Two Maine surfers were catching waves off the coast of Oregon when they came face to face with death, in the form of many people’s worst nightmare: a shark.
“We were chillin’ in the moment, taking it all in,” 25-year-old Andrew Gardiner of Eliot said. “And I just felt this hard knock to my board. It’s kind of indescribable. Usually you feel hard knocks from waves or your tail bouncing. This was different — like banging up against cement.”
Gardiner twisted to look behind him, and he was greeted by the sight of a shark gnawing on the tail of his surfboard.
“I saw the top of his head and an eyeball,” he said. “I didn’t register it was actually happening. Fight or flight kicked in … I looked back at him and I just thought, ‘I gotta go.’”
With the safety of Gleneden Beach 50 yards away, Gardiner and his friend, 26-year-old Nolan Collins of York, faced a race neither had expected.
Gardiner remembers the shark shaking the board left, then right before he was thrown into the water.
“So I’m now in the water, and I realize it’s a shark,” he said. “I went straight for the beach. I didn’t know if the board was still attached to my foot.”
Collins, who sat on his surfboard nearby, turned to see his friend treading water. At first, he assumed Gardiner had been spooked by a curious seal, which had happened earlier that week. Then he saw the dorsal fin.
Gardiner began to panic when he saw the expression on his friend’s face.
“I just see his eyes light up,” Gardiner said. “And I think, oh God, this is it. I’m going to get eaten right here, have my legs chomped on. Just the worst feeling you could ever have.”
Gardiner swam to his friend, who reached down and grabbed his arm. Together, they paddled toward the beach as if their lives depended on it — because they did.
“Those moments literally lasted forever, even though it happened in the blink of an eye,” Gardiner said. “That swim was just crazy. I thought Nolan was going to be playing tug of war with me and the shark at any moment.”
Gardiner remembers Collins looking up at a wave rolling toward them and saying, “This is the one that’s going to take us in.”
The same powerful waves they’d been surfing tossed them ashore, where they walked, arm-in-arm from the water and collapsed on the sand.
“There were tears in my eyes,” Gardiner said. “It was such an intense emotional experience, all I could do was lay there on the beach.”
After a few moments, he looked down at his ankle. The leash that had attached him to his surfboard was still there — partially. About 10 inches of cord, frayed at the end, dangled from his leg.
Eventually, they walked to the beach parking lot and called the U.S. Coast Guard to report the shark. They then began their search for a boat that would take them on a search for Gardiner’s favorite surfboard — a 6½-foot long, wooden shortboard built by Grain, a Maine-based company that both men work for.
They found an available skipper at Dockside Charters in nearby Depoe Bay.
“I was just stumbling around here in my charter office, minding my own darn business,” Loren Goddard said. “And I got a phone call from one of the fellas.
“They told me what was going on, that they had a close call with a shark and were unwilling to go into the water themselves to retrieve the board, which was worth about $1,800 or so. They really wanted to get it back — if they could do so without getting eaten.”
In his 36-foot cruiser, the “Affair,” Goddard motored the two surfers along the coast. An hour into the search, they spotted the damaged board, floating among debris and seabirds close to shore about a mile north of the attack site.
“The board was indeed displaying teeth marks,” said Goddard.
As they lifted the board from the ocean, water poured from its cedar frame. The hollow interior had been punctured. The fin was gone — eaten or destined to become driftwood. An arc of teeth marks scarred the tail of the board, spanning 13 inches at its widest point.
“It’s highly unlikely that it was a salmon shark, which we do have, but very likely that it was a great white [shark],” Goddard said. “And a couple of days ago, we had a couple of sightings of another great white in that area.”
Great whites are the largest predatory fish on Earth, growing to an average of 15 feet in length and weighing up to 5,000 pounds, according to National Geographic. Of the 100-plus annual shark attacks worldwide, up to 50 percent are attributed to great whites. However, most of these attacks are not fatal, and the word “sample biting” has been used by researchers to describe great whites releasing rather than preying on humans.
Gardiner recalls the solid grey back of his attacker, which also supports it being a great white, which has a slate-grey upper body to blend in with the rocky coastal sea floor. It gets its name from its white underbelly.
“I’ve never really had a fear of sharks,” Gardiner said. “I thought ‘Jaws’ was funny. I didn’t think it was a big deal — but it’s everything you’d imagine. It’s a giant shark. I’ve learned I’m just a part of the world and there are animals out there that can eat you.”
After recovering the board, Gardiner and Collins hit the road and turned on some upbeat music, eager to leave the scary situation behind. Instead of rehashing the story to family and friends on the East Coast, they turned off their phones. Nevertheless, the news spread like wildfire through social media, starting with a story on a local news website in Oregon.
Two days later, they stood on a beach in northern California, ready to face their fears and return to a sport they both love.
“It was spooky at first,” Gardiner said. “That was really hard, to get back in the water. Every wave was a party wave that day; we were like, ‘if you’re going, I’m going.’ We just cruised the waves together, and we didn’t stay out very long.”
Gardiner and Collins surfed nearly every day after that.
“The fact that a shark had to come up and screw up our day sucks, but if I didn’t go surfing anymore, I wouldn’t be doing what I love, and that’s basically not living to me, it’s not being alive or human,” Gardiner said. “It’s the only way to get over something like that. The longer you let it linger, the more it’s going to get in your head and you’ll lose touch about what you’re actually out there for.”
He has considered taking his damaged board to a shark expert to get the bite marks examined. And he also plans to write a blog post about the experience; that way, he won’t have to repeat the story as many times.
While he understands that people want to hear his story, he also doesn’t want to dwell on what happened on an otherwise perfect day spent doing what he loves.
“I feel it’s something I shouldn’t tell a ton or think about all the time,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote by Gardiner to Collins. It should read: “There were tears in my eyes,” Gardiner said. “It was such an intense emotional experience, all I could do was lay there on the beach.”