Survival Case Studies: Alone on the Water

Help is coming. In two more days.

Jul 12, 2012
Outside Magazine
alone on the water sharks

   Photo: Illustration by Kagan McLeod

The most terrifying thing about sharks is how silent their approach is. It was 1 a.m., and for 40 hours I’d been stranded on my kiteboard in the Red Sea, waiting for the wind to pick up.

Last year I completed the first-ever kiteboard crossing of the Baltic Sea, and this time I was trying to cross the Red Sea, a 124-mile trip from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. Everything looked perfect. The sun was shining, my weather team predicted consistent northwest winds at 25 to 28 knots the entire way, and I had packed light.

But after eight hours of steady cruising, just 18 miles from the Saudi coast, the wind shut off like someone unplugged it. I triggered my SOS device and hoped to be rescued.

It was night in whitetip shark territory when the first two appeared, circling me at a distance. I was a sitting duck.

I spread the kite out to appear bigger and climbed on top of it, praying they’d leave me alone. I watched them take bites out of the nylon. I knew I was the next course and switched into survival mode. I tied the nine-inch tactical knife to my right hand so I wouldn’t drop it and prepared for battle.

For the next seven hours I was on full alert, using my board as a shield and stabbing the sharks under the dorsal fin each time they circled by. Their skin is incredibly thick, and you can feel their massive power gliding by, like a truck coasting in neutral. When they started attacking me from underneath I got aggressive, with jabs to the head and face. I’d heard the nose was sensitive, so I went for that when I could. The water was churning furiously all around me.

Once I scared the first two away, my confidence was high, which was good, because more came. Eleven in all. Some were light gray, some were black, others had stripes, and all were ugly. I fought them off until sunrise.

Later that day, the Saudi coast guard finally showed up, 50 hours after I sent out my SOS.

Expert advice from George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research

1. Get big. Show the shark you’re as big and aggressive as it is. You don’t want to play dead; you want to yell and fight back.

2. Arm yourself. Sharkskin is extremely coarse and can easily cut yours, which you want to avoid. (Blood triggers sharks’ predatory instincts.) Use whatever you’ve got—flipper, camera, knife—to repeatedly jab the shark in the head, ideally in the nose, gills, or eyeballs.

3. Use karate. Open-palm shots to the shark’s nose are most effective, because they transfer momentum better than closed-fist punches. They also deflect upward, whereas punching has a natural downward trajectory that’s likely to follow through into the shark’s mouth.

4. Get a good angle. If you’re scuba diving, back up against a reef or a wall to reduce the angle of attack. Attacks from below are the hardest to defend.

5. Don’t panic. Sharks know easy prey when they see it, so don’t thrash or swim irregularly. Get out of the situation as gracefully as possible.