“Swim towards the shark!”
Nick was in shock.
“Bro…you gotta swim towards that shark!”
Nick was clumsily and frantically focused in trying to find refuge somewhere on the back of his friend Jacob.
He paused, arms locked around Jacob’s neck and finally breathed out.
He looked down and saw a constant thin stream of red water near him.
Everything was in slow motion.
He had a foreign, metallic taste in his mouth which made him frown.
Nick and Jacob were now floating somewhere on the northern coast of Kauai in Kalihiwai Bay. Off the beaten path and usually free of tourists, it was an ideal spot after an exhausting day trimming trees in the many resorts on the luscious garden isle.
They had set out earlier in the day past the smaller waves with the goal to tackle its epic right-point break fueled by the massive seasonal swells.
Straddling their boards in the light chop as they waited for the waves, they laughed and talked about an upcoming outrigger competition they just entered.
Nick suddenly felt an incredible force from below drive him out of the water and thrust him several feet into the air.
As he crashed violently backed down into the water, he felt a sharp pinch on his left leg followed by intense pressure that was tugging his body under the water.
And then he saw the eye.
The eye that momentarily showed itself before it was covered by a gray membrane and disappeared into the creature’s head. The creature stayed glued tightly to Nick’s upper calf as he punched and beat his fists on the slippery head.
The loud struggle and splashing of the attack was followed just as abruptly by the 12 foot tiger shark unexpectedly releasing Nick’s leg as it sunk beneath the water.
Nick bobbed in the water for a moment before darting with several awkward and broad strokes until he reached the “safety” of Jacob’s small 6 foot board.
Nick finally heard the full volume of Jacob’s ridiculous commands as Jacob pried Nick’s arms off of him while also quickly swiveling his head back and forth around the waterline anticipating another attack.
”“Cuz, you have to get back into the water and swim towards that thing or you are dead!”
Nick said nothing. He sobered and carefully slipped back into the water and reached for his nearby overturned board.
He knew what he had to do. There was no choice.
Everyone raised in the area is taught what to do from an early age. Usually their Tutu Kane – their grandfather – is the first one to teach them how to deal with the Niuhi, or the “man-eaters.”
Nick just never dreamed he’d actually have to do it for real.
He spread his arms onto the back of his board, the nose of the board facing away from him.
And they waited. The only sound was the waves slapping against their exposed upper bodies and their boards. Nick stared down around him and noted how the blood from his leg seemed to mix with the water in a constant, symmetrical spiral pattern as it trailed behind him towards the shore.
The shark finally showed himself in the form of his sinister dorsal fin about 100 feet from where Jacob and Nick bobbed. It gracefully circled widely once and then began its steady swim back towards them.
Nick exhaled loudly, pressed down with his toned arms on the tail of his board – the nose of the surfboard momentarily lurching from the water – and then began his motion forward, kicking slowly at first and then gaining speed, on a course to intercept and joust the intruding beast head-on.
Jacob watched his good friend paddle away from him with an unfamiliar and steely-eyed determination.
That was Nick.
I first met Nick and Jacob during a recent trip with my wife to Kauai. We stayed at an old planation cottage on the secluded west side of island.
I was awakened in the early tropical morning by the sound of a large whoosh and snapping of brush falling to the ground outside of our window.
I ran out to investigate. The creaking screen door of my cottage slamming behind me.
Nick was 75 feet high near the top of a large, slender coconut tree next to a clearing by the water. The tree lazily eased back and forth from the trade winds. He was trimming the bushy fronds with a large machete that slung from his oversized leather belt. He would use pole gaffs to slow-walk up the trunks of the narrow trees. The trees had to be trimmed of their fronds and coconut fruit. Coconuts could be more dangerous than sharks, island legend says. More people have died from falling coconuts than by shark attack and it was commonly pronounced as gospel. Whether actually true or not, the dense, heavy fruit and fronds of these trees certainly needed to be harvested regularly. And the resorts paid handsomely for their trees to look postcard perfect.
It was a dangerous job. Not only because of the height, but because of the risk of the fragile trees snapping. Coconut trees trunks are solid until about half of their length. Then the success of climbing to the top depends on the feel and the sound that only an experienced trimmer knows.
”Like a skillful piano tuner – using only their seasoned ear to distinguish irregularities, so too does Nick listen and feel for the safe drum tones and vibrations as he climbs higher and higher.
He said he has only “misread” one tree in his 15 years of tree trimming. It was at a ritzy resort on the windy north shore of the island near Hanalei Bay. He was 60 feet up when he heard an unfamiliar and perverse sound as dug his one of his gaffs into the trunk. A loud snap crackled in the morning air as he felt gravity take over as he slowly fell to the earth. He quickly tried to hug the tree as it gave way but instead broke free and he bounced onto a nearby awning of the hotel before rolling off and falling another 15 feet onto the ground.
