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Wavescape - Surfing in South Africa

Mon, 1 February 2016

When someone shouts “shark”, surfers paddle to shore as fast as they can, right? Nooit bru, not when hardy Cape Town surfers are helping a mate. Spike spoke to a shaken Sacha Specker.

Oblivious: Neil Bradfield shot this photo of Sacha Specker moments before the scary incident.

It was a classic surf day last Friday: clean rolling swells and warm, sunny weather. The weekend beckoned as the cranking leftover swell from the 22 second burst poured along our surfing beaches. Dunes was going off at 6-8 feet. The water was a bit warmer after a few days of westerly, and the wind was perfect: a crisp moderate SE offshore breeze.

The local crew were trading perfect A-frame barrels. Former bodyboarding world champion Sacha Specker had just ridden a cooking lefthander (see photo above) and paddled 100 metres back to the lineup to prepare for the next wave.

The nightmare was about to begin. He was about to be visited by a large white shark. Well, not quite visited. It was a little more than that. While out in the backline with a pack of about 12 guys, a young surfer 15 metres further out screamed those words we all dread.

The surfer, facing Specker and the beach, had seen a shark behind Specker. He "screamed with blood curdling fear in his voice, while scrambling his limbs onto his board: "SHARK, RIGHT BEHIND YOU!"

Specker jolted around, which appeared to startle the shark: "I saw it change direction abruptly and dip below me. A moment later it resurfaced an arms length from me, jet black eye, white belly, flank and pectoral fin in view as it pushed a bow wave and brushed my feet. Dorsal fin out the water, and tail fin slow and steady side to side, always in sight, while circling me four times.

Photo Guru: Sacha Specker at the Wavescape Slide Night in 2014. Photo Haegy.

Time stood still for the terrified surfer who tried to face the shark by pivoting around as it circled.

"It felt surreal. I was certain it was going to have a go at me. I tried to keep facing it, nose of my board pointing at the shark. While it was close, it never crossed my mind to back off. There was no room to move. I was literally spinning around on the spot, numb limbs, clenched fists and trying to slow down my breathing. It felt like the only chance I had, was to be ready for it and keep facing it."

Local big wave surfer Mike Schlebach, who apart from his big wave exploits is MD of surf brand startup Sealand, added that in fact, initially when the shark started circling, Spex was "lying on his chest with his legs up and shouting 'come! come!' - basically getting ready to box the big guy on the nose if he decided he wanted a piece of Spex!"

Specker said that eventually the shark dived and moved toward the beach: "For a few moments I paddled backwards, trying to put distance between myself and the shark and get closer to the other guys in the lineup. I thought that was the end of the ordeal, until I saw the shadow slow down, fin resurface and it headed towards me again."

This was it, Specker thought, I am done and the shark is coming to finish me off. Trying to keep calm, he stood his ground and, summoning up courage, even began paddling towards it. Then he noticed others paddling towards him.

Schlebach recounted: "When I first saw the shark, I started paddling towards Spex. Out the corner of my eye I saw another surfer, Philippe Carosin, doing the same thing coming from further up the beach. We were both kinda calling out for everyone to paddle towards Spex and surround him."

The young surfer who had first saw the shark had bolted and they didn’t see him again. Specker said he heard Schlebach shout: "Stay calm! Guys ... everybody paddle towards Sacha. Everybody. Together."

More scary? Mike Schlebach surfing Dungeons. Pic Steve Benjamin.

It happened so fast, Schlebach was unsure: "Hard to remember what was said but it was about power in numbers! As our little group - now including Duncan Duffet, Shaun Timoney, Gary Wilson and others - got close to Spex", the shark dived under Spex, turned and swam right under Schlebach.

The surfers, mostly veteran locals from nearby Kommetjie, surrounded Specker in a tight circle, "Once we had Spex in the middle I must admit that there was a bit of jockeying to get into the centre. It seemed that no one wanted the outside edge ... ha ha!"

Specker remembered paddling slowly toward shore: "I felt relief, but still the fear it would pick one of us off in the whitewater (my previous shark encounter a few years back happened in waist deep water while duck-diving in aerated, turbulent water). I was more scared when I could not see it. All I wanted to do was get to the beach and feel the sand beneath my feet."

Schlebach said they reached the beach intact. "The old salty sea dogs of Kommetjie all played their parts so well and Spex was just magnificent under pressure!"

"It was a close call for sure and I am sure Spex will re-live that half a minute many many times over for the rest of his life. As will I. The bottom line is that if the shark wanted to eat him, Spex would not have seen him coming but this guy was there because he was inquisitive and we happen to be playing in his zone. All is well that ends well."

Specker said that “Life has never tasted sweeter than on that walk back to the car park.”

"I have spent a large portion of my life in the ocean, enjoying it, riding waves and documenting its endless moods, and the life in and around it. On Friday the 29th of January 2016, I thought I was going to spend my last moments in the ocean. Somehow it was not to end for me this way. For this I am grateful.

"I feel privileged to have had such an encounter with this majestic apex predator and come away unscathed. It has been a massively humbling experience, pointing out just how insignificant we are as individuals. On another note, it shows how strong we can be when we stick together."


Ross Macgregor
0 #4 Ndhk localRoss Macgregor 2016-02-03 13:49
Eish close one - Nice to know there is still solidarity out in the water.
I was part of a large crew that surfed Dunes on both Sat and Sun oblivious to the event the day before. Good show all
Mark Crozier
0 #3 MrMark Crozier 2016-02-03 08:48
Brass balls! Impressive stuff...
0 #2 MrRian 2016-02-02 21:05
we've had a few sharks cruising the dune all of last week. we even had a few come right into the hoek. glad everybody is safe and secure - good work ous. moral of the story: stay at long beach.
Peter Johnson
0 #1 PeterJPeter Johnson 2016-02-02 17:53
Hey well done to you fellas-gotta say pretty brave to hang around to help your mate out.Great to read.Congrats and safe surfing.

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