Picture a northern California surf town: weathered shingles, chipped wainscoating, houses on stilts, and bright bougainvillea dotting the sidewalk.  Laid-back, sandal-toting folks stroll leisurely down the two main streets, ducking in and out of coffee shops, delis, book stores, and surf shops, of course.

Bolinas, about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, fully embodies this picturesque surf scene.  It also has something else–sharks.  Surfing magazine, in its where-to-go guide book on surfing Northern California, calls this place shark breeding grounds.  In other words, you’re asking for it.  But because it’s a premier beginner spot, we had to go.

We headed out to Bolinas one Sunday afternoon.  Traffic coming back was going to be a bitch, we knew, but this was to be my last day to surf for months: we were going.  Conditions called for glassy to three feet:  surf’s down!  we celebrated because down is better than up when you’re still learning.

Getting to Bolinas is tricky–the turnoff is hard to see and locals have been known to knock the sign down to keep outsiders away.  I am no stranger to territorialism, having worked in a ski area for a few years, but Bolinas is not known for its huge swells–why would any experienced surfer care if the likes of us became shark bait?

A lagoon marks the turnoff and the locals had been lazy about ripping down signs, so we found the town without incident.  Our first stop was 2 Mile Surf Shop, an unassuming but busy little place that rented us the same foam-core Sunspots I had been on all week.  They’re buoyant but hard to paddle out on.  The hard-crashing quick waves of Pacifica and the tricky undertow of Ft. Cronkite were absent here:  all we had to do was swim across the current that fed the lagoon.  This was not easy.

The current carved a forty-foot wide quick-moving channel between the two parts of the beach.  One part, it seemed, housed old town Bolinas with its shops and stilted houses.  The other part, the one we were swimming to, seemed full of second homes, farther back from the beachhead and a little too ostentatious for the town’s character.  Swimming from the old to the new was difficult, as the current, unless you were swimming faster than it, was destined to take you into the lagoon.  Trudging from the lagoon would have meant more humiliation in a week of eating crow, so I gathered up all my strength and swam as hard as I could.  I was winded but excited–the waves were less than three feet high and cresting at a predictable and manageable speed.  This was going to be our day.

My friend Adrienne got up on her first wave.  This was a good omen.  I, on the other hand, was struggling not to catch the wave and not to pop up, but to finish the job–to ride all the way into shore while balancing on the board.

We were having a great day, sharing the wave with some high school girls who were also learning, so nobody was a wave-hog or cutting in line or in general breaking surfer code.  This made for a very pleasant day.

Ocean flora and fauna abounded:  brown seaweed and tufts of sea grass laid out among jellyfish and baby seals.  As a native New Englander I’m used to seaweed so I just pretended it wasn’t there.  I was a little more concerned with the jellyfish, although I only saw a couple of those.  The baby seals made my heart leap–first with joy then with anxiety as the realization sank in:  Don’t sharks eat seals?

From then on my concentration was lost.  Focus, so essential to learning a new skill (especially a physically demanding one), had been carried away with the current after seeing the baby seals. 

In about two hours I managed to pop-up over a dozen times and stand up at least that many.  But the image of hundreds of white teeth coming baring down on my foam core board while wearing a wetsuit that made me look like a baby seal would not leave me.  I was spending more time scanning the water and listening for the duh-nuh-nuh-nuh of Jaws than surfing.

My time in the waters of northern California, it seemed, were up.  Today was a tie, bringing the final tally to Ocean 3, SheSpoke 1.

Hey, at least it wasn’t a shut-out.

Read more about SheSpoke surfing in San Francisco.

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