Dazed and feeling pain in his shoulder from the fall, he stumbled slowly to his nearby truck and sat quietly on the open tailgate and numbly stared forward.
Hotel guest and workers quickly swarmed him incredulously asking if he was ok and relaying the story to him and each other with their moving hands.
Nick waved them off, took a large swig of water from the mouth of his cooler, gingerly stood up and stretched his back, and then calmly grabbed his chainsaw so he could clean up the mess of the fallen tree he had just made.
That was Nick.
He even made the local papers for that one. He proudly pulled out a tattered clipping secured to the underside of the sun visor of his truck to show me.
His tree trimming partner and best friend Jacob laughed as Nick relayed the story to me. He waved his hand in the air mid-story as he walked back to his work and said he only carries that clipping around hoping that someone will ask him if he ever fell.
Of course I bit.
I said it looked like obviously dangerous work. How did he reconcile his fear of another tree snapping and that there most likely wouldn’t be any lucky awnings to break his fall the next time around?
”He smiled broadly and said, “Because life is about swimming towards the shark, brother! Always towards the sharks and never away from them!”
“Sharks? What does climbing trees have to do with a shark?” I asked.
“When you’re young, the older surfers and Kapunas (elders) teach you that if you ever get attacked by a shark, the only way you will survive is to do the opposite of what your head is telling you to do.”
Nick explained that a reasonable person who faces danger freezes, panics, and tries to get away from it as fast as possible. But dealing with sharks in the open water is much different.
You simply can’t panic and swim away towards shore.
You can’t sit on your board and wait it out for help either.
If you do either of these, the shark will sense your fear and frantic motions and chase you down.
“And then you’re “fish grindz,” he said with a grin – the food the small fish feed on around a reef.
“The only way to give yourself a chance to survive against a big shark is to swim right at it. Use your arms and try to make yourself bigger than you are or…use your board and head straight toward it like a lolo game of chicken. My grandfather taught me that the only way to deal with the Niuhi, the big man-eaters like Tigers and Great Whites, is to swim right at them and don’t show them any fear.”
”“You have to chance ‘em.”
“Chance ‘em?” I asked. “Not familiar with that term.”
Nick said, “’Chance ‘em’ is Hawaiian for, ‘go for it’ or ‘head straight at it’ and usually involves doing something in your life with great substance. It’s a philosophy and way of life for dealing with the things that are trying to mash you or hold you back in your life. Know what I mean?
Because sometimes you just have to muscle up and say ‘chance ‘em’ at whatever fear you have!’”
Using the word “chance” when dealing with sharks somehow just didn’t feel right to me.
As Nick paddle-kicked his way directly into the path of the oncoming shark, he readied his tired arms to steer and jam his board into the snout at the right moment and as hard as he could muster.
The shark caused a slight wake with its snout slightly out of the water as its massive tail wailed back and forth for thrust.
Finally, as it closed the distance, the shark’s mouth came out of the water and its jaws opened slightly toward Nick.
Nick held his breath and pushed the nose of his board hard into the bridge and mouth of the beast.
Nick felt the shark’s power push him backwards in the water but hung on to his board and garnered the strength to jam it once again forcefully into the beak of the large fish. This time the shark reeled back abruptly and then swung its large tail around before finally diving under the water.
Nick exhaled and rested his head briefly on his damaged board. He smiled as he surprised himself with his newly awakened desire to go yet another round with the shark.
But the shark never reappeared.
He swung his head and searched for Jacob who was seated upright on his board, straining himself to stretch higher as he peaked over the waves that bobbed up and down.
When he knew for sure that he caught Jacob’s eye, Jacob grinned broadly and slapped the water wildly and waved his arms back and forth yelling, “Yeah boy!”
Nick remembered he was hurt and reached down and felt the large gash in his leg. He had to get out of water. He hopped on his board and paddled towards Jacob. He thrust his arm towards Jacob who greeted him with a enthusiastic forearm handshake.
They both were shaking with shock, cold, and adrenaline when they finally exited the rough surf and collapsed onto the sand.
”Nick says he thinks about that shark every day. He is always waiting for it come back. He says it reappears in his life a lot and in different forms; from a large, sketchy tree to trim, to a 7 mile outrigger race in the open water, to his efforts in trying to secure new clients, or in even struggling with a difficult family member. He knows how to truly face any fear and anxiety in his life now.
Of course the large souvenir gash in his leg makes it hard to ever forget that shark and what it taught him.
He said he wouldn’t trade that scar for anything in the world.
As we said our goodbyes and shook hands and took pictures, I asked him one last question.
“What’s your secret, Nick? What lesson would you give to my kids?”
”He paused for a moment before grinning and said, “Tell them that the more often you face down a shark, the more your confidence awakens. And the happier you will become. It’s the way of the warrior. Do this enough and you become a “Kapuna” – or a wise elder in the ways of living truth – and then you can then help the others fight their sharks too.”
Thanks, Nick. Got it.
Chance ‘em…damn straight!