Close call for US yachtsman
By JOHN ANDERSEN
AN American yachtsman is lucky to still have a right hand after a black tip reef shark tried to make a meal of it on Monday.
Ben Edelstein, from Texas, had 60 stitches in the fingers and palm of his hand after having a close encounter with a shark about 50km south-east of Townsville on Monday. He is halfway through a circumnavigation of the globe.
With blood pouring from his cut hand, he had to swim six metres to the surface after the attack, fearing the whole time that the sharks might return to finish the job.
"I'd been spear fishing in 40 feet of water and had shot a snapper. I put the spear gun and fish under a rock and was going to the surface to tell my mates there were no sharks around when a black tip came at me," he said.
Mr Edelstein said the 2m shark came at him from the front and that he swam backwards, kicking at it with his flippers. He said that while he was doing this another shark came in from behind and mauled his hand.
"He hit my hand. He thought it was a fish. He shook it a couple of times and I grabbed his nose with my free hand and pulled it and he let go," he said.
"I swam to the surface and hollered shark and one of my mates came and picked me up in a dinghy."
Mr Edelstein said his hand was slashed to the bone, but was fortunate there was no nerve or tendon damage. He said the wound was treated on board and that he sought medical attention at The Doctors in the city when he arrived in Townsville on Tuesday.
University of Queensland shark expert Dr Daryl Whitehead said he had never heard of a black tip reef shark attacking and killing a human being. He said the shark might have thought Mr Edelstein's hand was a fish or that it was simply alarmed and delivered the bite as a warning.
"It could have been a strange encounter for the shark. It might have seen something large moving towards it in the water and in defence gave what we call a 'jerk' bite. This is like a warning bite," Dr Whitehead said.
"It's not a bite designed to take meat. It's a bite designed to say 'I'm warning you. I want to hurt you, but I want to get away from you quickly'."
He said there had been documented reports of black tip reef sharks attacking people, but only when they have been startled.
"It's when people have just about jumped on them from a boat or something like that," he said.
"I can't think of any deaths."
After shark attack, sailor sails on
Round-the-world, adventure-filled journey still at least a year from completion for Austinite Ben Edelstein
By Janet Wilson
Saturday, April 29, 2006
Ben Edelstein was snorkeling off Australia's Great Barrier Reef, checking to make sure there were no sharks in the area, when he spotted a nice-sized snapper and thought, "Lunch."
He shot the fish with his spear gun and watched as both the snapper and his spear disappeared beneath a coral head. Darn.
Suddenly, a 6-foot gray reef shark swam into the area, checking out the speared snapper. Edelstein wasn't worried — he had been in the same situation dozens of times — but decided he should surface.
Keeping one eye on the shark, Edelstein backed away, kicking his swim fins and treading water with his hands. That's when another shark slammed him from behind. This 7-foot predator had Edelstein's right hand in its powerful jaws, shredding skin and muscle.
The tenacious shark let go only after Edelstein took his left hand and punched it in the nose.
Bleeding and seriously injured, the former Austin real estate agent surfaced, hollered "shark" and began swimming to his sailboat anchored nearby. He got on board with the help of six backpackers who were touring Australia and had paid Edelstein to take them for a 10-day sail along the coast. One of the men had hopped in the dinghy when he heard him scream and rescued Edelstein from the ocean.
The backpackers hovered over Edelstein as he sprayed purified water into the wound, soaked it in iodine, screamed bloody murder and downed a couple of tequila shots.
Then they weighed anchor and sailed 20 hours to a medical clinic in Townsville, the nearest help, about 40 miles from their anchorage. A doctor spent three hours saving the Texan's hand.
Edelstein spent a few weeks of May 2005 lounging around the marina while his hand healed. He wanted to make sure he had enough strength to pull in sails and grab onto lifelines before resuming his trip. He was injured but determined to sail off to his next adventure as soon as he safely could.
For five years, Edelstein has been fulfilling his dream of sailing around the world. He left the United States in December 2000 and had sailed thousands of miles across lonely oceans, weathered treacherous storms, island hopped across the South Pacific and, with his trademark fun-loving antics, entertained villagers from Cuba to the Marquesas Islands in Polynesia.
The shark attack, which required 75 stitches, was his first serious injury, jarring him physically and emotionally and setting a more somber tone on the most recent leg of the journey — Australia to the Komodo Islands, Bali, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.
"For a couple of months, the crippling nature of my shark bite seemed to trigger a sense of loneliness," Edelstein said recently after flying home for a monthlong visit. "My sense of personal safety was rattled, and the feeling of being on the other side of the world from my home was more acute. "When I left to go sailing I was 37 and am now 44. These are probably the most dramatically reflective years for anyone. After my experiences over those years, combined with a little maturity that comes with middle age, I realized I am a very different person than when I left."
His vessel, a 42-foot Tayana christened Gypsy Soul after a character in a Jimmy Buffett novel, is one of an estimated 2,500 boats on some portion of round-the-world trips each year.
Edelstein had planned to keep in touch with his mother, Kaete Edelstein, and his daughter, Amanda, both in San Antonio, and a few friends by sending e-mails from a laptop computer and single sideband radio.
But those e-mail missives, which begin "Hi Mom," were so poetic and entertaining that recipients forwarded them to friends and friends of friends. Now several hundred armchair adventurers closely follow Edelstein's journey through his sometimes witty, often reflective and always beautifully descriptive cyber travelogues.
