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Sharktober Part 1 

Witnessing an attack

The first person I knew to be hit by a great white was this guy Casey. That was in 2000, the same year I'd started surfing. A couple years later, Reed. Then in 2004 a shark not only knocked my friend Brian off his board, but came back for him. The next year it was Chad, who, legend has it, drove himself, still bleeding, to Mad River Hospital in hopes of keeping the break where it happened a secret. In 2007, a shark bumped Sue off her board at a popular spot. Then, in 2011, Benji. The next year, Scott, about whom a movie would be made. A year later, Jay. Last year, a surfer named Yuma ended up with a tooth-marked surfboard and a flurry of media attention. But rest assured, Humboldt County is only the second sharkiest place on California's coast.    

In fact, some years pass with nary a sighting. This time of year, however, a certain awareness permeates the surf community. "Sharktober." But before we go forward, let's — like the shark that slammed into my friend Brian — circle back.

Picture the day like this: Classic fall, sun shining, air crisp, only the mildest of breezes. The delicious taste of salt on the lips. Trucks lining the beach between the North Jetty and Bunkers. The ocean serving up overhead waves clean and smooth like liquid glass, pelicans skimming the surface. Beautiful. Inviting.

Because it was Veteran's Day, my husband, Bobby, and I hauled the kids along for some fun in the smaller waves up near the jetty before shifting up the beach for a proper surf. Brian, Bobby and I all paddled out. Brian, a lifelong surfer with enviable grace, immediately caught a few waves, then continued paddling farther outside — I should mention, "outside" at Bunkers is about 200 yards from the sand. I followed, then paused and sat up on my board to evaluate where I wanted to position myself. That's when a swell rolled between us and for a moment I lost sight of him.

I've told this story more times than I can remember over the years, always aware that it's not really my story, it's Brian's. Sure, freaking out SoCal friends already unnerved by the big cold, rocky, sharky reality that is Humboldt surfing is a neat party trick but I'd much rather my friend didn't get hurt. I'd have preferred recounting that day as just another blissful Tuesday full of pretty waves.

Instead, as I bobbed on my board, a grin undoubtedly plastered across my face, an unfamiliar sound shattered my reverie. I swiveled around trying to figure out what I was hearing, peeling my neoprene hood back. That's when Brian came back into my line of sight. What was so strange was that he wasn't on his board. He was in the water, his head just above the surface, a fin whipping through the churning ocean surrounding him. Now I knew — the sound was Brian yelling. And I knew what I was seeing, though my brain wanted to make some other sense of it. Instinctively, I twisted to look for my husband, spotted him near shore, then turned again toward Brian, who'd managed to get on his board and was paddling toward the beach. Nothing about his movements suggested he was hurt and, because he's such a good, accomplished surfer, I realized he'd probably get to shore before me. I need to explain this part because I've always regretted not paddling to him, instead assuming he was OK and that I could shift my concern to getting myself to shore, which is what I did.

I have a rule — one I indoctrinated my children with as soon as they set foot in the ocean — "Never panic in the water." That's how people drown, I explained. Freak out all you want once you get to safety but until your feet are firmly on the sand, I don't care what happens, broken leash, giant waves, shark attack — no panicking. I had to take my own advice. Paddling in from Bunkers takes about a year, especially when the idea of sharks has suddenly proven real. I was totally cool with sharks as an abstract concept.

Eventually, I made it to the beach, where people had gathered, sensing something had happened. "Shark, there's a shark!" I gasped. Brian was moments behind, his bleeding hand now evident, his wetsuit ripped at the thigh. A couple brothers whisked him off to the hospital, where doctors cut off his wetsuit, removed shark teeth embedded in his flesh, sewed tendons back together and stapled him up. Thirteen years later, he remains one of the best, most stylish surfers I know.

Of course he still surfs. Everyone I know who's been hit by a shark still surfs, even Scott Stephens, who came the closest to death of anyone I know in Humboldt. But that's a different story.

Check back next week for "Sharktober Part 2."

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Jennifer Savage

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