park and Gloria Shorthose. Their slip was just a couple away from mine. I got to know them quite well. And so, I did some races with them.
MK: Did you keep your boat out in front here, or were you at the yacht club?
HWH: Well, the sailboat was in the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor … I lived on it for about six years.
MK: You’ve swum in a number of the shorter Rough Water Swims. The Waikiki Rough Water, you’ve swam in the Castle Swim. Any good stories about any of those swims?
HWH: Nothing unusual. Just they were fun events, well attended.
MK: Lots of people?
MK: The Rough Water is so rough to get started. It’s just so many people kicking and stroking all at once.
HWH: It’s like lemmings coming out of the beach.
MK: You came back in 1987 and started doing channel swimming again. What brought you back?
HWH: I did. At the time, I was a charter member of a Rotary Club downtown. And one time when I missed a meeting, and I had a perfect attendance, but one time I missed a meeting and I ran into somebody that said, “You were elected to the board.” I said, “What a minute. I wasn’t even running for the board. I wasn’t a candidate.” They said, “Well, you’re community service chairman.” And so I asked around what … and it was a new club, so they didn’t have any ongoing events every year, traditional events.
So I asked around, “What kind of things do you think the club should be doing?” And they had some great ideas, but nobody was really coming out and saying, “I’ll devote a lot of time to this.” So I made up my own club project. And I decided to attempt to swim across three Hawaiian channels non-stop, and as a fundraiser for the Hawaii Rotary Youth Foundation. So, they took donations. I went around and talked to the various clubs about it, and tried to generate some interest. That took about three attempts to get going. The first one, everybody got over it. It was from Lanai to Maui to Molokai, and then back to Lanai. We’d all get over on Lanai and everybody agreed that this was not the time to do it. So, that didn’t happen.
And then, a month or so later we went back, and started from Lanai. I got to Maui, and I got just a few minutes toward Molokai and my back just went out. I couldn’t move. Actually, if I hadn’t had an escort boat, I might not have survived that. It was just intensely painful. Back onshore, thirty minutes later, I was fine. But I was severely cramped up.
And then on that swim, we decided, we were on Lanai, so we decided let’s at least … And we spent the night on Molokai, and we said let’s at least do something. So, I swam what would have been the third leg from Molokai to Lanai just to keep something going. And then finally, we got the more extended version off. And the problem with that swim was, it’s on all different points of the wind, you know, into the wind, against the wind, following wind. And that couldn’t have started better, the first leg to Maui was just a dream. I raised my head not very much, and I’d see the stars on this flat, calm, mirror surface. And the plankton, every time I put my arm in, I’d see the phosphorescence.
And then we got to Maui, and you’re allowed a ten minute stop on each island, so I had some donuts and chocolate milk. And I set out for Maui, and that’s when, it wasn’t long and the weather really started to blow up. And that took us off course, and consumed just enough time that we were really pressed to make it to Lanai before dark. We started out, and got about a third of the way across. And by this time, there were small craft warnings and high surf warnings. And I had swum the last bit of that before, and there’s a reef just off of Lanai with eighteen inches of water over it. I said, “I don’t want to do that with high surf.” So, got back in the boat, and still made it to work the next day.
MK: Were there any other channel attempts after that?
HWH: No. Three years ago when I turned seventy-five, I had an acquaintance that had become the oldest person to swim the English Channel. He was a South African. He was seventy-three. He swam the English Channel, which is twenty-one miles. He was a cardiac surgeon. He was doing heart transplants in South Africa at the Christiaan Bernard. So, I thought, “Well, I don’t have a lot that I have to do right now.” So I sent him a letter, and I said, “Otto, I’m going to spot you two years and raise you five miles, and become the oldest person to swim a major channel.” The Guinness Book of Records, they were all set for it.
And so, I did a lot of cross training then. When I was training for the Molokai Channel, nobody was even running. I decided to go for runs just a little cross training. And I’d go running through Kahala, and the police stopped me. They thought sure I was robbing a house or something. I live in a place where it was a perfect training ground. There’s a mountain, it’s 9,100 feet. I hike up that twice a week, and bike thirty miles round trip into town and back on my bike. I did that. Then trained at a fitness center, and swam. So, I was probably as fit then as I’ve ever been.
