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.

Crossing Paths: Surf Legend Derek Hynd

photo by Dane Peterson

photo by Dane Peterson

Between holiday travel and the cold I inevitably pick up during said travel, I’m way behind on my writing. As promised I’m working on a story about a recent experience I had with peyote and a couple of Huichol Indians, but in the meantime, here’s a quickie about meeting a surf legend on my trip to Central California last November.

I returned to Hollister Ranch this past November with hopes of getting a little surf on this time around. My wonderful hostess Nancie, her brother Dana, and I headed down to a spot called Lefts and Rights to see if the surf was up and were treated to a vision of clean, solid four foot peelers. Considering the exclusive nature of the spot, I was surprised by the size of the crowd. Then I remembered it was a Saturday. Everyone and their dogs were at the beach.

I’d flown a nice quad surfboard to San Francisco from Maui en route to Baja, but decided to leave it in the Bay, wrapped in its protective coating of pipe insulation and cardboard. It had taken two of us enough duct tape to seal the joints in the Space Shuttle to wrap it up, and I’d never get it back together by myself for the trip to Mexico. Instead, from a collection of boards stacked in the shed attached to Nancie’s house, I borrowed an aged and dusty 6’10” egg that reminded me of my favorite Eclipse board waiting for me back in Mexico. Nancie pointed out that the board was shaped by Renny Yater’s son Lauren, another in her long list of surf industry friends.

At the break, I stood and studied the wave for several minutes before squeezing into my 4mm wet suit and heading out. The first thing I noticed was the amount of seaweed I had to cut through to get to the lineup. It tangled around my leash, creating enough drag to make me stop to pull it off in big long clumps. It reminded me of pulling long hair from around the drive shaft of a vacuum cleaner.

In the lineup, I took my time and watched as others caught one wave after another. The crowd was mostly friendly, but I sensed the tingle of territoriality hanging in the air. Wiry teenagers ripped on boards the size of potato chips, balding guys sporting spare tires around the midriff hung out on longboards waiting for their wave, and one woman, about my age, paddled by on a log. Despite the number of people in the water, it was easy to keep track of Dana in his bright blue wet suit, a thick yellow stripe running lengthwise down each side. He had an easy riding style and sat outside picking off the larger set waves on his longboard. I tried to stick fairly close without crowding him like a frightened child holding to her father’s shirt tails, despite feeling that way. Of course I wasn’t going to let anyone actually see that I was nervous. I knew I just needed to catch a few waves to stoke my confidence.

Every wave is different and every break offers the opportunity to learn something new about surfing. These waves break faster than the ones I am used to and I was glad I’d chosen the shorter Yater board over the longboards that were on offer. The wave, like a piece of music, dictates the rhythm of the dance one must employ to surf it. It took me several waves to begin to feel the beat.

Dana hollered, “Watch out!” good-naturedly as he took off on a wave I was paddling for, prompting a couple of chuckles by the men around me and a comment about the death of chivalry. The mood was improving and so were the waves.

Dana paddled back out followed by a curious-looking man with an Australian accent. He was skinny and had an odd look in his eyes. As he paddled past, we exchanged pleasantries and he commented on the conditions and how fortunate we all were. His expression of gratitude surprised me based on the general vibe in the water. I liked him instantly. He took off on one of the next waves and I looked on in amazement at what was the strangest surfing style I’d ever seen. He remained very low with his knees up by his chest, his feet lined up together like he was on a ski jump, not a wave. Nevertheless, he moved gracefully up and down the wave and even pulled a beautiful 360 that caught me completely by surprise.

Later, I watched from the beach briefly and wondered how he pulled off those spins, watched as he slid down the face sideways and did other strange maneuvers I can’t even begin to describe. When he came in, I noticed that the board he’d been riding was unlike anything I’d seen before. A series of channels ran along each side of the underside of the tail section where the fins ought to be. No fins? The tail was asymmetrical and made the board look, to this uninitiated kook, unrideable or at least like something an amateur had shaped. I was starting to think this guy might be the nutty professor of surfing when Dana introduced us.

The nutty surf professor and his ingenious finless board.

The nutty surf professor and his ingenious far field friction-free board.

“This is Derek Hynd,” he said gesturing towards the nutty professor.

Confession time. I’d heard of Derek Hynd, but didn’t know much about him, just that he was a big name in the industry and had surfed in the pro circuit long ago. I struck up a conversation with him and quickly got the sense that, like his board, his thinking was very non-linear. It was at times difficult to follow what he was saying, as it seemed completely out of context. I realized quickly that I was missing significant background information or perhaps even knowledge of the language being spoken. At one point he said something about the womb and feminist theory as it relates to surfing and I felt a sensation like whiplash jerk through my brain. To top it off, every time I tried to ask him anything about himself, he turned it around and asked me more about myself. I liked his vibe though and sensed I was the presence of a fully self-realized human being. I was hoping we’d be able to hang out with him for a while. Maybe try out that crazy surfboard myself (although I admit I probably wouldn’t do it any justice).

While we stood on the beach chatting, the surf built to well over six foot faces and everyone was saying how it would only get better as the day progressed. But Dana and Nancie had things to do and, as per the rules of The Ranch, I couldn’t surf without my host present. I reluctantly bid Derek and his friends adieu with the hope of one day getting to pick his interesting brain.

Back at home, I discovered that while there isn’t a Wikipedia entry for this enigmatic man, there are several articles written by and about him and plenty of video footage that provide a further glimpse into the mind of the legendary friction free surfer Derek Hynd.

Below I’ve shared some of the more interesting tidbits I found along with video footage of Derek on a board very similar to the one he rode that day. The waves we surfed were, shall we say, considerably smaller, but his style and approach to the wave are the same.

This video illustrates why Steve Pezman calls him the “best surfer in the recorded history of wave-riding.”

For more on Derek’s wild Far Field Friction Free ride, check out The Surfer’s Journal POV videos. In Part I he shapes the ride from an existing fish and in Part II he rides that same board.