It was a warm winter’s day in South Africa and I planned to go surfing at Nahoon Reef. I was 15 and had just finished my first day back at school after the winter break. The reef is famous among surfers for its powerful waves and popularity with sharks. If you see lots of birds diving into the reef or notice a strong fishy smell in the air, you should not surf there.
But on that day in July 2000, the waves were perfect, just over head high, and there was no wind. The water was warm for winter, too. The conditions were too good to resist.
The session started off well, but about an hour and a half in, my brother and some of my friends got out of the water because they felt uneasy; there was the faintest whiff of sardines, which can attract sharks. A few of us stayed in. Finally, I saw my first big wave, but as I was about to hit it, two four-metre great white sharks attacked me.
It happened so quickly that I had no idea what was going on. One shark hit me with a lot of force, throwing me into the air; in a split second, it grabbed my hand and surfboard in its jaws, dragging me under the water with it. The shock numbed the pain of its bite. Under the water, another shark swiped for my head and my shoulders, but missed, because the other had got me first.
That second shark ended up saving my life. Perhaps startled by the competition, the first shark lost its grip on me. I thought I was dreaming; everything seemed to slow down. I started to feel pain and the next thing I knew I was staring a shark straight in the face. I think the shark was confused because it stared back at me for a few moments as if in awe. Its mouth was wide open; I could see a huge set of teeth and a dark black eye. It bolted past me and I felt a shove from behind – it must have brushed along my back, but thankfully it had not bitten me. After it passed, I swam to the surface as fast as I could.
When I got there, I saw my surfboard lying in front of me with a bite mark on it. As I climbed on and pulled, I saw that my right hand was hanging off. It had a gaping hole in it and my wristbone was sticking out after the shark had bitten right through it. There was a tear in my wetsuit and blood was rushing out of my hands. I panicked, my adrenaline going into overdrive.
All the other surfers were paddling frantically towards the beach: no one stayed in the water to help me out. I was about 100 metres out at sea, all by myself, and the ocean went completely flat – there was no wave for me to catch.
When you surf at Nahoon, you always have the thought of sharks in the back of your mind. The reef is off the coast of the Eastern Cape, where most fatal shark attacks happen in Africa, and I had heard the stories: sharks going back for a second and third time to finish a surfer off. I was shaking, crying and panicking, seeing my life flash in front of me, realising that I could die and feeling as if I was in a nightmare.
Then, out of the blue, a big wave rocked up and I managed to ride it on my stomach, before paddling furiously for another 20 minutes through a deep-water channel. Every time I took a stroke, my fingers felt as if they were going to fall off. I could feel the water rushing through my bones, tendons and joints. The whole time, I was worried that the sharks would come back.
Eventually I made it to dry land. I felt a huge surge of a relief, but my wrist was bleeding severely. Someone tied my arm with a surfboard leg rope to slow the bleeding and my brother rushed me to hospital. I had to wait about five hours for surgery, but I was fortunate enough to have been assigned to one of the best hand surgeons in the country, who managed to sew my fingers back together. The shark had bitten through my arm as well as my wristbone, so that was in a cast for a while. I still have a scar on my right wrist, another on my pinkie and one on my ring finger that runs almost from the top to the tip.
That day changed my life, but it hasn’t stopped me surfing. After the attack, I started a surfing school in Jeffreys Bay and later relocated to Norway to teach the national surfing team. I was more afraid of sharks before my attack. Now I’m just grateful to be alive.