I had everything set over here. A dentist friend that just perished on Molokai three weeks ago when he crashed his plane, best friend for sixty years. He was ready to fly me over there, and we had the boat ready, and the crew ready. And the three hurricanes backed up, that were enough to even cancel the Rough Water Swim that year. Nobody was willing to think about taking their boat out. The forecast for the next ten days was just more of the same. So, I scrubbed that plan.
MK: Well, Ron (Haworth) told me that you were planning another swim. Do you still have anything on the books?
HWH: Not that he’s told me about.
MK: He thought you were coming over this year to do a swim.
HWH: Well, I was going to come and … I probably have the largest collection of Waikiki Swim Club tee shirts for different reasons. One year, I got the tee shirt, and the swim was canceled. The next time, two years ago, they had just a hellacious current. I swam out to the buoy, and all of a sudden I noticed all these other swimmers were swimming straight for the shore. They were going to go along the shoreline, with presumably less current. I got to thinking, “If you go in all the way again, you’re going to have to come out to go to the final buoy.” And I said, “This is my territory. I know what I’m doing.” So when I rounded the buoy, instead I started swimming straight for where the next buoy would be.
And I spent probably a good half hour just watching the Sheraton Hotel, and nothing was moving. Because of the Atlantis, the submarine, we were limited to how much time we had before the submarine was coming back. So anybody that hadn’t gotten to the final buoy at a certain time, they were disqualified or picked up. So then, I had a tee shirt for a swim that was canceled, a DNF tee shirt for not finishing, and then I got one this year for not starting. I was entered and had the tee shirt, but I had a minor stroke earlier, so I was dealing with that. Atrial fibrillation and surgery.
MK: Well, you’re swum with a lot of channel swimmers in Hawaii and around the world. Who are some of the ones you remember from Hawaii, that were swimming when you were?
HWH: There weren’t too many people swimming channels. Ian Emerson, Mike Miller. And Jim Caldwell. But everybody was kind of doing their own thing in their own way. I did have some great friends. Once the Waikiki Swim Club started, and everybody was meeting to swim in the Ala Moana Channel, it was nice, social. Swim and go have breakfast. And I did a bit of Masters swimming.
MK: I was going to ask you, did you pool swim after you moved to Hawaii?
HWH: I did off and on. They had some Masters meets here, and then I went to the World Masters in Australia in 1988. One other thing that I should mention. When I came back in 2005 or 2006, I decided I was going to find Keo Nakama. And it wasn’t easy. Now, people have cell phones, you can’t find their phone number. I learned that he was in a nursing home in Palolo Valley, a Chinese nursing home. So I found my way there. And I went in. The place was really deplorable. I mean, it was not a place you wanted to think about waiting for the final event to happen. And so I went to the front desk, and I asked if Keo Nakama had been there. They said, “Oh, yeah. He’s over there watching television.” I walked over and this big television isn’t even on, but he’s staring at it. Did not know where he was. Alzheimer’s and dementia. And he was eating a dixie cup with a wooden spoon.
He didn’t have a clue who I was. That became a challenge to maybe make him jog his memory. So I tried different things. I got some paper and drew a diagram. “This is Molokai, this is Oahu, and this is the channel. You, me,” you know. And after a little bit of time, all of sudden, a light went off. And he got up and gave me the biggest hug. I’m glad I did that. So, that was one of the events and one of the memories that make channel swimming a lot more than just seeing how far you can swim.
MK: It’s about the people.
HWH: Oh, exactly.
MK: Are you still swimming?
HWH: Well, I haven’t been much this year. But I pretty much rehabbed from the (stroke) … it was a reaction to a blood thinner, because I had atrial fibrillation. And I spent eight days in a El Paso ICU. It hasn’t been a fun year.
MK: No, it doesn’t sound like it. Well Harry, you’ve had quite a career as the swimming dentist. The Honolulu Quarterback Club named you the Senior Male Athlete of the Year in 1990. And in 2002 you were inducted into the Hawaii Swimming Hall of Fame. Then in 2010, the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame named you a USA Honors Swimmer. That’s quite an honor.
