On Sunday, July 22, the Tommy Zahn Memorial Paddleboard Race turned into a battle for life and death as two competitors fought off an aggressive 12-foot shark with their bare hands, and one paddle.
The Tommy Zahn Paddleboard race is dedicated to one of the all-time great Los Angeles County watermen and in 1997 it became a part of the Malibu Boardrider’s Club Call to the Wall surfing competition.
I paddled up and over the shark with my board and started swinging. I was screaming at the shark and bumping it with my board and hitting it on the nose but I had no idea if that was scaring the shark or making it more aggressive.
This year, 45 paddlers in six classes, including Men’s and Women’s Standup, left the Zuma Beach lifeguard tower at 9:00 AM on Sunday for a 10-mile downwind race that is considered middle distance by experienced paddlers.
One of the Standup Paddlers was 47-year-old Vic Calandra who, halfway through the race, was a contender for the Bronze. “I was vying for third with a stand up paddler,” Calandra said, three days after his Close Encounter of the Jaws kind. “There were two guys in front of me and I was about even with another guy who was about 300 yards farther out than I was. We were almost to the incline where Malibu Road starts and I was about a mile and a quarter offshore. The ocean was completely glassy when I heard something cut the water. That is not unusual because you see and hear all kinds of things when you are paddling. Usually it’s a seal or sea lion or a dolphin or sometimes a fish breaking the surface, but a shark is always in the corner of your mind. This had a different noise so I stopped paddling and turned around and saw something big in the water about 30 feet behind me. It had a different kind of surface track and I thought it might be a dolphin, but the fin kept coming out of the water until it was 18 to 24 inches high.”
Calandra was essentially alone, more than a mile offshore, and he had no doubt that a very large shark was tracking him. “I veered quickly to the right because I have a steering mechanism on the board, but the fin tracked with me for another 50 to 100 yards and closed in to 10 feet. That’s when the melee began. Four or five times the shark approached me from behind or laterally. It looked like a small submarine, the way the water was running off the back of it, on both sides of the fin. I slapped at the water with my paddle just as the shark turned on its side. I got a full look at its belly and the full mouth and its head and eyes. The shark was about two feet under the water but I was about six feet above the surface and I saw all of it. I would say it was 12 feet long, but it was the girth of the shark that really impressed me. Those things are just huge.”
Calandra and the shark engaged in a deadly little dance with Calandra dropping to his knees for balance so he wouldn’t fall in, then standing up to see where the shark was and slap at it with his paddle. He did this for several minutes, more than a mile out to sea, until other paddlers came within range.
Joey Everett, a 37-year old LA County Lifeguard stationed at Zuma Beach, was paddling an 18-foot paddleboard and was about six back in the pack when his race was transformed into a different kind of battle. “Vic was outside of me and I could hear him yelling for help. I didn’t know what was wrong at first but when I was about 100 yards away I did a push up and saw a fin. I kept paddling and when I was about 50 yards away I saw the shark swimming aggressively. When I was about 25 yards away I saw the shark bumping the tail of Vic’s board.”
Faced with the fight or flight option, Everett’s training took over and he did the ocean equivalent of charging a machine gun nest. “We have a little training in situations like this at the lifeguard academy. It says in the manual to hit a shark on the head and the nose. So I went by the book, figuring if we could get the shark off Vic’s tail we might have a chance. What happened next was like a barfight. I paddled up and over the shark with my board and started swinging. I was screaming at the shark and bumping it with my board and hitting it on the nose but I had no idea if that was scaring the shark or making it more aggressive.”