Surfer survives two separate shark attacks
- Jim Doyle, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, December 23, 2006
(12-23) 14:11 PST GUERNEVILLE -- Royce Fraley has surfed the unforgiving, storm-swelled waves of Northern California for three decades, and also -- by chance -- explored the hunting habits and appetites of great white sharks.
But this holiday season he's spending time ashore in Guerneville with his wife and their two young children. He hasn't been surfing since his latest brush with fate. Two weeks ago, he became one of the world's few surfers to have survived two separate shark attacks -- the latest incident involving a shark that pulled him at least 15 feet below the surface.
"I'm not chomping at the bit to get back into the water," Fraley, 43, told The Chronicle. "I had an offer to go surfing with a buddy last Sunday, and I declined. I'm definitely taking a break and enjoying my family ... If my feet were dangling down, I might not even have a leg or be here today. It's made me more respectful of my life and my family."
Mid-morning on Dec. 10, the die-hard surfer had paddled out alone to join a handful of buddies at a favorite spot near Dillon Beach, taking his place in the lineup about a half-mile offshore.
He quickly caught two waves, each 10 to 12 feet tall, then got steamrolled by two larger whitewaters. Fraley, a counselor for youth in Sonoma County, had worked the graveyard shift that day. He was recuperating from a head cold, and soon out of breath.
"People have to understand that the waves that we're surfing out here are double black diamond," he said. "This is serious s -- . You've prepared your whole life to put yourself into these situations, not only physically but mentally -- and that's just the wave ...
"This is basically like going into the Coliseum and doing a Sunday game except that you don't have any audience other than your friends," he said. "It's not like we're splashing around on some kind of beach break. We're surfing challenging waves ... This wave is the crown jewel of this area."
The surfers were dispersed, the nearest some 20 yards away.
"I was lying on my board, getting my heart rate to subside," Fraley said. "All of sudden I felt this surge of water, like a lot of water being pushed up to my right side, almost directly under my board. In the next split second, the shark emerged with jaws open, trying to bite at the center of my board ... I let out this scream-slash yell, "Motherf -- !" to let people know I was being attacked. It was full-survival mode... I was thinking, No, me again. No!"
As the shark began to submerge, he said, its lower jaw had already buried itself in the bottom of his surfboard and momentarily lifted it, which caused Fraley's hip to roll off the board.
"If I hadn't rolled off, his jaws would have gone right through my hip... my femoral artery. Being that far off the beach, I wouldn't have had a chance," he said. "Instead, those teeth only just barely went through my wetsuit and left only four teeth marks that did not require stitches."
But the next instant, Fraley was pulled under the surface.
"All I know is, one second he bit me, and the next second I'm going under water," he said. "I felt a slight sting in my hip. I just assumed he had the board and me, so I thought the best thing to do to save my life was to hang onto my board because it is so buoyant. I thought, if he takes me down, he's going to have to let go because of the board's buoyancy.
"As I'm going down, I'm literally thinking about my kids and my family," he said. "I've been tumbled 100 yards by one whitewater and held on. I just thought I could ride this out and tried to remain positive. As I was going down, it felt like a high rate of speed ... On two occasions, my body bounced off the side of the shark. Then all of a sudden I was released and I just flew back to the top.
"Lewis (Samuels), the first guy I paddled over to, said I was gone for five seconds," Fraley said. "Soon as I came back up to the top, I just started paddling like there was no tomorrow over to him. I basically paddled on top of his surfboard."
Britt Horn, a state ranger who's also a surfer and trained lifesaver, paddled over and took control of the situation. "He asked me how I felt," Fraley said. "He slowed down my breathing. He calmed me down. Lewis got on one side, Britt on the other ... Paddling in, I started getting a sense that I was pretty damn lucky that I was OK. Britt was constantly analyzing ... He was saying, 'I don't see any blood, but we're not going to strip you down until we get you back into the car.' "
With Horn supporting his arm, Fraley walked roughly a half-mile to Horn's truck. Peeling off his new wetsuit, they saw that the shark had left little marks on his hip.
At 6-foot-3 and 160 pounds, Fraley has long, skinny legs. He's so lean that surfers call him The Stork. "One of my buddies said, 'Yeah man, I think you being so skinny paid off.' Maybe it's true," Fraley said.