HWH: It was.
MK: Tell us about that ceremony.
HWH: Well, the ceremony was a bit unique and unusual, in that it was held at the United Nations in New York. So, I got to travel there. Then that’s quite close to Columbia University, so the event was just quite memorable there. It was founded in the early 1960s, and there are about 200 swimmers that have been so honored. It was just a very emotional, touching experience. And of course, there were three friends that had been involved in my swims here that went out of their way to, found their way to New York to be with me.
MK: Who was that?
HWH: Norman Berg, who was really involved with Rotary. And then Dieter Seger, we were running pals, and he managed the Hilton Hawaiian Village for forty years. And then, my dental school roommate, who rode a boat every weekend with me in Michigan to train for the Channel swim. And two other close friends, but those are the three that found their way back.
MK: Well, that’s really nice. What is it about swimming, that’s kept you engaged for so many years?
HWH: Well, it’s … I’m not too great at any other sports. I mean, I enjoy biking, and hiking, and motorcycling, and fishing. But you know, swimming has always been my go to sport. It’s kept me quite healthy. It’s just a lot of fun.
MK: Do you have any advice to people who might want to swim the channels in the future?
HWH: Well, I’d certainly encourage them if they want to do it, why not. Certainly whether you make it or don’t make it, it’s a memorable experience.
MK: Lots of things to look back on.
HWH: And I’ve worked with some swimmers. I’m on the board of the English Channel Swimming Association. And so, sometimes when a U.S. swimmer might want to do that, they could contact me, and I could share whatever information that I can.
MK: Well, we’ve talked a lot about your swimming, and how Outrigger members helped you on your swims. Do you have any other memories of the Club that you’d like to share?
HWH: I’m not sure I can share all of them. It’s just been a place from the get-go. I arrived in Hawaii shortly after statehood. Loads of opportunity, lots of young couples that were starting their families and their careers. I just had some really great times down here. You know, across the whole spectrum.
MK: Did you ever serve on any committees?
HWH: I was on the Admissions and Membership Committee. And also, the Swimming Committee.
MK: When did you move away from Hawaii?
HWH: I left in the early 1990s, unsolicited. I thought they would be taking me out of my office on a gurney. But, an opportunity came up to sell the practice, and it wasn’t for sale. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, well, when the time comes where I’m not working or not involved in raising a family or being active in the community, I’d probably want to spend more time on the mainland. So, I made the move.
MK: And you went to Idaho.
HWH: That’s correct.
MK: And so, you became a Nonresident member at that point?
HWH: I did. I wasn’t sure if what I was doing would work out. And so, I became a Nonresident. And then when I became more entrenched on the mainland, I changed from Nonresident membership to a guest membership whenever I came.
MK: Are you a skier?
HWH: I am.
MK: And there’s good skiing places close to where you are?
HWH: Oh, it doesn’t get much better than Sun Valley. The lifts are six miles down the road.
MK: So, you’re an avid skier.
HWH: I enjoy developing new skills, too, it’s fun. Learning to fish, and ski, and I have a couple motorcycles, and mountain bikes. So it’s been an active period in my life.
MK: Do you say you’re retired?
HWH: Long since retired. I haven’t done much since I left here.
MK: Well, I saw somewhere that when you were in your early dental practice, you were a partner with Jim Beardmore.
HWH: I was. Very lucky to be a partner with Jim Beardmore.
MK: He was, of course, very active in volleyball at the Club. And he was someone everyone looked up to at that point. How long were you partners with him?
HWH: I met Pete (George) during my waiting for the residency period. Then I met him (Jim Beardmore) through Peter George. He was expanding his office, with the idea of taking on another dentist, to take over his practice when he might have retired. I was with Jim for three years. Right about that time, they were building the Pan American Building. So, I got infatuated with just opening my own practice.
MK: Well, that’s nice. And so, how many years were you in the dental field?
HWH: Thirty years.
MK: Well, before we wind this up, I’ve one last question for you. You were an Outrigger member for many years. What has the Club meant to you?
