Troubled Waters

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

The smooth, mellow sounds of the Grateful Dead reverberate throughout Luke Lukasik's black Land Rover in the early morning hours as he winds from his home in Port Orange toward New Smyrna Beach, 50 miles northeast of Orlando. "Ripple" is the song of choice this morning, from a recently released copy of Ladies and Gentlemen... The Grateful Dead: Fillmore East New York City April 1971; it was produced a year after Lukasik was born.

The windows are down, the sunroof is open, and the lyrics hit the outside world loud and crisp. "If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine," Jerry Garcia sings, "and my tunes were played on the harp unstrung..." Lukasik, dressed in board shorts and a gray T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off, smiles.

The Land Rover makes its way to the coast via the scenic route, zigzagging through a lush, tropical landscape. This is pre- urban-sprawl Florida, a reminder of what the entire northeastern part of this state must have looked like before the advent of strip malls and high-rise apartments. Flourishing palm and pine trees coexist, yielding a fragrance that can be described only as green.

Surfers fear surfboards more than dorsal fins
Surfers fear surfboards more than dorsal fins

He drives past some old frame houses with chipping paint, through a countryside stocked with grazing cattle and covered by wild prairie grass, past what locals call the Satanic Ranch (recognizable because of two metal pentagrams, attached to the barn and atop a flagpole) and finally down Flagler Avenue, the main drag that leads to the water.

A series of people making morning commutes stares at Lukasik's Land Rover with envy. He responds with a snicker. "You know what's great?" Lukasik asks, leaning on his armrest while driving one-handed and taking in all the sights and sounds. Strapped to the top of his truck are three surfboards: one short board (six feet, five inches) and two long boards (nine feet and nine feet, six inches). "See all these cars? They're going to work. And I have surfboards on top of my car. That's just such a dig."

But his digs are just that, for Lukasik, a program manager for Avaya Inc., isn't condescending by nature. On the contrary he's completely sincere and doesn't have a mean bone in his body. He regards everybody with a genuinely friendly attitude and high spirits.

The music this morning, the timing, and the location of Lukasik's rendezvous with his surfing buddy, Jonathan Taylor (JT for short), are all carefully planned. In fact the proceedings are somewhat ritualistic. Prior to departure, Lukasik sat at his kitchen table in Port Orange and contemplated the breaks to come.

"I'm a surfer," he offered to some guests. "I love to surf."

And he does. Never mind that 20 shark attacks, more than half the world's bites, have occurred off the coast of Volusia County so far this year or that, of the 385 attacks or bites that have occurred in the United States since 1990, 248 have been in Florida. Never mind that scientists have said sharks are more likely to attack surfers in wet suits than swimmers because the boarders look like seals fluttering in the waves. And never mind that 8:30 a.m., when Lukasik arrives at the beach, is prime hunting time for sharks. Lukasik is searching or, as he puts it, just "trying to find my chi."

Lukasik stops at the beach entrance, and JT jumps into the Land Rover, then the two drive about a mile onto the beach, a luxury afforded to local residents by the city. They survey the surf to locate the best breaks without too much wash. They settle on the Inlet, a stretch of beach half a mile south of a jetty that juts out into the Atlantic and, combined with sandbars and offshore breezes, produces the biggest waves. For some reason that only scientists understand, this is also the kind of location that catches the attention of sharks.

JT, a local since high school, chooses his nine-foot-long board for starters. It's a sturdier ride in these rough waters, but it's significantly harder to paddle into the deep. Lukasik grabs his nine-sixer, named the Lady Katie (after his girl in Tampa), for its maiden voyage.

Before paddling out the pair take a moment to put on their game faces. JT is smiling. There are some big waves. The weather service has reported that a tropical depression is rolling in and will pour rain on the beach by noon. For now, though, it's just kicking up the surf. Lukasik can barely contain himself. "This is it," he offers. "This is what I live for."

The beach is practically empty. Only two other surfers are out here, significantly fewer than the number Lukasik predicted over Coronas the night before. His primary fear has thus been alleviated.

He worries about getting caught under a surfboard tail fin more than he is afraid of a dorsal fin emerging from the deep. "That hurts more than anything," he says. "The jellyfish, too. If you hit one of those square, it'll freeze your whole body up." In fact, he says, all the recent talk of Jaws-like assaults on swimmers has been somewhat beneficial to the locals. "We don't mind [the sharks] so much, because they keep the waters a little more vacant for us. There's certainly a danger, and we understand that. But this is just a way of life for us up here. There are surfers, and there are sharks. You learn to deal."

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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