Paramedics and sheriff's deputies showed up, but Fraley chose to drive himself to Palm Drive Hospital in Sebastopol, where he was given antibiotics to ward off infection. He called his wife, Shannen, who works for Sonoma County as a health information specialist, to tell her what had happened.
"I went out and got some Mexican food and a couple of beers and met with my family," he said.
It's taken Fraley some time to digest what happened to him.
"You're dealing with so much adrenaline," he said. "I just stuck my surfboard down in the garage for a couple of days. I didn't even look at it... It really rattled me. I started thinking, 'How did I go that deep and fast without his jaws setting into my board?' "
Examining his 7-foot, 6-inch long surfboard, he found teeth marks on the bottom of the board near the center, midway along its length, as well as four teeth marks on the rail of the surfboard -- the same teeth that grazed his hip.
"Where there were teeth marks, there was quite a bit of blood from the shark that was embedded into the foam of the board," he said. "It's like a test bite. (The shark) must have taken an immediate dive to protect itself. It was swimming to get out of there, not swimming to take me down."
He also examined his board's 10-foot-long polyurethane leash, a safety device attached to the tail of his board and his right leg. On close inspection, he found a foot-long portion of the leash that looked like it had been roughed up with coarse sandpaper.
"The shark bit into my board. He did not like what happened, and swam to the left and down, right through the hoop of my leash," Fraley said. "It must have wrapped around his lower fins, dorsal, and maybe the tail. He got caught up in my leash."
Fraley grew up in the Spanish Bay area of Pebble Beach (Monterey County) and began surfing in 1977 when he was 13. His father, George Fraley, a professional diver for the canneries, documented in the 1950s a shark attack involving a body surfer at a Pacific Grove beach.
"My family has always been very outdoorsy. I was brought up hiking, skiing, swimming, water polo," he said. "I was in competitive cycling for eight years. With my father, I was doing 100-mile rides at about 11 years old ... I developed this inner will to not give up."
Fraley said he began surfing as a rebellious teenager who was drawn to the counterculture, but soon found that it helped restore him. He had been hospitalized three times for asthma as a kid.
"The salt water was healing me, along with the physical activity," he said. "I found myself year after year getting stronger and not having to rely on meds to keep healthy. It took me a long time to get the kind of resiliency I've had in my body."
In the last three decades, Fraley surfed in the South Pacific in Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand, and in Indonesia, Ireland and the Canary Islands.
"Surfing has just so many variables to it," he said. "It's not just about getting waves, it's the camaraderie as well ... It teaches you about yourself. The more you push yourself into larger surf, sometimes you get into situations and learn that you can survive them, and try to draw those lessons into your other life as well."
He's also had close scrapes.
In September 1997, Fraley was surfing with two other friends near the Russian River -- lying on his board between waves when a shark attacked the board.
"I got torpedoed, just rammed really hard and knocked clean out of the water," he said. "The sound was incredible. After I came back down, friends said they could see just whitewater and splashing. It was just complete commotion ... The shark's nose had dented my board, leaving a grayish color imbedded in the fiberglass."
He said it would be a mistake to view him as a macho warrior.
"From my two experiences I've learned that things happen so fast," he said. "It's more surreal that anything you can possibly imagine. You're at its complete mercy. If you happen to come out of it, you're just lucky."
Fraley owns 20 surfboards -- and is not quite ready to sell them.
"We're talking about major addiction stuff here," he said. "It would be hard to give up, but at the same time I'm not in any particular rush."
Three days after the attack, Fraley's wife remarked that she had never seen him so content.
"It made me realize that maybe I've put too much emphasis on surfing to make me feel grounded," he said, looking after his 5-year-old daughter, Alana, and his 1-year-old son, Aiden. "Maybe I should put more emphasis on what's in front of me, my family.
"Surfers are selfish. It's taken me a while to accept that I'm a dad and I have certain responsibilities. Part of this was a wake-up, to know that my happiness doesn't depend on whether I've had a good surf session," he said. "That's why last Sunday I knew it wasn't the time to go back in the water. I'm just going to take it one day at a time and see what happens."
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