HWH: It’s meant literally most everything. Like right now, there’s a fitness center in Ketchum that has an outdoor swimming pool open year round, and you swim under a bridge into another swimming pool, and all the fitness things. If that Club weren’t there, I probably would not still be in Ketchum. And I’d say the same here. It’s just from the get-go, I was lucky enough to be a member. And that’s where most of my social life and athletic life, and professional life to some degree, revolved around.
MK: And you’ve been happy to be a member.
HWH: Delighted. Not just happy, but very, very fortunate.
MK: Well, thank you very much for taking time from your vacation to spend time with us today. Outrigger has a long and proud history in swimming and, you’ve certainly added to our history books. This oral history will be a great addition to our archives. Thank you again, very much.
HWH: You’re more than welcome.
MK: Keep swimming.
HWH: All right. Thank you.
MK: Thank you.
HARRY HUFFAKER SWIMMING HISTORY
Michigan State High School Championships
1957 1st Place, 150 yard Individual Medley, 1:30.0 (Grosse Point High School)
University of Michigan
1959 All-American Honors
1959 & 1961 Lettered
English Channel Swimming
- September 14, 1963–First attempt at crossing English Channel; abandoned attempt after 8 hours, 20 minutes, six miles short.
- August 16, 1964–Pulled semi-conscious from water after blacking out while trying to swim the English Channel, England to France; 8 hours, 15 minutes in water; 3 miles from coast.
- August 1966–Planned swim of English Channel but was a no go.
Mainland Distance Swimming
- July 25, 1964–Swam the Straits of Makinaw, 7 miles in 2 hours 45 minutes (Makinaw City to Mackinac Island); second person to do so.
- August 7, 1964–Swam length of Torch Lake, 19 miles in 10 hours.
- 1964–Swam Millet Lake, Crystal Lake, Higgins Lake, Charlesbar Lake
Hawaii Channel Swimming
- September 18, 1967–Second person to swim Ka’iwi Channel (Moloka’i) in record time of 13 hours, 30 minutes; 26 mile.
- April 26, 1969–First person to attempt to swim 32-mile Alenuihaha Channel from Big Island (Upolo Point) to Maui. Stopped after 17 hours, 2 miles short of Maui.
- October 5, 1969–Second attempt to swim Alenuihala Channel. Stopped after 20 hours, 1 mile short of LaPerouse Bay.
- 1970–First person to swim the Alenuihaha Channel, from Upolo Point to LaPerouse Bay, 30 miles. N.T.
- October 1, 1970–First person to attempt to swim Kaiwi Channel in reverse, Oahu to Molokai. Called off due to weather.
- August 12, 1971–Second attempt to swim Kaiwi Channel in reverse. Swam 21 hours, but called off due strong tide, 1 mile short of Molokai.
- September 16, 1971–Third attempt to swim Kaiwi Channel in reverse. Cancelled at last minute because escort boat ran out of gas.
- September 14, 1972–Swam the Ka’iwi Channel in reverse, 26 miles. Completed swim in 16 hours and 15 minutes. Started at Sandy Beach and finished at Ilio Point. First person to complete this swim.
- August 19, 1987–Swam the Au’au Channel from Lanai to Maui, 8.8 miles. N.T.
- May 3, 1989–First person to swim the 11-mile Kolohi Channel between Moloka’i (Puko’o) and Lanai. Finished in 5 hours and 40 minutes.
Three Channel Swim
- June 3, 1989–Attempted three channel swim from Lanai to Maui to Moloka’i and back to Lanai. Completed the Au’au Channel leg from Lanai to Maui, 8.8 miles. N.T. Other legs cancelled due to weather.
- September 28, 1989–Attempted three channel swim. Completed the Au’au Channel leg, 8.8 miles. N.T. Completed the Pailolo Channel leg from Maui to Moloka’i. N.T. Other legs cancelled due to strong winds.
1987 3rd Place, Overall, :35:42
1988 1st Place, Men 45-49
SERVICE TO THE OUTRIGGER CANOE CLUB
Admissions & Membership Committee
1990 Honolulu Quarterback Club Senior Male Athlete of the Year
2002 Inducted into Hawaii Swimming Hall of Fame
2010 Inducted into International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, USA Honor Swimmer