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A Heaven-Sent Wave, Perfectly Timed

He thought it was a harbor seal. He was wrong. It was a shark. And it attacked. Now he had just minutes to live

Scott Stephens stands on the beach, surfboard under his arm.

October 30, 2012. high tide. Calm offshore winds. Clean six-foot waves. A beautiful morning to surf. I stood on the north jetty at the entrance to Humboldt Bay and gazed out at the ocean. Shore birds flew in formation, almost shimmering in the sunlight.

I loved being out here in nature, in touch with something greater than myself.

There were maybe 20 guys already in the water at Bunkers, where waves break on a sandbar just north of the jetty. I watched them for a while, gauging the temperament of the ocean before zooming in on the perfect spot.

A little farther than usual, but hey, why not? I had my new insulated, hooded Xcel wet suit to protect me from the chill. I pulled it on, grabbed my short board and hit the water, letting the current take me out.

I bypassed the ankle busters and paddled to where the waves break deep, about 500 yards from shore. I surfed good A-frames for an hour and a half. Then I caught three in a row, putting me some distance down the beach from everyone else. Sweet.

By then the 20 boarders had dwindled to 10. Just one more wave and then I’ll go in too, I thought. I paddled all the way back out.

Out of the corner of my left eye, I glimpsed a black shadow beneath the surface of the water. Probably a harbor seal. When I moved here to California’s North Coast, six months earlier, I noticed the large population of seals.

As I reached out my left arm to take another stroke, a heavy weight landed on my back. The seal? Within seconds I was dragged under. This was no seal. Whatever it was, it had ahold of my torso. I opened my eyes underwater.

Shark! I was face-to-face with a shark. A great white. In 13 years of surfing, I’d never seen a shark. Here I was, staring one in the eye. That eye was huge, the size of a baseball. And it was locked on me.

It whipped its head from side to side, shaking me like a dog with a toy.

Do something or you’re gonna die!

I torqued my body and punched the shark as hard as I could behind its right eye. It was like smashing my fist into concrete. But all of a sudden, the shark let me go and swam away. Maybe it realized I wasn’t a seal and gave up. Maybe it was going to circle back for me. I wasn’t sticking around to find out.

I surfaced. I was 400 yards out. My board was floating five feet away. Must have popped out from under me when the shark snatched me and severed the leash. I grabbed the board. Whoa, that’s a massive chunk it bit off. That’s when it hit me that the shark must have taken a big chunk out of me too.

Why didn’t I feel any pain? Was I in shock?

One thing I knew: I had to get to shore. I lay on the board on my stomach and started paddling. Both my arms seemed to be working. Gingerly I felt my torso. The wet suit, the flesh were shredded. Man, did it take my whole left side? I was too scared to look.

But I could see my blood. Red misting in the water. Pooling on my board.

I spotted a few surfers 150 yards away. “Help!” I screamed. “Help!”

No one looked. Could anyone even hear me over the roar of the waves? I screamed louder. Paddled faster than I ever had in my life. But I wasn’t going anywhere fast. I’d take a few strokes toward shore only to have the current push me back.

How long could I keep fighting it? It seemed like it had taken hours to go a couple of hundred yards.

“Help!” I cried again. Now my voice was so faint, I could barely hear it. My paddling slowed. My strength was ebbing, draining out of me like my blood. I rested my cheek on the board for a moment, trying to gather myself.

Then I sensed the temperament of the ocean shift. The shark, smelling my blood and coming back to finish me off? I didn’t look back. If I’m going out, I’m going out trying.

I took as deep a breath as I could, reached out my right arm and put everything I had into one clean stroke. Something made the water swell behind me. I kept my eyes pointed toward shore–a hundred yards away–and braced myself. I knew this time when those jagged teeth ripped into me, I would feel it.

My board rose. I glanced down. Not a shark. A wave.

Breaking at just the right time. In just the right spot. I caught the white water. The force of the wave was enough to carry me back to shore.

Another surfer grabbed my board and helped me onto the beach.

“A shark bit me,” I gasped. “I need to get to the hospital. Now.” He went to flag down a truck.

I dropped to my knees, wrapped my surfboard leash around my midsection to try to stanch the bleeding. It didn’t work. Deep gashes ran from my armpit to my hip. Blood soaked the side of my wet suit. I rolled onto my good side.

More surfers ran up to help. They dialed 911. One guy, an off-duty EMT, lay down on top of me, using his body weight to slow the bleeding. The pressure hurt so bad, I screamed.

“If you can feel pain, that’s a good sign,” he said. “Scream all you want.”

Someone pulled up in a truck.

“We can’t wait for the ambulance! Put him in the back.”

The off-duty EMT and another guy got in with me and kept pressure on my wounds, using beach towels. The driver took off, speeding across the dunes. I felt every bump, the pain excruciating.

“Oh my God…Oh my God…” I whispered, trying not to pass out.

Halfway to the hospital the ambulance met us. The EMTs loaded me in and started transfusing blood into me.

We got to the emergency room in less than half an hour. The head surgeon happened to be on duty. The staff cut my wet suit off, prepped me and rushed me into the OR.

I woke up in the recovery room. The surgeon told me that I had seven large lacerations, some a foot long. But the shark’s teeth missed my arteries and internal organs. And they were so sharp that the cuts had clean edges and were easy to stitch and staple back together.

“You are very lucky to be alive,” the surgeon said.

I knew it was more than luck. There was a higher power at work. One that I’d sensed whenever I was in the great outdoors, but I’d never felt directly till now.

What else could have swept through the ocean right when my own strength failed and created the perfect wave to carry me to shore, but the mighty hand of God?


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