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The Sailboat Free Willy has a shark encounter of the strangest kind.

s/v Free WillyBY Bud Elkin, s/v Free Willy

Bud is a longtime sailor and the author of several books including Pirate's Gold: A Teen Love story that includes Pirates, Pirate Treasure, and Sailing in the Caribbean!

My name is Bud Elkin, and I live in Palmetto, Florida. I dock my boat at Tropic Isles marina. I often take trips up and down the west coast, but this day I just wanted to go out for a spin with a couple of my friends. I decided we should take a trip up and back in Tera Cia bay. The bay is no more than a couple of miles long and probably no more than a mile or so wide. 

We were out for a lazy afternoon sail in my Aloha 28. Austin is in the navy, and gets leave every now and then, so we decided to get together with Bradley, my neighbor, and go out for a spin. After clearing the shallows around marker 4 we set the Genoa. The Genoa pulls us along in a moderate wind about 4 to 4.5 knots, so we didn’t see the need to mess with the main. After all we were just out to enjoy the sun and water.

On our way back down the bay, heading back in, Bradley was sitting in the cockpit on the port side, I was sitting on the starboard cockpit side with the tiller in hand, and Austin was standing by the starboard winch holding on to the boom. Two other boats were sailing past us, we waved, they waved, we smiled, they smiled, and then just as the last smile left our faces we hit something hard enough to stop us in our tracks. Austin was nearly thrown off the boat. He was hanging on to a rope I had tied off to the boom and a cleat to keep the boom on the starboard side of the boat. Bradley slid and hit the front cockpit wall, and I was thrown toward the open hatch. The hold on the tiller is the only thing that kept me from going down below.

Using proper sailor terminology I said, “What the hell was that?” Austin was dragging himself back onto the boat as best he could, Bradley jumped down below expecting to see water flushing madly through what must have been a keel removing moment, and I continued to steer over something that first sent the bow straight up into the air followed with the bow heeled to starboard 45 degrees diving into the drink. Next the whole boat rolled to starboard touching the rail while Austin was holding on to the boom rope for dear life.

After we righted and Bradley crawled up from below to say we had no leaks, we looked behind us to see a whirlpool right aft of the rudder with what looked like a flipper or some kind of gray looking fin just under the water spinning in a rather large circle. It reminded me of the whirlpools we used to see in the Colorado River when I was younger except this one had something large spinning around in it. We sat there for a moment or two before the Genoa took up the wind and darted onward. All three of us looked in amazement behind us as the roiling whirlpool got smaller and smaller while “Free Willy” sailed away.

I jumped on my cell phone to call Ray. Ray scrubs all the boat bottoms in our area. I thought he could get hold of Mote Marine or the marine patrol to come over to see what I ran over. He has seen almost everything possible while diving on our boats. He has been rammed by manatees, bumped by sharks he didn’t care to measure, and has had to put up with red tide, and other anomalies in his tenure.  I thought with all of his experience he would be able to figure out what it might have been that we ran over. I was certain it wasn’t the bottom or any obstruction because the water is 11 to 12 feet in that area, and there are no obstructions anyone knows about near that position. Mote marine came over and found two 9’+ bull sharks. They tagged both of them. “One was sporting a new white stripe on his side.” Ray said. It appeared the shark’s radar, sonar, or whatever they use was on the blink that day. I figured that shark helped me out a bit by scraping some barnacles off my keel.

Two days later we went out again, and wouldn’t you know it I spotted a fin not two hundred yards away from my port side. I pointed the fin out to Bradley. I had to make sure it wasn’t just me that saw it. As we sailed very near where we hit the shark earlier I thought there must be something causing these suicide attacks. I have never heard of a shark attacking a sailboat, although I have heard and read a number of stories of sharks attacking people, rafts, surfboards, etc.; I have not heard of anyone running over a shark? It appeared like the crazy thing was coming back for a rematch.

Now if you think that is strange, what happened next is beyond me to believe. As Bradley and I watched this psycho shark speed broadside toward “Free Willy,” my Aloha 28, I began to have flashbacks from the movie Jaws. What did I do to piss this animal off? We had no ill feeling toward the animal for getting in our way the first time. I saw enough shark shows to know that they have something going on that keeps them from running into stuff, so what was going wrong? We continued on our starboard tack awaiting the inevitable, and holding on tight. When the shark got no more than fifty feet to port a dolphin popped up right beside “Free Willy’s” port side spitting all over Bradley who went directly in to shock. “What the hell.” Is all he could say? His eyes were the size of silver dollars, his knuckles white as snow from the grip he had on the mainsheet and the side of the boat, and I didn’t look down, but I imagined yellow fluid running down the cockpit drains. “Are we in a Flipper movie?” He questioned. No sooner than he said that and the shark turned and swam away. Flipper stayed along side for a few hundred yards more.

If I had not seen this with my own eyes I would not have believed it, and to be honest I still can hardly believe it happened. I am writing this down now before I forget all of the details, or it before becomes just another sailor’s yarn.

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