Harry Huffaker’s Three Islands Swim
In 1989, Dr. Harry Huffaker, a dentist from Oahu, attempted a 63 km swim that had never been attempted before: the 3 Islands Swim or the Maui Nui Crossings between the islands of Maui, Lanai, and Molokai in the state of Hawaii.
While he was ultimately not successful, his swim was supported by Rotary Club where Dr. Huffaker was a member. “The Rotary Club sponsored the swim on behalf of the Hawaii Rotary Youth Foundation to use for college scholarships for graduating Hawaii High School seniors. The hoped-for goal was to raise US$50,000.
But the final tally was us$225,000. Thirty years ago that was real money!” [Note: that is US$455,866.33 in 2019 value.]
He explained his plans, “My route started at Club Lanai and proceeded to Maui – which is the typical route of Maui Channel Swim and Maui Channel relays. Then our plan was to swim from Maui to Molokai and then return from Molokai to Lanai. The most uncertain and challenging aspect was that the route involves different points of sail – the sea state, winds and weather in one channel can be quite different than those in the other channels.
The Lanai-to-Maui segment was perhaps the most pleasant swim I have ever enjoyed. [I swam] without a trace of wind in a flat sea state and a sky full of stars. Each time I placed a hand in the water a beautiful phosphorescence illuminated the water. With a mere raising of the eyes above the water’s surface, I could see the lights of Maui dead ahead. [It was] pure Heaven!
But the marine paradise soon transitioned as is expected in any Maui Nui Crossings.
He described his experience, “Shortly after heading off to Molokai, the weather changed rather dramatically, pushing me off course and changing my hoped for landing spot as well as adding another 2 hours to finally making landfall. This made landing on Lanai in daylight improbable.
In itself, that would normally not matter to any great extent, but having previously experienced swimming across a reef a short distance off the Lanai coastline (aka Shipwreck Beach that is known for its strong currents and multiple shipwrecks) with about 18 inches of water along with small craft/high surf warnings, the swim was aborted due to safety reasons [see video above].
I was still in good shape physically and mentally, enough to climb into the zodiac under my own power.
Then we headed back to Maui with the escort boat for dinner on Kaanapali and return to Oahu around 3 am and another day of work at the office. The morning paper was delivered at 5 am with banner headline reading “SWIMMER GIVES UP”. That was rather disconcerting as it did not properly portray the whole story. I gave the paper a swift kick down the hall and went about my day.”
The direction of the swim between the three islands was left to the oceanographers who were on the swim. Dr. Huffaker recalls, “One of the oceanographers was Karl Bathen, a professor from the University of Hawaii, and the other was Dr. Ricky Greg, one of the first big wave servers who had a Ph.D. and who authored a number of books written about oceanography.
Perhaps the first leg from Lanai to Maui was selected first because it was the well-traveled route for the Maui Channel Swims. And having swim from Molokai to Lanai with no real difficulty regarding currents etc. other than the reef with very little water over it From a logistics standpoint it would be appealing and easier to begin and finish the swim on Maui.”
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