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Old 06-01-2004, 09:36 AM
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Surfer says "I thought I was dust" Heavy Story

I'm glad this guy made it, but the language in the story is too heavy to pass up.

Surfer Bernard "Butch" Connor Jr. was about to paddle into a tasty wave off Bodega Bay when he heard a strange splash. Glancing over his right shoulder, he noticed a large fin jutting out of the rolling water about 3 feet away.

"Just like in the movie," said Connor, a 44-year-old telecom technician from Windsor.

"My first thought was, that's a really big dolphin. But then I noticed it was swimming side to side rather than up and down," he said. "I thought I was dust."

The father of three had, on Friday just after 11 a.m., found himself in the middle of an unusually drawn-out -- and public -- great white shark encounter. Dozens gaped as Connor became one of the luckier people to tangle with the big fish. The incident has prompted authorities to post signs warning beachgoers to frolic in the chilly water at their own risk at popular Salmon Creek Beach, which now has seen four shark attacks in the past eight years.

But this being Memorial Day weekend, and surfers being surfers, it was a matter of hours before humans returned to the water. One surfer didn't even paddle in after the attack; he had to be talked ashore by Sonoma Coast State Beach rangers, witnesses said.

Connor, a Bodega surf regular, had been trolling for waves Friday with about 15 others. He wore a wetsuit, a hood and booties.

Looking for a good ride, he paddled about 40 yards north of the pack and sat up on his board, 100 yards offshore, to wait. But just as he dropped to his chest on the board and turned counterclockwise to paddle into the first wave, Connor spotted the telltale fin.

He gasped. He muttered an expletive to himself. The creature came straight for his left leg and collided with his thigh.

"In the moment, you know you're about to get eaten," he said.

The impact tilted Connor to the left. Trying to stay atop his 82-inch board, he overcompensated back to the right and fell into the water. The shark responded by thrashing its head and tail.

"I felt like I was in a boiling cauldron," he said. "I was spinning like I was in a whirlpool."

The shark stopped thrashing but started circling -- four times in all. Connor kept his board between him and the shark. Then it made its second approach.

"I got pissed," Connor said.

He jammed the nose of the board into the animal and yelled "shark!" as it resumed thrashing.

By now, all of the surfers and more than a dozen people on shore were watching Connor get tossed about by a shark they estimate was 14 to 18 feet long.

"I thought the guy was going to die," said surfer Noel Robinson, 33. "I couldn't believe how much water the shark was displacing."

Connor said he climbed back on his board and waited for the shark to quit thrashing. When it did, he paddled four strokes -- but the thrashing picked up again, and now the shark circled again. Connor said he sensed a third approach.

He stopped paddling. Now his body was shaking from fear. "That was probably the scariest time," he said. "I remember thinking that I needed to calm down."

The shark circled behind once more, and Connor, sensing opportunity, started paddling. First he just used his hands, and then he was sprinting. Unfortunately, he was battling a rip current.

The attack had lasted 30 seconds. The sprint to safety lasted five minutes. "The longest five minutes of my life," Connor said.

"It was taking him so long," Robinson said. "We thought he was still going to die. That was definitely the heaviest thing I've ever seen at the beach."

Connor had a long conversation Saturday with Ralph Collier, founder of the Shark Research Committee in Los Angeles, who told him that very few attacks have lasted as long as Friday's. Collier also told Connor that the shark was "checking him out" rather than planning to eat him.

"I don't believe it was a predatory attack," Collier said Sunday.

When Connor fell off his board, Collier said, "the shark probably lashed out in a defensive response to let him know it felt threatened."

Connor, meanwhile, said he plans to steer clear of Salmon Creek Beach for a while -- roughly three to five days.

"I love it too much," he said. "We're all a bit nuts."
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