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The One that Let Us Get Away

by Mike Chin. Published in Bay Currents, November 1992

Although I've been a BASKer for two years, I've only recently acquired a sea kayak and begun to participate in organized outings. Just as he stated in his November article, Ken Kelton was ready at short notice for an Año Nuevo trip when I called him on Friday (the 13th). The two of us drove down Saturday morning; the conversation on the way down included joking queries about any good BASK shark stories (none, as far as we knew).

We put in at Gazos Creek around 10:30am, Ken in his modified red Dancer (11.5' x 24") and I in my camo-blue deck whitehulled Rocketboat (16' x 21"). Conditions were mild: 2' waves, air temperature in the 60's, water visibility ~10'. Patches of cloudy haze from time to time dimmed the otherwise sunny skies.

We paddled south at a leisurely pace, stopping to surf, poking the coastline, gawking at the seals as we circled the island. Heading back north, we crossed the shallow channel separating the island from the mainland sometime near the high tide for that day, ~12:30pm. We made plans to land north of the Año Nuevo preserve for lunch.

We meandered north, just within the outermost break, less than 1/8 mile offshore. We were perhaps 100 yards north of a seal haulout on the mainland, and perhaps equally as far south of some exposed rocks which we later were told was Steele Reef. In retrospect, two observations seem important. First, we had just paddled from shallow to deeper water; in the channel, the bottom was visible (less than 10' deep). Second, in contrast to the many seals in the water near the island, all the animals associated with the mainland haulout appeared to be on shore.

Reconstructing, we guess that the time was ~12:45pm. Ken was directly inshore of me by ~30-40'. I happened to be pointing shoreward, basically directly at Ken. I believe the sun was mostly overhead and a little behind. At that moment, neither of us was paddling very fast; we might have been nearly stationary as we were checking out potential landing sites.

I don't remember if it was sight or sound that first caught my attention. I vaguely recall hearing a thump and perhaps Ken saying "What the ...???" My attention focused in time to see Ken fighting to stay upright while something yanked and splashed at the Dancer's stern. Even though I couldn't yet see the shark in these first 1-2 seconds, I somehow knew exactly what was happening.

I believe in this initial contact, the shark was mainly placing his jaws on the boat. In the next 3-4 seconds, the shark lunged horizontally out of the water with the boat clamped in his jaws, his belly skimming the water surface. I saw a dark dorsal fin, and the profile of the shark's immense bulk, dark on top turning to silver on the sides and fading to white on the belly. From the top of the fin straight down to the belly spanned ~3'. I believe I also saw gill slits and an eye. I saw his back well behind the dorsal fin. It seemed that half the shark's length cleared the water, causing the stern to disappear, and it seemed that the shark had merged with the kayak/Ken. The shark seemed at once horrible, beautiful, powerful, terrifying and graceful.

There was a rush of water like that of a breaking wave as the shark surged forward, up, and finally down. It seemed that the dorsal fin was towering over Ken's head as I finally lost sight of him amidst the spray. I was sure that I had just watched him die.

After the shark submerged again, he abruptly let go and vanished; we never saw him again. Unbelievably, Ken was alive, unhurt, and still upright. Two thoughts were flashing through my head; white sharks rarely hit a victim more than once, and even more rarely do they attack rescuers.

I paddled up nervously, scanning the water beneath my boat, slapping the water with my paddle, striving to not look like an injured seal. Ken yelled "What was that??!!" Somehow the humor of Ken not immediately realizing what had happened escaped me at that moment. I yelled back "Shark!"

I think we had the same simultaneous thought; get the heck out of there. We didn't bother to work out ahead of time what the best direction might be; in fact we had directly opposite ideas. I raced towards shore while Ken scooted seaward. It doesn't make any sense now, but we paddled past each other.

After some frantic paddling, Ken cleared the surf zone while I had gone in even further than where the shark had originally struck. We looked at each other, and Ken waved me back out towards him; he wanted to skirt Steele Reef and some breakers. I paddled out, but we soon discovered that the Dancer was shipping water. We passed the reef, but the Dancer was starting to get hard to control and Ken couldn't wait to get totally clear of the breakers. We headed in, and agreed that he would attempt to land first, with me to aid if he flipped/swam. With remarkable effort and skill, he beached his wallowing water-filled boat. I followed right after; solid ground never felt so good.

Preserve rangers had seen us landing and came down to the beach within minutes to shoo us away. They had missed the few seconds of the shark attack, but were greatly impressed with our stories and the evidence of the Bite on the right stern. It measured ~17" across, ~11" deep (crossing over the midline of the kayak), and was only 1.5' behind the cockpit. Cuts/slices through the stern deck marked the oval perimeter of the Bite where teeth had met boat. The most awesome damage was at the waterline; multiple 3-4" gashes in 1/4" polyethylene. The power and the sharpness of the tool that had made such effortless cuts are nearly unimaginable.

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