By Bernie Baker
Jim Rawlinson, a five-decade-long shaper, master carpenter, and Kauai resident was out for his daily surf at Hanalei Bay last Monday when the water around him, in his own words, “broke like a boat wake.” The next thing he knew he was sliding backward, down his board and toward the jaws of a “sizeable” tiger shark. We caught up with Jim in the days following the attack.
I guess you’ve redefined the term “jumping the shark”
Actually, he came from behind and hit me. I saw this boat wake and I thought to myself “oh god this is for real!” and my board went nose up and as I was in the air I slid down because there was nowhere else to go. I was straddling the shark’s back. I was sitting on him, in front of his dorsal. I couldn’t see his eyes, but I was thinking his nose isn’t as pointed as you think they are.
What was it like when you slid down and realized you were sitting on it?
When I was sitting on his back for those seconds and looking down at it I never saw his dorsal behind me. I was about two feet back from his nose. I think he was about two feet wide from how my legs were spread across him, like a horse. You know, I couldn’t see his eyes because I was on top, but I felt like there was some connection here and it was real peaceful, but I was alert. Then I thought I’d better get off before he starts moving and thrashing so I just slid off and moved away and I didn’t see him again.
What were you thinking when it first came up on you?
When it first hit me it was so powerful and then the next second my board was up in the air and I was on the shark’s back, just straddling him. At that point I said to myself “this is serious stuff, I’d better not make a mistake” and there were all of these slow-motion thoughts in my mind and I looked down at the shark and he was real calm and I was calm and there was almost like a peaceful connection. Then I thought to myself “I should undo my leash and start swimming” I didn’t realize the leash had already been bitten through when he took the tail block off, but I started swimming back over to my board and the shark was gone so I just got back on it.
Was that a reflex to take the leash off?
Well, the whole thing was that I had gone into survival mode in my mind and it was like a digital clock going off and it was like “ok, take your leash off and swim away, now.” I was sitting further to the point and then a friend came over and she was a little afraid and thought we should go in and another guy paddled up to me and said “God, man, I saw that!” I was thinking that swimming in to the shallow reef was safer than staying in the deeper water, but when I saw my board drifting and the shark was gone I swam over to it and stayed out about 45 minutes, trying to absorb it all and process it. I was also wondering what the shark was thinking with me on his back!
When you paddled in what was happening on the beach?
I caught a wave from the bowl and then worked my way in. People wanted to see my board, which was missing two fins. I was still a little in shock and survival mode but I remember that I never lost my composure, I just got real serious and thought not to make it any worse than it was.
You’ve been shaping for 50 years, would you say that he was built more like a fish template than a gun shape?
Uh, yeah, I think from underneath they look more pointed, but from above they’re more rounded. A marine biologist looked at the bite in my board and from the teeth marks said it was at least 14’ long, probably a tiger shark. There was a whale and its baby in the bay that morning so it could have been that the shark was aggressive because of that.
If you could redo it, would you have reacted differently?
No, in my particular frame of mind at that moment I was thinking that I can’t screw up on this so I’d do the same thing over again, but it all depends on which end of him I would land on.
Is the board going on display?
No, I haven’t decided yet, a researcher from NOAA is flying over to take some bite and blood samples from where he bit into the glass and foam. I’ll probably put it on exhibit somewhere later. Maybe even on my bedroom wall.
Have you surfed since the incident?
Yeah, I got into the water today with an old 9’6”. I only had that one board length so I gotta replace it. I paddled out to the same spot and swam down and touched the reef. I was observing the water a little more and I kind of lifted my feet a little bit. Everybody sat near me and one guy thought it was a blessing and it was a good luck thing. The community’s real supportive up here and now I know what a celebrity feels like. But I do feel more humbled and blessed—and a little connection with that shark when I was sitting on him. I was going to build another board but then I heard that Dick Brewer has offered to shape me a blank, but just the shape. I’ll have to go and get it glassed, but I may just take him up on it.
Photo: Terry Lilley / Saveourseas.org