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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014

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Weekly New Thing: Surfing the Shark Capital of the World

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If you Googled the “shark capital of the world,” what is the first place you think would be listed? Somewhere far away? Exotic? Australia? Hawaii? Wrong. It's New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Just so happens to be the sleepy little town my family visits every year. It is an unpretentious, chillax town that has become our haven. It has our favorite "go to's" like Toni and Joe's for the world's best hoagie. Or Spanish River Grill for tapas, ambience and sangria. We live at the pool, with the Atlantic Ocean as our view. We walk the beach in the mornings and grab our coffee at our favorite little coffee shop. We visit our nostalgic surf shops like Quiet Flight for a pair of shades or Billabongwear. Or Inlet Charley's for a pair of Sanuks.

Prior to this annual trip, I emailed Inlet Charley's, a surf shop on Flagler Avenue, to inquire of surfing conditions. I also mentioned that last summer, friends from the UK took my son shorefishing, right in front of our condo. My son came running up the beach yelling. My first fear, as I ran towards him, was he had gotten caught in the hook. Nope. He caught a 2-foot white-tipped reef shark. A shark. For real? How nice. My first reaction was, "I didn't think they came that small." Brilliant. The email response I received stated, "It has been sharky at the lnlet but surfing is fine farther down the shore line. Just stay away from the Inlet and you will be fine." Sharky. Really? Because I can WALK to the Inlet from where we stay. I thought that was the funniest response. My friend Nat says that's like "scattered showers." Like 30%? 40% chance?

In further research and in talking with my husband, he said he wouldn't worry. He advised not to look at an aerial view before I head out. Brother-in-law Scotti said he went out to the sandbar and wouldn't think twice about worrying. So I went.

My two-hour class at Nichol's Surf Shop was incredibly comforting. Our instructor Mike said he would be the first one out among the four of us. And if anyone would get bit or grazed, it would be him. For $75, that was a kind gesture. We spent 40 minutes talking about safety and the tide. Then we practiced getting up on the board on land. I am a very visual person and in order for things to make sense, I need to see it in my head, follow the logic, understand why, then apply the feel. "Paddle hard, push up, slide your foot underneath you and shift your weight to the back foot." This is the opposite of snowboarding, where you shift your weight to the front foot, towards the hill. Mike also said this was probably the most difficult of those sports -- skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, boogie boarding, etc. -- because the wave and energy are different every time.

We set out for our morning swim. I forgot that I had to actually submerge my body in order to do this. I also forgot I didn't like being cold. Afraid I would feel something nipping at my ankle, I quick dunked my head under and followed my two other classmates. To get past the shoreline waves, we velcroed the tether around whichever ankle belonged to the "back foot" and dragged our board behind us like a dog on a leash. Then we paddled out to at least six feet of water. To overcome the incoming waves, we were taught to do a push up so the wave went between our bodies and the board.

We sat and waited for the waves to come. I found it was difficult to know what I was looking for. Mike told us to watch for when each started to stand, not simply roll in. When one came in, Mike turned my board, told me to paddle, then yelled, "Stand!" I stood, but I didn't get the "feel" for the energy of the wave underneath us. How "Point Break"-esque. Good ol' Patrick Swayze and neophyte Keanu Reeves. So I turned to my visualization. I knew I would not be able to stand without control. So the only way to gain control is to keep a low center of gravity, therefore, don't focus on the stand at all. If I had to, I needed to keep my hands on the board.

I tried a few more times and it worked. I went back to catch Mike and my classmates for one more wave. They were quiet. I asked if lessons were over and they said, "No." After a few minutes of silence, Lauren another student said, "There's something out here." Oh. Well, note to self. I better get my ankles on the board and tuck in my toes. Then get out of the fringe and head to the human that is in the water - Mike. As he graciously offered, he would be the first. They said it was something dark and surfaced. Probably a manatee. I wondered if that was Japanese for "Jaws." Lauren explained they were cute, sweet creatures like sea cows. Again, Japanese for "Cujo?"

Mike explained that he has surfed here for years and that sharks come near him all the time. Injuries were typically from being grazed, not bitten. And we should remember that we were in their home and habitat. That was a neat way to look at it, actually. They were not the intruders, we were. When I saw this ocean as a place to be respected, I was at peace. We went for one more wave and headed in.

It saddens me every year to say goodbye to this haven. Maybe I’ll try the Inlet next year….

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