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Sharktober, Part Four

Heart attacks, cramps, despair and other threats greater than sharks



The Sharkbanz, a chunky wrist-worn device advertised as "a convenient and effective shark deterrent for the beachgoer, swimmer and surfer," sits on my dresser next to a stack of bills and behind the floral fabric pouch containing my father's ashes. I was supposed to try it out back in the spring, write a little something for the Journal, move on with life. But then my dad had a heart attack and then a friend died in an accident and then another friend died in an accident and then a colleague killed himself and so my scheduled lighthearted review of shark deterrent technology took a backseat to grief.

So yes, I've thought about death a lot this year. Even the ocean hasn't been able to completely wash the sadness away, cure that it's said to be, cure that it often is.

In the first of this Sharktober series ("Sharktober: Part 1," Oct. 5), I wrote about being in the water when a friend was hit by a great white. The experience terrified me but the days the ocean has brought joy far outnumber those marked by fear. Still, let me tell you about some other times I've been scared in the water.

Like one day when I paddled out into what was, for me, fairly big surf. Double-overhead (10- to 12-foot waves) on the sets. I took off on a wave, wiped out and immediately felt the strangest sensation — or rather, lack of one. Instead of my surf leash yanking against my ankle, there was nothing. It had broken from the pressure of the crashing wave. I came up for air as another wave slammed down and tumbled back underwater. Cold water flushed through my suit. I'm normally quite comfortable in the water, but trying to swim out of the impact zone while increasingly chilled and with little time to catch my breath wasn't going well. Fortunately, a friend, one for whom 20-foot waves are merely the beginning of fun, paddled over, slid off his board, thrust it at me, grinned, said, "Here!" and then swam off to find mine, which he eventually did — catching a wave to shore with trademark elegance as I let whitewater rocket me forward on my belly, clinging to the sides of his board and aiming for the beach with all my heart. The next day I bought a better leash.

But the very scariest time, even more frightening than witnessing an attack or breaking my leash, happened recently. I'd been out catching glassy, head-high waves, feeling good and having a grand time, when I started getting cold and decided to take the next wave in. A nice-looking set suggested opportunity. I angled my board a bit to the right, paddled into the wave as it peaked up into a pretty A-frame. As I started to pop to my feet, both my calves cramped up with an intensity that toppled me. From my ankles to my knees, every muscle seized. I could hardly breathe from the pain. I floundered next to my board, unable to hold on to it as my hands went automatically to my legs, wanting to massage out the cramps, make the pain stop. Unfortunately, as this was unfolding in the ocean instead of on land, what I really needed my arms to do was help me get to shore. No one was close enough for me to call for help, not that I could have called anyway between trying to breathe and trying not to cry. I managed to pull my torso onto my board in time for the next set of waves to push me to where I could stand. The cramping continued as I stumbled to the sand, trying to walk it off, fully committed to sobbing at this point and caving to the knowledge I could have drowned. I need a better, warmer, wetsuit, apparently.

Look, I would prefer to not encounter a shark while out surfing. When my younger daughter set out for Australia, I immediately thought of all the frightening shark stories one hears about from that side of the world. (When she went to Costa Rica, I worried about crocodiles.) Certain conditions give me the heebie jeebies and when that happens I get out of the water. But if I'm going to worry about death, there are far more immediate and realistic threats. For example, the series of memorial services I attended over the summer was paralleled by the ongoing political nightmare of Republicans trying to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act. My son has type 1 diabetes and also surfs. He's far more likely to be killed by merciless Republican policies than a shark. Unfortunately, no one's made an effective deterrent for the former yet.

As for the Sharkbanz, it's worth noting that while the company claims its technology has been "successfully tested on a wide variety of predatory shark species including Great Whites," its promotional material goes on to say, "Great Whites are also an ambush predator species and are known to attack from far distances at high speeds ... Sharkbanz can reduce the risk of an investigative Great White encounter ... but Sharkbanz can not eliminate the threat. Nothing can."

Nothing can.

We can reduce our risks, but cannot eliminate all threats. Heart attacks, accidents, despair, broken leashes, leg cramps, incurable diseases, mass shootings, a terrible result to a presidential election — any of these can seize us when least expected, some more likely to than others.

I still haven't worn the Sharkbanz. I meant to – have been meaning to – keep forgetting – and then the swell jumped up to 20 feet and is still out of my league as of the weekend deadline. I don't know that it will bring me peace of mind. I do know that once I've made it through the turbulence of the impact zone to the outside, where I can sit on my board and breathe, look around at the sky, the glistening Pacific, the diving birds, the occasional quizzical seal, the taste of salt on my lips, the beatific smile of some far better surfer tucking into a curling wave, I do not think of sharks. I only think of how glad I am to be alive.

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