Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Notes from Woody in Oz

My good friend Woody and his wife Jane are now living the good life in Byron Bay, Australia.

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Byron Bay is a small beach town that’s renowned for its hippie vibe. Just how hip? When we were there in 2001, they turned down Bob Dylan’s request to play for fear he’d draw too big of a crowd.

The easternmost point on mainland Australia, Byron Bay is blessed with several surf breaks, including Tallows, Wategoes and the Pass. Byron'spoint breaks, which feature rolling waves that curl into several sheltered coves, are a longboarder’s mecca, rivaling Malibu in California with rides of 400 yards or more. The Pass is very family-friendly; it’s not unusual to see Mom and Daughter paddling out for a morning session.

On two trips to Byron Bay, both times with Woody, we spent a good portion of our time surfing there, either on the longboard breaks or on the steeper east-facing beach break of Tallows or Cozy Corner. Several longboard manufacturers have set up shop in Byron. Woody, friend Brian and son Daniel have boards that were shaped there.

Woody has returned to Byron several times and just settled in for a six-month stay with Jane. He’s been sending along regular surf reports. He also sent along this story of a shark attack at The Pass. Did I mention Woody is a talented writer?


A local woman was attacked by a shark on Monday while paddling a surf ski right off the beach here at Byron Bay. Fortunately, she was not seriously hurt. She and her husband told news reporters about how a 1.8 meter-long White Pointer lunged at her, but she was able to stop the beast with her paddle, suffering a few wrist and arm lacerations in the process. The Byron Bay police and lifeguards cleared the beach, and for a day all news of the pending Parliamentary and prime minister elections took a back seat to the story of the brave Byron Bay woman who fought off the shark and has vowed to return to the water as soon as the bandages come off.

The attack happened about 150 meters off the beach at a spot called The Pass, which is one of my favorite surf spots in all of Australia. I had checked the surf there just an hour before the attack and had decided not to go out. The Pass is a peaceful spot in the heart of Byron Bay. It's the kind of place where mums sit with their legs spread wide at the water's edge, cradling their nappie-clad toddlers as they splash in the surge. For surfers, The Pass is about as safe as it gets. The only danger is the environmental threat posed by what might be seeping out of those nappies.

This incident was a little disconcerting to me. I know about sharks. I know that in Australia, shark attacks only happen in the far south, where Great Whites thrive in the cold water eating seal pups and penguins. The smaller sharks here in the temperate middle of the country don't bother people, unless you happen to be spearfishing and pulling a string of bloody mackerel at your side.

The next day was Tuesday, and there was no way to pretend that the shark was still out there. News reports said that the shark had been "ushered" out to sea, whatever that means. But on Tuesday the surf was good, and people were returning to the water. I figured there were enough other people in the water to improve my odds of not being the one hit. I suspect others were thinking the same thing. But while the surf had gotten bigger overnight, so had the shark. The White Pointer had become a Great White Shark in the American news reports, and it had grown from 1.8 meters to 3 meters as the story continued to be told.

I was surfing around the cape from The Pass, at a spot called Cozy Corner, because of the rock outcrops and sheltering headland that protects the waves from northerly winds. The water was clear, and I could see the shadow of my surfboard on the bottom. Other surfers remarked on this. Murky water is where you are most likely to be hit by a shark. If a shark can see you, the reasoning goes, then they will know better than to bite you. So, as the news spun the shark story into something bigger than it was, we surfers were engaged in our own magical thinking, to make it smaller and more remote.

The sun was shining, and the waves were as pretty as the water. They were only about waist high, but they were breaking with the sewing machine-like precision that surfers dream about, and as soon as you finished one ride you could hop on another. If you're a snow skier, imagine fresh powder and no lift lines. It was that kind of day.

But Cozy Corner is a safe distance from The Pass, where the attack had happened. On Wednesday, the only spot with good surf was The Pass, right where the shark had last been seen. It was not a pretty day. The wind was howling out of the south, making The Pass the only surfable spot in the area. I went out late in the afternoon, again rationalizing that having other surfers in the water would make it safer for me to be out. The sun was beginning to set, and the water became darker. As I was paddling back out after a ride, I spotted Toshi, who operates a local surf shop with her husband, Michael. I said hello to her, and she started talking about the shark. She knew the woman who had been attacked and knew all the details. "It happened right over there," she said, pointing to a spot less than 100 feet from where we sat. "This kind of water is the worst. It's so murky."

Her teenaged son was surfing with her. The sun was setting, the water was getting darker, but they kept right on surfing. "It wasn't a Great White," she continued. "It was a White Pointer." That made everything right.

By Friday the winds had subsided, the waters calmed, and for the first time since the attack the water at The Pass was clear, sparkling and inviting. Families were spread along the beach, and kiddies of all ages were splashing about in the water. Two mothers watching their kids in the surf were talking about the shark attack that already seemed like ancient history. "It happened up the beach at Wategos," I overheard one of them say. "It will be a long time before I go back in the water at Wategos."

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