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."