Troubled Waters

Big wave-riding among the sharks of New Smyrna Beach -- the calm before NYC's storm

As of press time, the last reported attack here occurred August 19, when 17-year-old Becky Chapman was bitten on the leg as she surfed the Inlet. The bite was bad: It severed her Achilles tendon and tore out part of her calf.

Lukasik believes he may have encountered one since then. Just a couple of weeks ago, while Time magazine, The New York Times, and the rest of the heavy hitters were acting somewhat like media sharks and looking for their carnivorous cousins in New Smyrna, he was paddling out at the Inlet when his right hand struck a hard, rubbery, muscular object in the water.

"I know what a shark's skin feels like," he says, "and I punched it. It was definitely a sobering experience. I was so far out though already that there was nothing I could have done. It wasn't like, "Oh, shit! I'm going back in!' It was more, "You go your way, I'll go my way, and that's it.'"

JT chimes in that he has had his run-in with sharks as well. He was living in Costa Rica, and one day out in the deep, two sharks circled around him and literally stood watch, keeping him from paddling back to shore. They didn't charge him and eventually left, but he had what is construed in those parts as a Mexican standoff.

Today the surfers have not a care in the world. Both paddle about 30 yards out and catch six-to-eight-footers. And they ride the swells like specialists. JT hangs ten on a couple of occasions, meaning he walks to the nose of his board and dangles all ten of his toes over the tip, giving the sensation that he's flying out in front of the wave. Lukasik has a successful day with Lady Katie, catching all kinds of big breaks and at one point riding a wave all the way in to shore.

When the surfers walk down the abandoned beach to the Land Rover for a quick break around noon, a woman approaches and asks how long they've been out there. Since 8:30 a.m., they reply. Then she breaks the news of the attacks from the skies above New York City.

Wet and filled with a combination of disbelief and rage, everybody huddles around the Land Rover as Lukasik turns up his stereo to hear Dan Rather describe the details of the plane hijackings and the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. Lukasik, a former F-15 electronics specialist in Desert Storm, goes blank: All of the color drains from his face and body.

He listens for a solid half-hour, until the tropical depression delivers a full-blown storm. The waves start roaring with reckless abandon, and the rain pellets, coupled with the offshore winds, sting like horseflies. Lukasik and JT grab their boards and paddle out to the eye of the storm. This is how they cope with the news. Whereas before they were surfing for the sheer joy of being there, their chi projecting across the water, now they are hate-surfing. When they fall, they fall hard, the rough waters throwing them to the bottom of the deep. Their surfboard leashes act as some kind of life vests. Several times the surfers pull themselves to the water's surface from down below. They continue for about a half-hour, until the storm subsides and their shoulders and legs are no stronger than the jellyfish they strain to avoid.

"You know," says JT, "a couple of breaks here or there in life, and who knows where you'll be and when."

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