Seventeen-plus years of windsurfing and I’d never seen a shark. I never wanted to see a shark, but if I did my preference was to see a fin perhaps 100 yards in the distance, swimming parallel to shore, oblivious of me. That’s not what I got.
What I also wanted if I ever saw a shark was to be planing and well powered so I could head back to the beach and maybe have lunch while the shark left the area. That’s not what I got either.
Sailing outbound at the Bowl in side-on winds, I was maybe 600 yards from the launch and 200 from the beach when I jibed off some swell. Caught the sail, got back into the footstraps, and then a big lull had me quick-step out of the straps so I could shlog.
And then my head just turned upwind…I must have heard it surface. I was staring at a black triangle, ten feet away from me. During the first thousandth of a second I thought “not a dolphin” (I’ve never seen a dolphin off of Long Island, but one can hope.) For a quarter second I thought “I can’t believe I’m staring at a shark fin”. Then I thought “it’s the size of a very large slice of pizza.” Then some swell changed the angle of the light reflecting on the water, and I saw all of the shark. About seven feet long, swimming slowly parallel to me. And it was so very much a shark. It wasn’t swimming by, it was swimming with me, checking me out. I have no spitting skills at all but I could have easily spit on its head. I was not happy. None of the other guys were anywhere near me…it was just me and this shark.
I focused on getting away. Bearing off seemed like a good idea (the beach was downwind) and there was a tiny bit of increased speed. I stopped looking at the thing and focused on the rig, encouraging myself with the thought that the shark probably wasn’t planning on attacking. Yeah we’ve all heard the statistics that you’re more likely to be hit by lightning than be attacked by a shark, but I think those odds shorten some when:
1. You’re by yourself hundreds of yards from shore.
2. A shark is ten feet away from you, and not leaving.
Anyhow I was shlogging on my broad reach, making little headway and hoping for a gust to get me planing (I didn't get one.) Then the thought hits me “unhook, unhook!” What if the wind dies completely for a moment…hooked in I might not be able to do a mad balance dance, and then I’d fall in. A minute later I start thinking “maybe I should hook in” worrying about fatigue. Then I had my stupidest thought: Look behind me and see what the shark is up to. I started to look back when a voice in my head said “ARE YOU INSANE WHAT IF YOU LOSE YOUR BALANCE!” which snapped my head back forward, where I saw a nice wave forming…perhaps five feet high, which was plenty for what I needed.
The first swell took me a third of the way to the beach. I rode the second the rest of the way in. I was on the beach.
I walked my gear a few hundred yards back to the launch, where the guys were hanging out waiting for the wind to come back. I was looking forward to telling my story, so they could laugh at me and reassure me with their own experiences…these guys have been windsurfing in the ocean for ages (this is just my third ocean year) and surely they’ve seen plenty of sharks.
I started with Scott. “Really?” was all I got.
Then Bill Barber. Bill surfs, so he must see plenty of sharks. “That’s rare,” he told me. In twenty years in the ocean he’d only seen one on Long Island.
Then Fisherman arrived. Fisherman is in fact a commercial fisherman, he knows what’s up, and he will not let me down. He asks me to describe the fin. I tell him about the pizza slice. Fisherman says “that’s pretty big”.
Shit. The whole plan was to get reassured so I could go back out and sail without fear. But that didn’t happen.*
Then the wind came back up and nobody cared about my shark and they all went out. Jon Ford and Jeff and Ethan and Jimi all showed up and didn’t care about the shark and they sailed too, so of course I went back out, though I kept my runs short…no long excursions to the outside for me. And if you’ve ever experienced some nervousness sailing in the ocean, distracted by imagined perils in the deep that caused you to be tentative in your sailing and screwed up your technique, imagine how you’d do sailing in waters where you know there’s a shark… a shark you've already met and that has demonstrated some casual interest in you. I was fine on the inside, but for the rest of the day on the outside I was a tentative mess. What knucklehead sails back to the shark?
I'd happily sail the Bowl again tomorrow, though.
* Jon Ford arrived later and said he’s seen the occasional shark hanging out by the sand bar in the past.
(Top: I'm jibing well on the inside, but I'm not smiling 'cause I'm headed back towards Shark Town. Photo by Bill Doutney.)