Close Encounters

author : Scott Tinley
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by Scott Tinley
  
Ironman World Champion, 1982 & 1985
Ironman Hall of Famer; Triathlon Hall of Famer

“Queequeg no care what god made him shark...wedder Fejee (Fiji) god or Nantucket god.”

                             from Moby Dick

                                 by Herman Melville

         As an outdoor tribe, we are good at spinning tails of adventure; the one that got away; of man versus beast. The closer the encounter, the more value in the tale. Especially if it belongs to a really big fish.

         This is a fish story of my friends and their sharks.

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          Blame it on Steve Spielberg. Blame it on the famous director’s 1975 film version of the Peter Benchley novel, Jaws. Blame it on the thumping “do-DO-do-DO-do-DO” soundtrack for the reason that any triathlete worth their salty tan willingly admits their fear of sharks.

          My own relationship with this species of fish, however, is more complicated by how three of my friends have been attacked by sharks. Several more if you were to count small nibbles that don’t require a hundred stitches and blood transfusions. Sharks don’t scare me as much as when my friends are bitten by the big fish. Two of them have gnarly topographical scars but are otherwise okay. A third did not survive his encounter.

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          For triathlete, Dave Martin, April of 2008 was the cruelest of months. Swimming with a regular group just offshore from his home in Solana Beach, California, Dave had the misfortune of a lifetime. Mistaken identity or territorial snipe, the 18 foot white shark’s hard teeth found a soft lifeline. Cradled in the arms of his swim-buddies, Dave Martin’s blood stained the very reef that had been his family’s neighborhood playground. And then under a maelstrom of worldwide media, the retired veterinarian’s passing brought hundreds of athletes and watermen together in one the most elemental of circumstances.

          It started within minutes of the attack. Did you hear? Did you know him? Will anyone go in the water again? We were getting phone calls at the Del Mar Lifeguard tower from Australia and England. The attack had made the BBC News and the International Herald. It had also re-inserted a mutated pecking order into the minds of millions who venture into the Pacific Ocean. Dr. Dave Martin, a man who made a career of assisting animals, had brought people together in one collective thought—it could’ve been me.

          Throughout history sharks have been deified and demonized. Within an hour of the attack, a Coast Guard spokesperson fed hungry reporters with the news that their helicopters hoped to “spot the culprit.” The Solana Beach mayor claimed that “The shark is still in the area. We’re sure of that.” Shark experts from Scripps Institute of Oceanography reminded us that odds of an attack were extremely low and over-fishing has nearly eliminated some species of this amazing fish. And while all the Chief Brodie’s spat sound bites, the body of Dave Martin lie in state, testimony to the fact that the natural order can and will conflict with the human version of what constitutes order.

          Sharks have inhabited the ocean for roughly 90 million years, triathletes around 40. This kind of mortality wake-up call connects us like few others. We are both fascinated and fearful of the wildness of things, compelled to partake in what remains of a world unordered by man. And for many of us like Dave, the ocean shores exist as the edge of a liquid forest; a last, best place of respite from the white noise of modernity.

          That search for adventure and release in a wild place led Rob Rebstock to hunt for abalone off Pt. Conception, California. It was the summer of 1975 and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws had just been released.   Rebstock had been in the water for less than two minutes when he found himself in the jaws of a 16 foot white shark headed for the moon. Released as they breached the surface, Rebstock, feeling like an anchovy even with 20 pounds of neoprene and metal dive gear strapped to his body, felt the shark’s release. He landed within feet of the small aluminum boat and his three friends who watched in disbelief. The first words came from his brother. “I’m not going in the water after that!”          

          Surviving with deep lacerations that would regale his pals for beach summers to come, Rebstock is openly pragmatic if not bemused by it all. “Beach crowds were down that long July,” Rebstock remembers, “and I hit the talk show circuit. I was still a surfer and a diver and couldn’t wait for the wounds to heal so that I could get back in the water and take advantage of the small crowds that my attack had caused.” 

          As the saw-cut lacerations to Rebstock’s body healed, he never developed a fear of the water and still surfs and dives the areas where he was struck. I asked him if he felt lucky, you know, how lightening won’t strike twice in the same place?

