A big bang, or thump, definitely a feeling of an alien presence and the boat lifted dramatically in the water. Even after 60 kilometres, the adrenaline kicked in, as I sprinted the next 200 metres towards a nearby beach, with some not-so-pleasant curses on my lips. It had all happened so quickly and as I had been looking at the shore checking out possible campsites, I had not seen a thing. Then the brain started to work again.
That could not possibly have been what I initially thought it was. I had just crossed a shallow reef with some exposed rocks in a lumpy sea and strong winds of 30 knots, probably gusting 35 or so at times and had taken my sail down a little while ago, as the regularly breaking two to three metre swell was demanding a lot of concentration. Rational thoughts prevailed. I must have misjudged the reef and hit a rock as I dropped off a swell. But it did not seem right. It had felt like something had hit me, trying to lift the total load—me, the kayak, three weeks’ food, 20 litres of water and all my camping gear, a payload approaching 200 kilos—clear of the water. I checked the rudder. Everything seemed to be working. Encounters with sharks that I have heard of usually involve a tentative nip at the rudder. Perhaps I was mistaken. On the beach 15 minutes later the answer was clear. Two pure white, broken teeth, still stuck in the carbon Kevlar of the hull just forward of the seat, centimetres from my thigh, big grooves in the gel-coat and compression cracks in the area of initial impact told an obvious story.
With the boat upside down the evidence was very clear, though amazingly the boat was only holed slightly where the teeth had impacted. Some duct tape soon covered that and with some trepidation I headed back out from the beach to find a suitable campsite. Within the shelter of Pipers River and adjacent Weymouth a couple of kilometres away, with a tube of araldite and more duct tape, all I was carrying in my repair kit, a more solid job was made that evening. Whilst examining the damage again, I imagined a shark bite, not just the lower jaw, but the closing of the mouth. Sure enough, a better inspection of the deck showed similar grooves to the hull, not with the same force applied, but a definite closing of the jaws, this time forward of the cockpit, just where I would normally put the paddle in to start a forward stroke. The measurement, from bottom jaw impact to top jaw closing marks was 45-50 centimetres. I do not know much about shark dentistry, but something with a bite of close to half a metre seemed to me to be a good-sized specimen, probably three metres and possibly considerably more. Yes, this was some beast.
If I had been a seal I would have been in severe trouble and if I had been a penguin, the speed of the attack would have left me wondering why I was suddenly swimming around in a shark’s stomach juices.
As it was I consider myself lucky. I was paddling an extremely strong boat, a Nadgee, which I like for its handling characteristics when the going gets rough, but also because I know how meticulously they are built, one of the strongest constructions on the market. I’ve paddled one for about eight years, this being my second. (I’ve still got the first, which after thousands of kilometres of expedition paddling is showing signs of wear.)
I had decided for this trip, a 600 kilometre solo paddle down the north-east and east coast of Tasmania, following the 1879 paddle strokes of the Reverend Fred Fairey in his Rob Roy design kayak (see NSW Sea Kayaker Issue 39 for an account of that journey and numbers 43 and 44 for Mike Snoad’s and Dave White’s trip reports seven years ago), that I needed a strong boat with additional carbon-Kevlar support. Initially at 21 kilos out of the mould and with strengthened foredeck, sail rigging and rudder, at about 24 kilos, this is a very solid boat.
I am sure that a lighter weight boat would have suffered considerably more damage, not just to its structure, but to the paddler inside. A beast with a half metre bite, hitting and closing its mouth sharply, would, I think, slice through more than just some light weight glass fibre when attacking the centre of a 5.2 metre long kayak. I am sure that a plastic boat would have also suffered considerable damage and, if holed, would have been much harder to permanently repair.
Talking that night to a couple of local fishermen, as they inspected the damage with fascination, they mentioned that the area around Weymouth is renowned for big sharks, usually great whites, attracted to the local seal and penguin colonies. Eight years previously a woman had been taken, by the sound of it, near the spot that my attack occurred, by what was described as a great white. What I do remember was the confused, murky water where the attack occurred and suspect that this is more the style of a bull shark, slightly shorter and more stocky than a great white, but just as deadly.
This had not been a ‘circle, scare the shit out of you, then take a tentative nip’. This was a full-on attempt at grabbing a meal. As several people told me, it’s not the shark you see that you need to be afraid of, but the one that you don’t.
The following day, as I continued my journey in a 25-30 knot wind and confused sea, again with a BOM strong wind warning, bracing regularly, for possibly hundreds of times, I could not help but think what a tasty morsel the arm, probably up to the shoulder, would make to a passing underwater marauder of this size.
Finishing the 600 kilometre journey after 14 days, I felt considerably more admiration for Rev. Fred Fairey, in his 14 foot kayak, The Evangelist, nearly 130 years earlier, in his tweed suit and boots, without buoyancy aid, GPS, EPIRB, and radio for weather forecasts. Now that was some wilderness journey, and if you are after an adventure I cannot recommend this route highly enough.
As well as sea kayaking, John Wilde enjoys many other outdoor activities including whitewater paddling, bushwalking and cross-country skiing.