This morning as you read this, four-time Olympian Frank Havens will be in the middle of the widest part of Chesapeake Bay, breasting waves and bucking the breeze in a tiny boat powered only by his strong back and arms.
It's the first day of a long journey back in place and time, from retirement on the Eastern Shore of Virginia to his childhood haunts near Key Bridge on the Potomac. If all goes well, by late in the week he will have 150 miles under the keel and be approaching Washington by sea kayak. Next Sunday he plans to paddle into town to celebrate his 75th birthday with 100 friends at the Washington Canoe Club, where his lifelong relationship with little boats was forged.
Havens, who won a silver medal in solo canoe at the 1948 Olympics in London and gold in the 1952 Games in Helsinki, is the son of a great Potomac racer, nephew of one and brother of another. As a boy, he was set loose early to roam the river by canoe.
In those days before air conditioning, he said, a number of families kept "bachelor camps" along the Virginia shore above Key Bridge. "There was always a breeze and it was cooler by the river," said Havens. His family's tar-paper shanty was called "Tut's Camp," from which he wandered at will starting at age 6.
In the mornings, he said, men from the camps paddled across the river to Georgetown and caught streetcars to work downtown. Women and children stayed. They bathed in the river, fished, swam and lazed through the long summer days. "I knew every cat, dog and person on that stretch," he said.
Havens was steeped in canoe racing almost from birth. His father, William, was the nation's top-rated solo canoeist in 1924 and was picked for the Olympics in Paris, but Frank's birth interfered. So William's brother, Bud, right behind in national rankings, went instead and came home with two gold medals, a silver and a bronze.
Sadly for the brothers, there were no canoe events in the Games again until 1936, when it was too late. But a new generation was taking shape in the form of Frank and his older brother, Bill Jr. When Frank returned from World War II and heard canoeing was included for the 1948 Games in London, "It was expected that we'd go," he said. So he quit the University of Maryland football team and began training on the Potomac with Bill Jr. At trials the next spring, both made the team. At the London Games, Bill was fifth in the 1,000 meters and Frank was second in the 10,000 meters.
The brothers immediately began training for the next Olympics, planning to race together in two-man canoe. But an accident with a car in the spring of 1952 left Bill Jr. unable to compete. Frank went alone.
He recollects the 10,000-meter race in Helsinki as if it were yesterday. "I was well back at the start," he said, eyes narrowing. "It was an oval course with five buoys. I caught up and passed everybody early except the Czech and the Hungarian. I was third for 8,000 meters. I could close on them on the straightaways but they worked together to keep me back on the turns.
"I finally passed them on the next-to-last straightaway and held them off through the last turn. It was 2,000 meters to the finish. The Finns were lined up 12-deep along the shore, all shouting for the Yank.
"At 500 meters the Czech and the Hungarian were still behind me and I thought, 'I didn't come all this way to finish third.' I won by six seconds and all three of us broke the world record. I want to tell you, the emotions then were really strange. I felt remorseful. I thought, 'What do I do now?' " When he heard "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the medal ceremony, he said, it was all he could do to hold back tears.
Havens raced again at the 1956 Games in Melbourne and the 1960 Games in Rome but by then was past his prime. "I should have stayed home," he said.
These days he is retired from his job as an auto-accident damage appraiser and shares a big, old waterman's house near Onancock, Va., with his wife of 50 years, Katie. They met on a blind date at the Washington Canoe Club. He took her out in a canoe and she liked what she saw, "but he was so quiet and shy, I thought, 'Gee, what a shame,' " she said.
"Then, later, at a party at the club I saw him again. He got a little tight and loosened right up. I thought, 'If we can just keep a few beers in him, he'll be alright.' " That was in January 1947. They married a year and a half later and raised three boys.
Katie remembers the gold medal well. She was home when a Washington Post reporter called. "He said, 'Have you heard what happened to your husband?' I thought he was dead! I'll never forgive them!"
Havens's journey today takes him across the bay to Reedville, Va., a distance of about 25 miles. He'll be accompanied by a neighbor in a powerboat for the leg across open water. From there, he'll paddle alone up the Potomac on Monday to St. George's Island, Md., with subsequent overnight stops planned at Colonial Beach, Va., and Quantico.
He expects to have no trouble paddling the required 25 to 30 miles a day; he trains six to seven days a week, as he has all his life, and has been competing in age-group races regularly since 1985.
"If I miss a day of training I feel terrible," he said. He looks in great shape, trim and strong, and says whenever he goes to a doctor he is told, "Whatever you're doing, just keep doing it."
He picked a sea kayak rather than a canoe for the journey because it's a closed boat and won't take on spray in big water. What about if he flips? Can he do an Eskimo roll?
"I've been practicing," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "I've got the first half down."