Biting It

If you surf or are a fan of the sport then you’ve undoubtedly seen this:

If you don’t surf then let me explain. That encounter occurred while 3x ASP World Surf League champion Mick Fanning from Australia was waiting for a wave in the final heat of the competition at Jeffreys Bay, South Africa. This is the closest a professional surfer has ever come to being eaten by a shark during a WSL event, in front of hundreds of live spectators and thousands watching televised coverage on TV or online. Fortunately for Mick and the sport of surfing, Mr. Shark was distracted from his mission to see what Auzzie surfer tastes like when he got caught in Mick’s leash (“leg rope” to Auzzies and South Africans). The thrashing you see in the video, including a good whack to Mick’s face, was the shark freaking out because it was trying to free itself from the leash. Mick handled the situation incredibly well and dealt the creature several blows on the back with his fist, leading surf legend Derek Hynd to compare him to the Flintstone’s Bamm Bamm.* It seems that the shark was as panicked as Mick and got the hell out of there. If the tangling and thrashing weren’t enough to scare him off, rescue boats quickly responding to the emergency very likely had him questioning who was in greater peril.

In the wake of the “attack,” there was a lot of talk about shark attacks and sharks in general in the media and among surfers. Social media was rife with stories of close calls and scary encounters with sharks. And those of us who spend a lot of time in the water felt compelled to share our own experiences concerning “the man in the grey suit.”

The reality is that if you spend time in the water, the likelihood that you’ll encounter one of these apex predators is considerable. And as a surfer originating in a place few surfers hail from, I’m often asked by family, friends, and acquaintances, “What about sharks?”

My reply, “If it is my destiny to be killed by a shark while doing something I love more than anything, then so be it. I would hope that you will be happy I died doing something I loved,” may come off sounding cavalier, but it’s sincere.

In my thirteen plus years of surfing and kitesurfing regularly, to date I’ve had three close encounters with sharks. I described the second one, which occurred while I was kitesurfing right out in front of my house in an earlier blog post. My first encounter was really just a sighting, but there were only two of us out at Nine Palms that evening and when the shark swam through the face of a wave, my buddy Fernando, son of a local rancher, caught the next wave in, leaving me to consider my fate. I was still a beginner and my lack of skills pressed me to praying to whatever deity might be listening that I would catch and ride the next wave in, rather than flail and fail. Plagued by a mental image of being up to my neck in the dark blue surrounding me, I nevertheless did catch a wave and made it to shore without incident. Neither of us saw the shark again after that initial glimpse of him cutting through the wave face.

My most recent encounter affected me a bit more profoundly than the other two. Like my second encounter, this time I was kiting. I’m at the stage in kite surfing where I’m still learning how to maintain control of my kite while I ride a wave. With the energy of the wave pressing you on, it’s easy to outrun the kite, which makes the lines go slack and the kite to fall out of the sky right into the impact zone of breaking waves. It’s tough, but not impossible, to relaunch a kite once it’s been smacked around by the white water on the inside and that’s exactly what happened on this particular day. My kite was lying in the water, the wind gently pulling it and me towards the beach while low tide exposed the sharp lines of rocks along the way.

I’m pretty stubborn. Often to my own detriment. There comes a time when you gotta say enough is enough and give up, but I usually push myself beyond those rational limits. This day was no different. In exchange for my persistence trying to get the kite relaunched, I got dragged across those rocks on the inside. This is when I lamented my choice of bikini over wetsuit. Had I been wearing my spring suit, my thighs would have been protected from the sharp rocks. Thanks to my vanity (I wanted to work on my tan), I instead got a long gash along my left upper thigh. The scar remains an indelible reminder of my bull-headedness and the following incident it likely precipitated.

I got back to the beach and inspected the wound. It was bleeding, but not heavily and the gash was not as deep as I thought it would be. I decided that if it stopped bleeding, I’d relaunch and try my luck at riding waves again. I’d caught that wave without reminding myself of the intricacies of wave-riding with a kite. All my hard-learned lessons came flooding back to me as I watched the kite fall out of the sky. I knew could do this!

I dragged my kite and board back up the beach to the take off spot, rinsed the blood from my wound and patted it dry. I reran the lines to the kite, making sure everything was in order, and reinspected the cut. The bleeding had stopped and I rationalized it was really just a scratch, nothing to worry about. Certainly nothing that would get the attention of a grey suit.