His humor remained intact after the shark bite — he adopted the nicknames Captain Lefty and Shark Bait — but some friends recognized a sense of loneliness creeping into some of his e-mails.
Austinite Wayne March, one of Edelstein's closest friends, has handled all his land-based needs, including travel arrangements and computer assistance, and even joined him on a couple of legs of the trip.
"Since he got bit, timed with the fact that it was just about the midpoint — physically, geographically and financially — to the trip, I think he is coming to terms with his endeavor's end," said March, a broker who met Edelstein when the two were selling real estate. "He's not sad or even the slightest bit remorseful, and it's a long way from over.
"I just think that the timing of the bite was a depressant on him. He has also traveled through some areas that have seen some very bad times recently (the 2004 tsunami and political and economic strife) and he still has been pretty positive about the experience," said March.
"Of course, he has changed, but it has been the adventure he was seeking."
Edelstein, who began his trip traversing the Panama Canal from the Caribbean and sailing alone across the Pacific, spent December 2004 in Central Texas. He returned to Australia and traveled overland for a couple of months. Then he sailed up the coast to the Whitsunday Islands along the Great Barrier Reef (where the shark bit him), and on to West Timor, Komodo Island and Bali. There, his daughter who is now 16, joined him for three weeks of surfing, shopping and exploring. From Bali, he sailed to Singapore, up the coast of Malaysia, dodged freighters through the Strait of Malacca (one of the world's busiest and most important shipping lanes) and sailed on to Thailand.
When in the South Pacific earlier, he always waxed poetic about the geography, describing it as "lushly abundant in beauty and natural resources for easy living." But he found Southeast Asia to be "more arid, hot and lacks a thriving feeling in its nature, at least partially from the density of human population, which gives, by comparison, a highly competitive atmosphere for existence."
"Day-to-day living seems, in many places, to have a slight sense of desperation, which is totally unfelt among the Pacific Islanders. The quiet simplicity and dramatic natural beauty that I found so inspiring to write about in the previous sojourn seemed buried in the densities of population these last 10 months. This last leg has also been through populated vacation areas, more a tourism tour than remote exploration and adventure."
Feeling homesick, he had the Gypsy Soul pulled out of the water in March in Malaysia for repairs and refurbishing. He flew home for a month to see family and friends. One night was spent at the Dog & Duck Pub showing photos and downplaying his shark bite to members of the Austin Sailing Society.
"It's been 10 months and some fingers are still stiff," he admitted. "I lack dexterity; they ache when I make a fist and are somewhat weaker than before. But I'm fine with that. I'm just thankful they are still attached to me. They were very near coming off, even though it was not a very big shark."
Two weeks ago, Edelstein returned to Langkawi, on the Thailand/Malaysia border, hopped onboard his boat and set a solo course for the Maldive Islands, 1,500 miles across the Indian Ocean. In July, he will sail on to the Seychelles and Madagascar. He expects to arrive in Durban, South Africa, by November.
"Ben's got a very tricky piece of water ahead of him," said Herb McCormick, former editor of Cruising World magazine, now editor of Latitude 38. "Most round-the-world sailors find the Indian Ocean to be the roughest, least appealing ocean to cross, mainly because of weather systems and currents that can churn up very rough cross seas. Depending on the boat, these may or may not be especially dangerous, but they make for very uncomfortable sailing conditions.
"Then, he'll have to transit the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of South Africa, a landmark that's earned the nickname 'the Cape of Storms.' He'll need to find a good weather window to make the passage between gales, if possible.
"It's also challenging because you have to sail upwind into the prevailing westerlies, an exercise that's made more difficult because of a major counter-current called the Agulhas Current that can build up huge seas of 10 to 15 feet, or more. Once he makes it to Cape Town, he should be home free."
Edelstein is not worried.
"I have great confidence in the Gypsy Soul. She is a tough boat made for this kind of sailing, is in good shape and I will have professional weather routers giving me weather advice from Durban around to Cape Town," he said. "It will be rougher, colder and wetter than any sailing I have done in years, or perhaps ever, as the two oceans are notorious in jockeying to abuse small craft. I don't expect it to be easy, but it is doable and one of the last big 'to-do's' on my list."
Sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to South America will be easier. He plans to cruise along the coast and travel overland for a while. The last leg of his adventure involves island hopping across the Caribbean, a walk in the park for the intrepid sailor. He will arrive in Texas in July 2007 unless he decides to spend an extra year in South America.
Edelstein will return home older and wiser. After Southeast Asia, he says he has become more thankful of the opportunities he has had and ashamed of taking many opportunities for granted.
"It's as if (this year) I have peeled away several layers of my ignorance of the world, only to uncover more than I thought I had," he said.
He also is much more cognizant of the perils of his journey.
"Until last year I had not given much thought about the attrition of sailors and boats that are circumnavigating. After my injury, I realized that I knew of at least four sailors who had perished since I left America, plus two or three more who had been permanently injured by loss of limb or eyesight. I know of almost a dozen boats lost and at least as many near fatal encounters with storm, reef, armed boardings or ship collisions," he said.
"All of a sudden I realized my own luck in many risky endeavors, and that if I were a cat, I'd certainly been blessed with 99 lives instead of nine. With two more oceans and a cape to round, I'm hoping nine are still banked to help complete the circle."
He said returning home poses potentially the biggest anticlimax of his life.
"But I feel drawn to that moment barside back home, with life, limb and boat intact, when I can safely say, without tempting fate again, I finally got that youthful wanderlust out of my system . . . for a while!"
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