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Original Issue

The drift of the century

Boosted by the Gulf Stream, buoyed by a kickboard, towed in part by his boat, Benson Huggard got a "record," but not his goal

The boat captain had been kidding with friends. "We're gonna troll 165 miles for sharks," he said.

"With what for bait?" he was asked.

"A human," he replied.

"How you gonna get one of those?"

"He's a volunteer."

And he was. His name was Benson Huggard, and at 1:20 last Thursday afternoon he paddled off on what was billed as The Swim of the Century, a planned 165-mile marathon from the Florida Keys to Freeport in the Bahamas. Before he entered the water Huggard ordered, "Don't pull me out unless I'm dead." Twenty-nine hours and twenty-five minutes later, not quite dead, Huggard was hauled out of the Atlantic just south of Bimini with "a new record"—at least as far as the Swimming Hall of Fame is concerned. Huggard said he covered 173 miles, since he went off-course from time to time.

Hey, wait a minute, that's an average of more than five mph, and 2.5 mph is fast for even a great distance swimmer. The answer of course is that most of Huggard's route was with the current of the Gulf Stream. Maybe his swim should be called The Drift of the Century.

There is one record that Huggard can legitimately lay claim to, however. He did succeed in making a lot of people more miserable than they had ever been before, including, notably, himself.

This was the scene at midnight. The wind was blowing hard from the north, the Gulf Stream was flowing hard from the south, and the resulting waves, bigger and bigger, were coming in broadside to Huggard in his shark cage. Knives and forks and jars flew around the cabins of the towboat. Sleepless, desperate men, faces white with mol de mer, waited through the endless night. One hundred and fifty feet behind them on its tow-line, Huggard's cage was coming apart. The front end had sunk four feet beneath the water, and the high-intensity underwater light mounted on it was beaming in all directions. It turned the tossing water an eerie aqua in the dark night, illuminating Huggard, still bobbing around inside the cage, occasionally thudding against its sides. When he dared to look back underwater, Huggard could see that the light had attracted dark, menacing shapes, some of them six and seven feet long, nosing at the wire cage. Chunks of Styrofoam flotation pontoons bobbed around the cage as it sank even lower. Huggard, still stroking away, did not have to be reminded that he was inching his way through the Bermuda Triangle.

At dawn he was still swimming, only now the ocean poured over two sides of the cage, bringing with it a Portuguese man-of-war that stung Huggard on a hand and both feet. Absentmindedly, he put his hand in his mouth, getting toxin on his tongue, which began to swell almost instantly. At 5:40 a.m., as he was swigging down a pain-killing Darvon tablet with Coca-Cola, the voice of a reporter from Miami radio station WGBS announced to the world and the men on the boats, "Everything is going swimmingly with Ben Huggard."

"I have a lot of pain," Huggard yelled up at the press boat.

"From the stings?" he was asked.

"Yes," he replied. "It's unbelievable."

Later, Miami's Channel Seven told its viewers of the progress of Benson "Haggard," the malaprop being a lot more apt than the "swimmingly" pun.

Maybe Huggard's grandmother had known best. Twelve days earlier she had offered him $10,000 not to go. When he turned it down, she upped the figure to $20,000, but Huggard still refused. It had seemed so promising then. The 35-year-old Freeport, N.Y. plainclothes policeman, nearing the end of his distance-swimming career, hoped finally to have discovered a way to make some money from his efforts. Personable and handsome, he was counting on talk shows and endorsements stemming from this swim. He had never won a race against class competition, but this was no race, and Huggard certainly proved he had determination if not speed.

In 1971 Huggard swam the English Channel from England to France in a slow 15 hours, becoming the seventh American to swim it in that direction. In 1974 he was a member of a relay team that swam from France to England and back. The idea for a swim from Florida to the Bahamas had originated a year ago at a New York dinner honoring Jacques Cousteau. Subsequently the Bahamas Promotion Board became enthused (it was the outfit that suggested Huggard finish in Freeport, on Grand Bahama Island) and sponsors popped up all over the Island—Chambers of Commerce, hotels and a development company.

So Huggard went into training. He and Dick Boullianne, who would be his safetyman, spent $5,800 to have the shark cage built at Long Island's All State Aluminum Corporation. It was 20 feet long, 10 feet wide and 6½ feet deep. Its top was open and its sides were made of nine-gauge aluminum Cyclone fencing. It was designed to take an impact of 4,000 pounds per square inch.

At the last minute there was a change in the starting point. Instead of leaving from Coffin's Patch, a reef at the edge of the Gulf Stream, the boat headed 10 miles south, to a comparable spot off Sombrero Key because, said one of Huggard's handlers, "We didn't like the sound of the word 'Coffin's.' "

Before leaping overboard, Huggard announced another surprise: he would swim with his legs tied together. But this was not just a Houdini stunt; the leg bindings would also hold a small kickboard, 12 by 18 inches between his ankles "for buoyancy." Its use would have been prohibited in any serious race in the world, amateur or professional, but this was no race, and there were no rules. For instance, the "ocean swimming record" Huggard would soon break—91 miles—had been set by a man wearing swim fins!

Huggard yelled, "O.K., fellas, see you in Freeport," and he leaped into the Gulf Stream. Six minutes later three fins were seen heading for him, and he quickly got into the cage. At 2:35 p.m. during his first hourly feeding, he announced that two yellowtail jacks had taken up residence in his cage, one about 18 inches long, one about 12, that they were very good company and that he had named them Mutt and Jeff. The mood was light. His trainer, Reggie Ballard, told him, "Remember what we told you in the YMCA for your Guppy Badge—left hand, right hand...."

At 8:50 Huggard yelled into the microphone rigged on the front of the cage, "I'm really stroking now," and then night fell. Despite several protestations to the contrary from the accompanying press, there were no deaths from seasickness aboard the rolling boats during the night, and in the morning the winds calmed enough to allow a renewal of interest in Huggard. From 7:15 to nine he sat on the edge of the cage as repairs were made to the pontoons even as the Gulf Stream kept carrying him north. Now it was The Tow of the Century.

Later, as he drank more Cokes and ate canned peaches, Huggard complained about his encounter with the jellyfish. He said, "My mouth is so swollen I can hardly eat." And to a query about Mutt and Jeff he replied, "They stayed with me about four hours, then Mutt ate Jeff, and he left."

At 1:30 the following afternoon, Huggard began hanging over the side of the cage, heartrendingly ill. For 15 minutes people turned their heads away so as not to see him, and then, though it did not seem possible, he began to swim again. The cage looked solid. For a few hours there was hope. But off Cat Cay the Styrofoam began breaking apart again. At 6:15 that evening, with Dick Boullianne attempting further repairs, suddenly, in seconds, the whole cage sank. Huggard wanted to keep swimming, but he was hustled into the boat, bitterly disappointed, repeating, "I could have made it...."

The crew radioed ahead to Bimini for dock space, and when Huggard's boat pulled in to the Big Game Fishing Club a crowd had gathered, as if a world-record marlin were being brought ashore. They rushed him through the crowd to his room, where they laid him on the bed and covered him with a sheet. He shook hands weakly with a reporter and told him, "I would have gone all the way, but the cage broke up."

"The Bermuda Triangle tore it apart," said Reggie Ballard.

A nurse interrupted to ask Huggard, "Are you cold?"

"I don't know what I am," Benson Huggard replied.


Huggard counted on assistance from both nature and technology to make his swim a success. In the end, each turned on him.