Emily was stoked. We were headed to Trails, a picturesque and uncrowded surf break in San Onofre just south of the infamous break, Trestles. The grueling hike in-and-out makes it undesirable for most wave-riders, especially with such a great shortboard spot next door, but the waves are decent and great for longboarders who dislike crowds. I, however, was less psyched for the adventure. Trails was a renowned Great White Shark breeding ground, and we just so happened to be in peak breeding season.
I don’t necessarily think that I have a fear of sharks, but my anxiety about them increases with my relative location to water. I don’t mind the more crowded breaks because having other surfers around increases my odds of survival (plus Doheny isn’t known for shark sightings). Emily says that if I’m afraid of being eaten by a shark, I’m in the wrong sport. I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a healthy respect for the ocean and its creatures. Though admittedly, I am a little cowardice.
I know surfers peacefully paddle alongside sharks all the time without even realizing it. They don’t like the taste of humans or neoprene wetsuits. Studies show they only attack humans if they mistake us for seals, if they are provoked, or if they have no other food options due to an injury. I rationally understand that the odds of even seeing a shark are slim (especially since they use the element of surprise when they hunt). However, if one does mistake you for dinner, you’re lucky to get away with all of your appendages. I might not have been so worried if there hadn’t been news stories about recent shark sightings only a few miles away. I really shouldn’t have watched Soul Surfer and reruns of Shark Week before driving down to California.
“Don’t worry,” Kristi said soothingly after listening to my concerns, “There hasn’t been a shark attack at Trails in at least twenty years.” Not that I didn’t trust her but I decided to Google it just in case. Another bad choice on my part. According to the Shark Research Committee, there had been attack only a few weeks prior at Trails. I’ve never slept so poorly in my life. I kept having dreams about the sharks from the Snickers commercial pointing to a photo of me on a board saying I was the tastiest of the sample group.
I was pretty quiet on the car ride over. Emily was bouncing in her seat, explaining to me the beauty of the untouched landscape and how if we were lucky, we may be the only surfers out there. I chewed nervously on my nails. Emily had no fears of losing an arm. She would rather deal with baby sharks than unpredictable people. She was Xena, surf warrior princess; I was the less bad-ass sidekick. How could I climb a volcano with a metal board in a lightning storm and be less afraid than I was now? Was I over-reacting? Emily parked the car. I sighed. We were already here; if I missed some great waves because of my fear I would never forgive myself. It was time to suck it up. We unracked the boards.
After checking out the waves, we chose our trail and began our descent down to our fates. Luckily for me, the trail was pretty steep and our boards were heavy so I was distracted by the task at hand. When we finally reached the beach, we were surprised to find a reef break. We now had a whole new challenge ahead of us: we needed to find a safe spot to paddle out that wasn’t hiding dangerous reef rocks.
After a series of trial-and errors (i.e. Emily slamming her board into giant rocks) we headed further down the beach to paddle out where some other surfers were congregating. I enthusiastically supported Emily in this decision, figuring an extra couple of bodies in the water would be good. You know, just in case.
Emily was the first to paddle out, ready to catch the waves waiting for her. I hesitated, scouting the horizon for fins or passing pods of dolphins. I needed a moment to pep talk myself into this. This landed me 0 for 3 on decision-making.
My pep talk turned into a half-hour of vacillation. I walked into the water and then put my board down. I sat on it, thinking over the possible ramifications of paddling out. I then pondered the impending disappointment I would feel if I didn’t even try. I got up, picked up my board, put it in the water, and then picked it up again. It was a ridiculous dance of wits. I was choosing to either be in complete control of the outcome or chancing my safety to the universe. I was at a stalemate. The seagulls watched me curiously from the cliff. When they cried, I could swear they were saying, “Shark, shark, shark. Sharky, shark.”
I finally caved, thinking about how unimpressed Holly would be by my chicken attitude. I was going to have to haul my board back up that stupid trail anyway; I might as well get some use out of it. Resolved, I began the paddle out. 0 for 4.
The tide was stronger now than when we had first arrived. I paddled over the top of the waves making a mental note of the power of the whitewash. My board hit me in the face on the second wave so I opted to turtle roll on the third. The whitewash hit me like a fierce wind; my board and my body were pushed at least five feet back towards shore. This was not a good sign. I flipped my board back over as fast as I could, hoping to hit the next wave before it turned into whitewash. No such luck.
With every turtle roll I lost the progress I had made on my paddle. My board crushed against my body from the power of the break. The lull between sets was so small I didn’t even have time to get back on my board before another wave would crash against me. I tossed and tumbled, my board flying into the air like a leaf. I worked on quieting my mind as I clutched the back of my head. I felt the fin on my board graze my fingers. The tide was so strong, loose reef rocks were slamming into my legs. My worries about sharks dissipated. Now it was time to figure out how not to drown.
I hit the surface with a vengeance, seeing Emily sitting calmly past the impact zone oblivious to my fight. Whitewash pounded me in the face. I had no concept of where my board was except for the leash tugging on my ankle. I was out of energy and scared I would drown faster than I could paddle. “Forget this,” I muttered, looking for my yellow board. I rode the whitewash into shore, shaking uncontrollably once I hit the sand.
Emily paddled in after a catching some nice waves, asking if I managed to paddle out. I could only meet her answer with crocodile tears. Emily listened calmly to my recount while looking at the waves. She paused once I finished, obviously perplexed by something. I followed her gaze to the water. The water was flat. “Are you serious? I swear it was a nightmare!” I tried to defend myself but Emily just smiled. She understood the nature of the tide. She gave me an A for effort and we hiked back up the trail.
My experience became all the more absurd to me the farther up the cliff we climbed. Did I seriously waste all of that time preoccupied with shark attack fantasies when I couldn’t even handle the paddle out? Emily and I laughed like school girls as we re-racked the boards. The day had been nothing if not interesting and I was relieved to have that experience over with.
I felt something sharp rubbing against my neck in my wetsuit. Expecting to find a rogue reef rock, I was shocked and disturbed at what had really lodged itself in the neoprene. I carefully inspected the object in my hand just to be sure.
It looked like I swam with Great Whites regardless of what I had wanted. And yes, I now had the shark tooth to prove it.