I had a relatively good session from there on out and managed to catch some waves without dropping the kite. An hour or so into the session, I checked in with my thigh muscles. They were fatigued, indicating t was time to start tacking North to the one sandy spot where I could get to the beach without crawling over rocks. It was just as I began to tack upwind when out of my peripheral vision I saw something grey leap partially out of the water. A small black grebe that seconds earlier paddled along the water’s surface had disappeared.

My heart clenched as adrenaline surged through my body and my head spun.

A walrus. It had to be a walrus, I thought fully entering denial.

And then another voice spoke up, an annoyingly intelligent voice. Walrus don’t eat grebes, Dawn. And there are no walruses here.

My mind buzzed like a pinball machine on full tilt and I drew a blank despite attempts to rationalize what I’d just seen as something else, anything but a shark. It turned next to the cut on my leg. I had to accept that it was possible that the small amount of blood I was likely leaving in the water had brought one in.

Just get in. Just focus on what you’re doing and get in. Don’t fall.

But of course I fell.

“Fuck fuck fuck fuck!” I hurled the epithets as I grabbed my board and hurried to get back up and moving after blowing the turn back towards shore.

“Fuck!” I swore again when I got closer to shore and realized that it would take at least three tacks to get up wind enough to where the beach was sandy.

I gritted my teeth and managed to turn and head back out to deeper water without falling. I focused everything on the task at hand, working my way upwind and eventually making it back to shore. I breathed a sigh of relief as I prepared to step off my board onto sand and brought the kite high overhead to the neutral position. That’s when I discovered that the wind had turned offshore near the beach and by bringing the kite overhead it was met with the force of a wind that pushed it back out to sea. It arced and plummeted into the sea behind me where the opposing onshore wind pushed it gently back towards shore. The lines went slack and I was powerless to do anything as it slowly floated into an area full of rocks just South of where I stood. The next thing I heard was a loud “pop!” followed by the hiss of air escaping. The kite had run into the sharp edge of a rock, much like my leg had earlier, which cut through the leading edge, an air-filled tube-like bladder that gives it structure.

Maybe it was the stress of seeing a shark consume a helpless little bird right in front of me, the prospect of similar treatment or maybe it was just frustration with the vagaries of kiting, but I lost it at that point. I totally lost my shit and screamed (to no one in particular as there was no one there to hear me anyway), “I hate this fucking sport! This is the dumbest fucking sport ever!!! I’m over it!!”

And in that moment, I felt alone…terribly fucking alone and I came close to crying. I felt the tears knocking at the door and I very nearly let them come. I came damned close to walking away from that kite bobbing gently among the jagged rocks with it’s fucked up lines and torn leading edge too. Very very nearly.

But I took a deep breath.

Considered the options.

Then put my head down and carefully picked my way over those goddamned motherfucking rocks and pulled my kite off them without doing further damage to me or the kite. The lines were caught in the rocks and it was all I could do to keep from having a total melt down every time I pulled on one of them and realized I had to disconnect it from the kite before I could extricate the mess from the grip of those tenacious rugged rocks.

It was almost dark when I finally had the whole maddening mess packed up and was driving along the beach towards home on my ATV, jaw clenched in anger.

That was six months ago and I haven’t kited since. The kite is still in its bag, torn, sandy, and neglected. And after watching Mick’s experience with the shark, I asked myself whether that was a function of the hassle that is learning to kite surf or if it is more about the shark.

Compared to surfing, kiting is definitely a higher risk activity where sharks are concerned. You go into deeper waters where sharks like to travel and you have the considerable potential of breaking down out there. Even experienced kiters have kitemares and end up losing entire kites or boards out at sea. The boards are too small to paddle back in on and the kites are a serious liability once they are disabled. Once when my kite failed I had to swim a good half mile to get back into shore, dragging the kite as the leading edge took on water. Getting to shore was a Herculean effort accompanied by nerve-wracking thoughts of what could be lurking deep below me.

Despite these experiences my passion for surfing keeps me returning to the water. I wonder though, if I had a serious close encounter with a shark the likes of Mick Fanning’s, how soon would I get back in the water? Would I even be able to?

It’s a crossroads I hope never to confront.

******

*After Fanning’s run in, Hynd was the first person to paddle out to the empty line up to catch a few overhead waves, further proving accurate my assessment that he is the Nutty Professor of Surfing. When I questioned his sanity by internet chat, he suggested, knowing we share a similar level of passion for the pursuit, that I would have done the same. “No one out…swell was building.” ‘Nuf said.

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