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Mike Spalding breaks for a smile midway across the channel between Moloka‘i and O‘ahu
Vol. 11, No. 2
April / May 2008

  >>   City on the Edge of Forever
  >>   The Channel Swimmers
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The Channel Swimmers (Page 8)



“When I listen to all this global warming stuff,” says Linda, “it makes me think about the next generation or the one after that, that maybe the ocean will be so polluted, they won’t be able to swim like we can. It makes you think that you have to take advantage while you can. And who even knows what’s going to happen tomorrow? That’s what drives Mike. He’s just possessed.”

Mike’s plan next is to swim from the Big Island to Maui—which leads back to the place where we began this story, with Harry on the cliffs at ‘Upolu Point. Harry had already had an amazing swimming career leading up to that night. The first time he ever got in the water, as a boy in Michigan, he stepped into the pool when no one was looking and he wasn’t pulled out until he was code blue. He survived and went on to become an All-American swimmer in college and a national record holder. After, bumming around Europe, he decided to try the English Channel. He swam it twice and both times, close to the end, blacked out from hypothermia. He became a dentist, took a job in Hawai‘i and decided to try the Kaiwi. At that point, in 1967, only Keo Nakama had accomplished it. Harry did it, drinking coffee and scarfing Snickers bars as he made his way across. He saw a large shark at one point and looked around for the support boat, ready to get out. But the boat was too far off for him to climb aboard, and the shark turned and swam away. Four hours into the swim, the support crew received a distress call that another boat was going down in the channel. They were about to cancel the swim to render aid when other boats in the area radioed that they would help. In the end, no survivors from the sinking boat were found—and the next day a large shark that contained human remains was caught. Harry reached O‘ahu after thirteen-and-a-half hours and drove to the Outrigger Canoe Club to take a hot shower.

He set his sights next on the ‘Alenuihaha, the notoriously rough channel between the Big Island and Maui. He attempted it first in September of 1969, was in the water seventeen hours but hit fierce currents off Maui that refused to let him land. “I could go on, but what for?” he thought as he climbed on the boat. He planned to try again in January, but the weather that winter was miserable and he was forced to wait until April.

After he leapt off the cliff, he found himself swimming in absolute blackness. He felt a lone creature underneath him, saw streaks of phosphorescence in the water and yelled to the boat, “There’s something out here!” He looked over at the paddler next to him, who had his arms and legs about a foot and a half out of the water. “Man, I am spooked,” the paddler whispered. The support boat arrived and turned on a spotlight: The creature was a dolphin. More arrived and they swam alongside Harry for ten or fifteen minutes.

The seas in the channel were confused, with lots of chop. Harry pushed on. Halfway across, he hit a current that held him in place for hours. His progress varied tremendously over the course of the day. Night fell. At 8:30 p.m., not too far from the Kaupo Store on the East Maui coast, he made it inside the reef, swam in and stood up onshore. It had taken him twenty hours but he had done it, swum the ‘Alenuihaha. Today, thirty-eight years on, no one has yet repeated the feat.

Harry made two more epic swims in the Islands. In 1972 he decided to swim from O‘ahu to Moloka‘i, never before attempted. On his first try, he hit brutal current near the end and, after twenty hours, said, “Shove this,” and got back on the boat. The second time, he swam into a school of Portuguese man-of-war off Makapu‘u. He first felt like someone had thrown acid in his face; then, as the toxins worked their way through his body, his throat swelled up and he was temporarily paralyzed below the waist. He swam the first few hours without benefit of his legs. A mile off Moloka‘i, he saw a tiger shark. “It’s either me or the shark,” he thought. “I’m not stopping.” One of his support crew jumped in the water with a bang stick. The shark circled and disappeared and Harry made it in sixteen-and-a-half hours.

At the age of 50, he decided, as a fundraiser for the Metropolitan Rotary Club of Honolulu, to do three channels in one day: Lana‘i to Maui followed by Maui to Moloka‘i followed by Moloka‘i to Lana‘i. On Sept. 28, 1989, he left Lana‘i at 1 a.m. in stunningly calm seas. He had breakfast on Maui and set off for Moloka‘i. The weather went to hell. He was blown off-course, slowed down. He made it to Moloka‘i and set off again, but by the time he was two-thirds of the way across the channel to Lana‘i, there were small craft warnings and high surf advisories in effect. The sun was waning. Harry knew to get in to Lana‘i he would have to cross, in the dark, a reef with just eighteen inches of water over it. He called it quits. But the people who’d promised their support seemed to feel that eighteen hours in the water and two and two-thirds of a channel in one day was more than sufficient. They sent in their pledges, and Harry’s swim raised $225,000 for college scholarships.