Shark scares surfer from water during elite San Francisco competition

The world’s top surfers gathered this week for the first-ever ASP World Tour competition in San Francisco. They knew they’d have to contend with possible fog, bone-chilling wind and water temperatures.

They did not figure on sharks coming into play, but only four heats into Tuesday’s opening round, Hawaii’s Dusty Payne was frightened out of the water after spotting what he described as “the biggest fin I’ve ever seen in my life coming at me.”

The surfer assured, “I’ve seen dolphins and it wasn’t a dolphin.”

Payne was competing against South Africa’s Jordy Smith, who remained in the water long enough to easily win the heat.

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Lifeguards and rangers patrolled the lineup in an inflatable boat during a brief interruption and as the Rip Curl Search competition resumed. But one Bay Area shark expert questioned the wisdom of holding a surf contest in San Francisco at a time of year when dozens of white sharks are gathered at the Farallon Islands, 25 miles offshore, to fatten up on seals and sea lions.

“You wouldn’t hold a blind hop-scotch competition on the interstate freeway. You just wouldn’t do it because it’s insane,” said Patric Douglas, a commercial shark-diving tour operator and CEO of the Shark Diver company. “You could also say it’s a middle finger to the white sharks, because it’s their habitual range, and the arrogance to assume that nothing is going to go on … the fact that they saw a fin should have closed that contest out.”

San Francisco is within the so-called Red Triangle, which extends from Bodega Bay north of San Francisco to just beyond the Farallon Islands, to just south of Monterey. The triangle is notorious white shark habitat.

On Saturday a surfer was bitten by what is believed to have been a large white shark just north of Monterey. He sustained moderate injuries to his shoulder and neck and the shark tore a 19-inch chunk from his board. Since 1926, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File, there have been four unprovoked attacks off San Francisco, 10 off Marin County and nine off Monterey. The last fatal attack off San Francisco occurred in 1959.

But surfers are a different lot and realize the danger posed by sharks. The Rip Curl competition is being staged at Ocean Beach, where ordinary surfers grace the lineup on a given day, when there are waves.

The ASP World Tour features events in South Africa, Hawaii, Australia, Tahiti and other locations known as being shark haunts. Besides, the implications of the Rip Cur event are huge, as Kelly Slater is trying to clinch his 11th world title.

Most tour surfers have seen sharks, but not massive great whites, which Payne claims to have seen.

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When asked about how shark sightings might affect competitions, ASP spokesman Dave Prodan forwarded a rule that explains heats can be stopped when the is “extreme danger potential as decided by a majority of the Contest Director, the ASP Head Judge and Surfer Representative.”

Article 106.02 states, “If a Surfer feels they are in danger due to shark or similar creature attack and they leave the water the head judge must stop the heat and use the above procedure [continuous horn blasts] to warn fellow heat surfers, even if the head judge can’t see the danger.”

That did not happen Tuesday, Prodan explained, because the incident occurred toward the end of the heat and “there wasn’t ample time for the [Payne] to advise the contest directors of the situation, so there was no heat stop.”

Smith, however, was well aware of what was going on. “I saw his face and he was spooked,” Smith said of Payne.

The Rip Curl event will run over the next several days, barring incident.

— Images showing Dusty Payne (top, in action, and bottom wearing cap) and the contest venue at Ocean Beach are courtesy of ASP/ Cestari/Kirstin

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