“Luck and fear don’t mix,” he offered. “You go into the ocean, you roll the dice.”

          But Rebstock was no more poking fun of his own fate as he was undreaming every surfer’s nightmare. Rationality rules and we compare the millions who have enjoyed ocean-based leisure with the 2462 documented attacks between the years 1580 and 2011. The 472 deaths among them might exist as fuel for mythic fear that would taint our ability to enjoy that forest but it’s mostly in the movies and in our mind.   

          Dave Martin as well must’ve known the stats associated with every reported shark attack. Your chances of being killed by a Coke machine falling on you are higher than a shark attack. And while the percentage of fate-tempting associated with ocean swimming in our smooth seal-skin suits, certainly our time in the sea allows us a chance to escape all that a vending machine represents. Few of us who frequent that forest consider it the sandy edge of a Rubicon. We swim or paddle out and accept our fate but we are more invested in our return than our journey. Luck and fear and fate. It feels good so we just do it.

          Shark bite victims share something common besides scars and memories and survivorship. They exist among a tiny collective that has seen and felt something millions of others are awakened by in a cold sweat: they’ve experienced something primal, something as natural as living as dying. But haunts the hell out of us still.

          For triathlete, Julie Glance, the shadow of her November 17, 2002 attack off Old Airport Beach in Ka’anaplai, Maui has only shaded her desire to swim in the ocean. “I’m a triathlete and an ocean swimmer,” she claims, “I’m not going to give up those activities. But I still think about them.”

          The case of 34 year old Glance is typical enough: young woman swimming in warm water not far from shore, alone but within proximity to others. With no premonition or sighting, the woman felt a tremendous force to an extremity. There is no pain, only realization and blood and holy-shit-now-what? “I clearly thought this was it,” she remembers. But then the innate matriarchal response surfaced. “I was a mother of two with a family on the beach waiting for me. I’m out of here.”

          For Julie Glance, a successful businesswoman, after the attack there was the tedium of recovery and rehab. Her employees were surprised to see her back at work within a week of the attack. Sometimes you get back on the horse by climbing into the saddle of another one. In a strapless dress, she conflicts Spielberg’s Quint and carries the faded scars on her athletic frame as a kind of badge of adventure with a feminine twist. “If I qualified for Ironman I’d do it in a minute. But I’d still think about that tiger shark that tagged me.”     

          The night after Dave Martin’s passing, I watched the talk show host, Larry King, engage in a fantastical rhetoric about the incident. Was he exploiting the pathos of a tragic incident in his obvious fetish for this fish? Or was he simply joining the community that a death had catalyzed? Callers to the show were confused, angry, sad, and vengeful. How could this happen? Should we put up nets? Kill off the species?  No one suggested that we ban cars because they kill cyclists.

          The day of Martin’s attack was perhaps the safest day to be in the water--sunny, clear, small surf, little current--a five mile stretch of ocean devoid of human contact. Extra lifeguards were making contact with anyone wishing to enter the forest and circling above were helicopters hunting for what one reporter called, “the demon from below.”  News cameras dotted the beaches, their tripods fixed on that haunting horizon while so many people stood and pondered again—what just happened?

          But with time the great seeking animal was nearly forgotten and people returned to the beaches of Solana and Del Mar in mass. Triathletes began swimming in the ocean again though most stayed dangerously close to the surf line, as if a breaking wave would scare a white shark. Athletes negotiated their thoughts and fears and most have carefully compartmentalized the rarity of attacks. We remember that there are more shark attacks and triathletes within the states of Florida, Hawaii, Texas, and California than in Ohio and Nebraska.  

          There are races to prepare for and health to be found and a lot of adventure and release to be sought in the oceans of the world. The only sense that makes sense of it all is in the motive that drove Dave Martin to enter the grand Pacific every week, that drives Rob Rebstock to surf and dive daily for 37 years after his attack, and that keeps Julie Glance running the numbers and accepting the long odds. What Dave left and what Rob and Julie leave behind each week are the everyday troubles of a crowded world. And in their wake we are reminded that you never know. But still refuse to live only in the margins.

    

Scott Tinley 

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date: January 29, 2013

Author


Scott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

Author

avatarScott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

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