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Surfing with Sharks 

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Stewart Kirby

If you want to learn to surf, you'll find ideal conditions at Shelter Cove.

The small, predictable, mellow waves that meet the crescent sweep of the cove are perfect for beginners, according to longtime surfer John Dowd.

Since I'd never surfed before, it seemed like a great place to start. But first, surf conditions: You can find out how choppy the water is and how high the waves are by contacting your local surf shop or by going online. The site has up-to-date information, but it's very technical. I checked In with Tsunami Surf and Sport in Garberville and was assured that on my chosen September day the water was fine.

The bucolic, meandering jaunt from Redway to Shelter Cove takes about 40 minutes. Twelve if you're local. As you drive down into town, surfing access is found on the south side.

Whether new or used, purchased or rented, a wetsuit is as essential to cold Humboldt surfing as the surfboard itself. For me, the purpose of the wetsuit is to instill superhero-like feelings of double-extra safeness from sharks. Plus protection from the cold. Mostly though, the sharks.

Salmon trawlers a few hundred yards out from shore might seem like they would attract sharks to the area. White sharks, in particular. Porkers. But Dowd explains that any sharks in the vicinity will linger on the other side of the shelf, far out from shore, waiting to strike seals and sea lions from below.

"In Shelter Cove, the water is too shallow for ambush predators," Dowd says. "There have been only two attacks in 10 years, and one fatality in 20."

Even though the cove is a kiddie pool to experienced surfers, it's not without its dangers. If your wetsuit doesn't include booties, you're likely to lacerate your feet on the rocks in the shallow water without even knowing it. Worse yet, take a spill and hit your head.

To help us stay on our boards, we smear them with Mr. Zog's Sex Wax, applying it with rigorous rhythmic swirls right there on the beach. This creates a textured surface good for standing on, and lends a minty aftertaste for any huge, tooth-filled mouths that come chomping along.

At the end of the board hangs a leash with a Velcro strap for attaching at the ankle. This is to ensure the oneness of surfer and board, a mystical connection that also keeps the surfer from having to play fetch. For most people, the strap will be on the right foot, with the left foot in front. A natural stance with the left foot in back is called goofy foot.

In the water, the first 30 seconds can be a mite chilly, but, incredibly, that's as long as it takes for the body to reach perfect comfort. Chest-high in the water, you lie down on the board and start paddling far enough out to ride a wave back in.

The importance of an accompanying experienced surfer can't be overstated. At all times, be sure to keep the surfer between you and the sharky side of the water.

There's no trick to surfing. All it takes is split-second timing and impeccable balance. Perhaps it's the buoyancy of bobbing in the water, the need to time your actions with the natural flow, the acceptance of a power infinitely greater than yourself that leads the surfing soul to peace and exaltation. A kind of perpetual surf-birth into the world.

Back on land, food never tasted so good. Largely, this is due to the good deli sandwiches at the market up the hill. And yet, undeniably, there's something about standing on a moving surfboard for about a second and a half that sharpens one's appetite.

I recommend the shark fillet.

Stewart Kirby is a novelist, author of and host of KMUD's Twisted~Lit.

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