ON THE AFTERNOON of July 30, 2012, my 16-year-old son and I arrived at Ballston Beach in Truro, ready to bodysurf. JJ and I took in the wide expanse of sand dotted with colorful umbrellas, the hundreds of sunbathers, and the sharp blue of the open ocean. It surprised us, given the hot sun, how few people were in the water.
This was our favorite beach, where I had taught bodysurfing to my two sons when they were little. We had been coming to Truro from Colorado every year since they could remember. I, too, had learned to bodysurf here, at the age of 8, from my own dad. JJ, the younger of my sons, is an avid soccer player with a body toned by weight lifting and running. Although in decent shape for 50, I had grown used to my two “boys” being able to beat me in nearly every sport.
We studied the water and could see a white line of surf parallel to the beach, about 400 yards from shore, made by waves breaking on a submerged sandbar. “That,” I told JJ, “is our spot.” We dove headfirst into the crisp water and swam rapidly for 10 minutes. At 300 yards from shore, we stopped to rest. JJ asked me how deep the water was. I blew the air from my lungs and descended feet first, making snow-angel motions with my arms to get down to the ocean floor. I was unable to reach bottom. Running low on breath, I kicked to the surface and told him, “I can’t touch.”
JJ asked, “What happens if a shark comes along while we’re out here?” I smiled, since this was the furthest thing from my mind, and said, “Well, we’d be history.” JJ laughed, and we continued to swim.
At 400 yards, the water was still over our heads and we could no longer see the line of surf at the sandbar. My son’s question about sharks had planted a seed of doubt in my mind. I told him, “I think we better head back.” We were treading water, preparing to turn around, when I was hit from below. I felt sharp teeth rip into both my legs at once. Powerful jaws crushed down on my left ankle. Intense pain shot from my legs to the top of my skull. I heard myself scream.
I knew right away that it was a shark and that it was pulling me down. I couldn’t see what was happening under the water. But I could tell that my left ankle was caught hard by something shockingly heavy and that my right leg was free. I began using my right foot to kick at the creature with all my strength. I could feel my heel slamming into its nose and teeth. I was kicking at something massive and immovable — like an underwater refrigerator covered in skin. After seven or eight blows, the jaws opened, and I was suddenly free.
Several seconds passed.
JJ and I were no more than 5 feet apart. The shark rose out of the water, displaying itself in full profile right between us. We saw 2 or 3 feet of its dark-gray back, then the huge dorsal fin, then several more feet of back, before the fish descended beneath the surface and disappeared. We had seen 8 or 9 feet of shark — and that was only the middle section. I felt as if I were in a slow-motion scene from a horror movie, with the creature looking too enormous and too “sharky” to be believed.
For a moment, we were frozen. Then, with no words exchanged, we began swimming toward shore. I felt fear but no pain. I experienced almost superhuman strength in my lungs, arms, and legs. JJ was swimming hard at my side and periodically yelling to shore for help. But we were so far out that no one could hear.
After five minutes of steady swimming, we were 200 yards from the beach, the two of us still side by side. I began to feel lightheaded and weak. I wondered if it was from losing blood. I could see people clustered by the shoreline pointing toward us, but the water was empty. Our only option was to keep swimming. As we got within 50 yards of shore, three young men swam out to meet us. They placed a boogie board under JJ’s chest and guided him in while I continued to swim. When I saw JJ reach the beach, and my own fingers touched sand, I felt a surge of relief and joy.
As I rose to my feet to climb out of the water, I felt a sharp pain in both legs and collapsed. Several men responded, supporting my arms with their shoulders and helping me sit down with my legs flat before me. I looked for the first time at my shins and feet, which were dripping with blood. They were mangled but intact. In the three deepest wounds I could see exposed flesh and fat. I asked JJ, “Are you OK?” and he said that he was.
People quickly gathered around. One woman, a nurse, put towels under my legs and propped up my feet with a boogie board that was turned on its side. Others guided my shoulders down to the sand. Lying flat on my back, I looked up at the blue sky and a forest of legs. Several people wrapped my legs in towels and scarves. A man pushed through the crowd, shouting, “I am a surgeon.” He directed the nurse and another man to make tourniquets and put pressure on my arteries with their thumbs. A man of about 40, kind and calm, sat by my left side and held my shoulder.
I looked for JJ, who was sitting by my right side. His strong body was unscratched, but his face was white and etched with concern. I wanted to reassure him. As our eyes met, I took his hand and smiled, “Well, JJ, I guess we’re not history.” His eyes crinkled and shone brightly, and he squeezed my hand. Ten minutes before the EMTs arrived, I knew we were going to be just fine.
THAT DAY, I suffered lacerations, nerve damage, and severed tendons. All are now healed. After months of rehab, I have recovered full use of my legs. I received wonderful medical care from Truro paramedics, Cape Cod Hospital, and Mass. General Hospital. Greg Skomal, the state’s leading shark expert, determined that I was bitten by a great white. This was the first confirmed shark attack in Massachusetts since 1936.
In July, one year later, I returned to Ballston Beach with my close friend Leni. (Soccer camps prevented JJ from joining me, but he plans to return in 2014.) At the entrance to the beach, signs have been placed warning of great white sharks in the area. It was good to see them posted and to know that the trauma JJ and I had experienced could prove useful to others.
Approaching the water’s edge, I felt a sense of foreboding. Nonetheless, I was determined to try to overcome my fear. With Leni watching from the shore, I dove in headfirst, swam no more than 20 feet, and scampered back to the safety of land.
JJ and I will never forget those terrifying moments in the water. Jagged scars give me a permanent reminder of the encounter. We have been humbled as ocean swimmers and have a great appreciation for the preciousness of life. We know how lucky we were.
Chris Myers grew up in Boston and lives in Denver. He is the CEO of Myers Learning, a company that teaches elementary school children to program computers through classes in animation and video game design. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.