Sunday, September 27, 2009

Life lessons from after sunset

My Facebook profile today says that I am grateful to be in possession of my left foot after having it nibbled by a shark on Friday night.

I then go on to thank fuck (whoever fuck is) for wetsuit booties.

So obviously that is the very short version of the story. The Twitter version, if you will.

What actually happened was vaguely this. And I might add that throughout this blog, I’ll do my very best to shit you not.

Friday evening. Light offshore, swell 3-4 feet (for those of you who don’t surf, this swell size equates to waves roughly just bigger than my head if I am standing upright at the bottom of the wave … it’s a slightly obscure way we measure waves). Glassy Ocean.

I paddled out to Boobs – that is the name of the reef break just near my house – I think it was named with a sophistication known only by surfers – if you are in the water there are two caves at the base of the cliff that could, if you looked at them with a particularly juvenile mindset, look like – well you get the point.

At least there were two caves. One of them had a mastectomy.

I mean a landslide.

But I digress. When I paddled out from the reef next to Boobs and across the long, deep channel you need to paddle across to get there, there were about six or seven guys in the water. This being about an hour to dusk. I reached the lineup, caught a first wave, and thought to myself that it was evenings like this that make it so great to live by the water again – a quick after work session with a quiet wave in fantastic conditions (even if the tide was a little full and the wave a little fat, but who’s complaining?). It promptly got even better as one by one the others got out of the water until I was sharing wave for wave with one other guy just after sunset. He’d been out for a while and said he was getting cold – time to head in.

So there I was, Boobs to myself (stop giggling you immature readers, you!), and I have to admit it crossed my mind that it was probably getting uncomfortably close to dinner time – perhaps time for me to catch one more wave and head in. I caught the one more wave – it wasn’t a corker, but had reasonable size and I should have been satisfied with it and paddled to shore.

But, I thought, as you do when you get a good one, “nah, one more – I’ll paddle across the channel to Evo’s (the next reef break across – heading towards the stairs anyway) and catch one of the smaller but nicely shaped waves that are breaking through there." There were still a couple of people out at Evo’s and I thought I’d be glad of the company at that point.

Now, I snowboard too. And used to ski. There’s this old skiing wisdom that when you say “just one more run today” that’s when you’re most likely to go ass up and bust something. This has happened to me a couple of times and is the reason I now wear a helmet when I snowboard. And I have to admit it crossed my mind that I may be pushing my luck on Friday night, especially crossing that deep dark fish pit that is the channel between Boobs and Evo’s on dusk.

The counter to that thought was that it is just the time I start panicking about such things that I need to do it anyway – to overcome irrationality and focus on the stats that say there’s never been a fatal shark attack on the Surf Coast. I thought I was being pretty damn arrogant to imagine myself important enough to be the first. So across I paddled.

About half way, I felt it.

Didn’t see a thing, just felt the bump and an open mouth against my foot, which was lazily dangling over the edge of my board as I paddled. It felt like when the dog runs at you in excitement and with an open mouth crashes into your leg – not a bite, but you feel the teeth, and separately the bump of the nose.

Of course, my first reaction was to jump the fuck out of my skin.

Then it’s hard to order the next few thoughts, but they were roughly:

“Holy shit what was that”

“It’s gotta come back in a second”

“Where’s the fin? Show yourself, mother fucker!”

“Ok Glen, paddle as fast as you humanly can. Faster if possible.”

“There’s a chance this is it if that indeed was a shark – there’s no way I can outrun it.”

“Hang on. Think. I have rubber booties on. Whatever just taste tested me did not give the Master Chef seal of approval” (ok, I wasn’t cool enough to come up with the pop-culture reference on the spot, but the sentiment was there).

“Just paddle strong and smooth – to it you look like a nine foot animal (I ride a longboard) and a not very tasty one at that. You’ll be fine. But let’s just keep the toes out of the water for good measure, eh?”

I was never so happy to have to compete with other surfer’s for a wave when I reached what was by then the last two surfers out at Evo’s. One of them was the last guy that had left Boobs – guess he’d had the same idea as me minus the cannel paddle. “Um”, I started, not wanting to be a fear monger. “I just got nibbled by something.”

He looked at me and said (whether trying to be tough or self reassuring I don’t know) “what, a fish?”

“I hope so” says I, “but maybe it’s time to call it a day”.

I mentioned it to the other guy too, who was a little more openly freaked out and we all waited for the next set then caught one more wave in to finish up what was, in all, a pretty damn good sunset session.

On thinking of the other surfer’s response as I walked home, it didn’t really add up. My silhouette, from the perspective of a creature below the water, is that of a 3 meter paddling animal. Whatever it was had to be big enough and brave enough to think that having a nip at that was worth a try. Then there was the feeling of the force and hardness that it hit me with. I’m in no doubt that if it had wanted to, it could have done a fair bit of damage – at the least caused a pretty serious bite involving me letting quite a bit of blood into a known shark pit at feeding time.

Of more interest to me though, are the mental responses I’ve had to it since then. All surfers are aware that sharks are part of our reality. I’ve seen several whilst in the water. A couple up closer than I would have liked. But they are always an idea that you need to deal with. A vague concept that you learn to put to the side of your mind, at least while you’re in the water.

But the thing was so hard, so solid, so undeniably physical. There was an animal there with me in the water bumping up against my foot like my dog might do, but an animal that was potentially much bigger, and definitely much more capable of doing me harm.

That makes the concept of sharks an all too solid reality.

The other thing that has been in my mind is: what would I do if I had actually been mauled. Been injured badly enough to need to go to hospital, to have felt the pain and the panic that shark attack victims must feel.

Would I be able to get back in the water and surf? I hope so. I think so. I may need some time off, and to ease back into it in much more crowded locations, but I think I would want to surf badly enough to overcome the fear that would accompany such an experience.

As it is, I will be back in the water the next decent swell we get, but I have definitely learnt a couple of lessons:

1. Don’t imagine that the concept of a shark is the same as the reality, or the concept of being seriously injured is the same as the experience.

2. “One more wave” when you know you’re already pushing your luck is a risky business.

3. That I do have the ability to deal with fear and do what needs to be done in a scary situation, and that the beauty of being in the water enjoying nature at its best is worth the mental discipline required to do it.

4. Paddling across deep, sharky channels when it’s almost dark is STUPID.


  1. The question isn't, "Would I be able to get back in the water and surf?"

    The question is, "Would your wife let you?"

    I'm glad you're not eaten, my love.

  2. Great blog entry! Glad that you weren't hurt, but I very much enjoyed reading your thought process on the matter.