After they had been bathed, brushed, and tucked in for the night I started to tell my five and seven year old daughters a special bedtime story about the time I was stalked by a great white shark out at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. I started the story with a low and even voice, “It was a typically grey, overcast and chilly winter evening. There was a minus tide, and the waves were sucking up hard over the sandbar, impacting with bone crunching force that qualifies Ocean Beach as one of the most powerful beach breaks in the world.” I let them ponder that for a moment for dramatic affect before continuing.
“I was living out at the beach at the time, right on the Great Highway between Lawton and Moraga streets, in a third floor flat that was part of a building we affectionately knew as ‘The Watchtower.’ It was and still is a shingled, green trimmed building that had been out at the beach even before Golden Gate Park and had a slightly haunted vibe. The building had withstood two major earthquakes in 1906 and 1989, the second of which I happened to witness. That warm Indian summer’s evening, out in front of The Watchtower my buddies and I were debating if we should surf or go inside and watch the A’s and Giant’s World Series Game.”
“Surf! Surf! Surf!” Both daughters chanted excitedly.
“Sorry girls. The consensus was that the surf was too small, the game to important. Suddenly the earth started shaking violently and we all looked up as The Watchtower began to sway from side to side. We could hear the splintering of the old wood shingles, and took off across the street to wait for The Watchtower to collapse. Incredibly it didn’t and The Watchtower still looks exactly same as it did twenty years ago, with the same shingles and green trim. That was October 17, 1989 at 5:04pm.”
My voice began to pick up pace and inflection as I got into the meat of the story, “The day of the shark stalking I was surfing with one of my neighbors from the first floor. We were alone on a sandbar out in front of The Watchtower, taking advantage of a solid swell that assaulted the beach with of ceiling high waves.” I pointed to the ceiling above. “We had been in the water for a while, just the two of us picking off the best waves, riding cavernous barrels and thrashing pitching lips. It was classic Ocean Beach.
“A three wave set came through and my buddy caught the first wave. I watched as he came off the top several times, sending spray showering well above and behind the wave. He was really good at destroying lips.
“I took off on the next wave in the set, dropping steeply and quickly down the face as the wave began to throw out over my head. Turning off the bottom and I threw my board up the wall of the face and snapped the board across the top of the wave, then did the bottom turn off the top combination two more times for good measure before the wave closed out.
“I met my buddy in the impact zone. Together we ducked under the last wave of the set. He came up holding his face, blood running down either side. “Dude, I think I broke my nose. I’m going in.”
“Ouch!” my older daughter Skylee exclaimed.
“How much blood was there?” Sabrina said excitedly, trying to get a picture in her mind.
“It was a lot. The blood was pouring into the water. He was trying to hold his nose to stop the blood from coming out, but it just kept bleeding.”
“Do you need any help?” I asked my buddy. None of my buddies were strangers to blood in the water. Personally I’d been impaled by my board twice after wiping out, once on my thigh frighteningly close to my groin, another time low on my back. I lifted up my shirt and turned around, showing each of my girls the old dime sized scar on my back. They both sat up in bed and fingered it, trying to imagine what it felt like to have a surfboard puncture their body. A few centimeters from my spine, I was lucky to still be walking.
“No man, I’m okay,” my buddy said and paddled in. I watched as blood drained freely from his face into the water. I said this slowly, letting the picture sink into their young minds.
“There was a break in the sets, so I quickly got on my board and paddled back out. Then things began to get freaky.” I said in my best haunted house voice. “I wondered about all that blood in the water, and if any sharks would be attracted. There was nobody around me, so if there was going to be a shark attack on my sandbar, I was the only candidate. The nearest surfers were a quarter mile down the beach, which was no comfort at all.” Both daughters began to squirm in bed.
I continued the tale, speaking low and slow. “Sitting up on my board, bobbing up and down on the water I recalled seeing pictures of how surfers looked from the water below, like seals. Great white sharks love to eat seals. I was looking out for the next set of waves, and saw the first wave approaching. Traveling towards me through the water, when it reached about 50-75 yards away from me I wasn’t quite sure but I thought I saw two triangular shapes jutting out of the water moving parallel to shore, one larger than the other, about 6-10 feet apart.”
“It was the shark!” exclaimed Sabrina.
“You’re right. The triangles dropped into the trough between the first and second waves, and then unmistakably rose up again on the crest of second wave.” I raised up both of my hands like the two fins, dropped them down and raised them again imitating the motion. “The dorsal and tail fins of the beast were still moving parallel to shore. The shark had to be at least 12-16 feet long, easily big enough to kill me with one bite.
“I completely freaked out!” I said excitedly, suddenly the words came pouring out. “Knowing that sharks could smell fear didn’t help, it only made my heart beat faster. My only hope was to catch the first wave and ride it all the way to the beach. My body was shaking as I started paddling for the same first wave of the set that had passed the by the shark. I had no way of knowing where the shark was, or if it had already turned to approach me.
“I hoped onto the wave, which was pretty nice incidentally, and fleetingly considered doing something on it, but straightened my board out toward the beach, got on my belly and let the wall of white water push me toward the shore. The water hit my board, and for a moment I almost lost my balance, but literally hanging on for dear life I was able to stay on my belly and shoot out in front of the white water riding it out and away from the shark. I was able to belly ride the white water to about 30 yards from the shore where it petered out. I didn’t look back, and from there I paddled as fast as humanly possible to the beach. If I was going to get hit, statistically this where most shark attacks occurred.”
“What do you mean?” Skylee asked.
“Most attacks happen in shallow water.” That would give them something to think about the next time we went to the beach.
“I made it to the beach without further incident. Looking out at the surf I couldn’t see the shark, but I knew that he was heading toward the other sandbar where there were plenty of other surfers. I debated walking the quarter mile down the beach and getting back into the water to warn them. On the one hand it would be nice for them to know, and they probably would have all gotten out, despite the ideal surf conditions. On the other hand the last thing I wanted to do was get back in the water.
“So I turned and walked back to The Watchtower. Fortunately that night nobody was attacked, but to this day I remember the fear and the adrenaline thinking that I was going to get bitten, knowing there was a shark in the water that had smelled blood. If I hadn’t seen the fins and caught that first wave of the set, I might never have lived to have you kids, and tell you my own brand of bedtime story. Sweet dreams.”
“I’m never going in the ocean again!” Skylee proclaimed.
“That didn’t stop any of us from surfing. We were in the water the next day. As long as nobody is bleeding, you shouldn’t have any problems in the water.” I didn’t bother to tell them that we lived right smack in the middle of the famous Red Triangle, an area known by oceanographers as a breeding ground for great white sharks. That would be a story for another night.
Image credit: Hermanus Backpackers, Flickr
Andy Falk is a father of two incredible daughters ages born in 2001 & 2003, Skylee
and Sabrina. Andy is very active in the lives of his daughters, from coaching soccer to supporting them during swimming season to just plain doing homework or hanging out. Andy also surfs regularly, bicycle commutes and is a successful Realtor in Marin County, CA. Andy earned his MBA from San Francisco State University with an Internet Marketing concentration, and holds a BA from the University of California at San Diego where he studied and surfed in the 80’s.