SERF Academy Director
Bethany Hamilton

Bethany Hamilton. Photo: ASP/Robertson

The Inertia

October 31, 2003, Ha’ena, Kauai, Hawaii

She had been leading a daredevil life for weeks now. And in the end, She had no idea the trouble she was getting herself into. Swimming beneath the moon, swimming beneath the radar, but swimming. Always swimming. Starving with need. Patrolling the reefs for opportunity, for blood and for flesh. Swinging her massive, square head with the regularity of a metronome, propelling her 14 feet of girth and mass through the depths with effortless power. With Her ragged, fourteen-inch dorsal fin breaking the surface, she had been bumping into surfers for weeks now. Testing them, feeling their fear, waiting for her time. They seemed such easy prey. Slow, awkward, lounging on the surface like something sick. And now, it was in her path, it was time. Another was here, apart from the rest. Alone and weak. And this one looked so small and frail.
She approached her prey from the side, taking her time, timing the strokes of the thin, pale arm that dipped off the surfboard in a slow rhythm of bubbles. 20 feet…10 feet…five feet…and with one last savage kick of her great tail she opened her jaws in a ragged yawn and took the thin freckled arm in her mouth. She clamped down with over 16 tons of sawing pressure. As her teeth met, she effortlessly plucked the thing from the body that once owned it.

The bite was so clean and painless that Bethany Hamilton, 13, noticed that the sea had turned red before she realized that her arm was gone at the shoulder. A strange serenity came over her, a warmth, as her body began to scream its outrage. Spurting a deep, rich, burgundy colored blood, She struggled over to her best friend, Alana Blanchard, also thirteen, and could only manage the words: I think a shark just attacked me. Alana told her to not even joke of such matters. Then Alana eyes saw something that her mind couldn’t grasp. The bleeding stump where her best friend’s left arm used to be. Alana’s stomach revolted and purged twice before she called for her father and her brother who were paddling for a nearby wave…

Imagine the dilemma of Hoyt Blanchard, 45, who was now almost a half mile offshore with his son, his daughter, a profusely bleeding and gravely injured Bethany Hamilton and a large, dangerous shark somewhere below the blue mirror to the sky. After struggling to apply a tourniquet with his rash guard, he now had an impossible decision to make. Should he send his children on ahead, across the deep lagoon, to keep them away from a bleeding Bethany? And if so, how could he protect them if he did? Should he keep them close? Where at least he imagined he could put himself between them and the shark should it return for Bethany? For one brief moment he even thought of slitting his own wrists on the ragged edge of Bethany’s board and slipping into the sea to await his fate while the other three made for shore. He had no time to deliberate. He made his decision on instinct. Keep the family close, face the danger together.

He instructed his daughter to keep talking to a quickly fading Bethany while he and his son rigged her surf leash and began dragging her to shore.

Cheri Hamilton, mother of Bethany, who had yet to see her daughter, was driving so fast behind the ambulance that the cops pulled her over. Frantic, it wasn’t until the ambulance driver called back to the cops with a radio that they let Cheri go. As she mashed the accelerator to the floor, a call came in on her cell phone. It was Hoyt Blanchard. Cheri asked him how badly Bethany was hurt. The conversation went like this:

Hoyt: You mean you don’t know?

Cheri: Know what?

Hoyt: Cheri…her arm is gone.

Cheri: (Long Pause) Gone where?

Tom Hamilton, Bethany’s father, was just about to be put under for a knee operation at the small local hospital when he was informed that the doctors need the table he was on for an emergency. There had been a shark attack on a young girl at Makua Beach. His heart sank. He knew he had only a fifty fifty chance, since Bethany and Alana were the only little girls on the island with the guts enough to surf the place. He got up and stood in the hallway as the victim was being wheeled into the hospital. He held his breath, he would know in a second. Alana had dark brown hair, Bethany was almost white blond. As the gurney turned the corner all the air in his chest disappeared.

The hair was blond.

It has been widely stated that the tiger shark’s characteristic serrated tooth shape and grotesquely powerful jaws have evolved for specialized feeding on large sea turtles–sea turtles whose shell cannot be split with an axe. Called the Hyena of the sea, the Tiger Shark strikes with a sawing motion of its bottom jaw against the bone razorblades of the top jaw. Known as the most deadly bite of any shark, Bethany’s arm was removed so cleanly, with such precision and efficiency that the operating doctor, upon first seeing the wound, was confused. He wanted to know who the son of a bitch was that had amputated without his permission…

bethany hamilton

Bethany, always smiling. Photo: ASP International.

The next day, after word had spread through the islands, Laird Hamilton called his father, the legendary surfer/fisherman Billy Hamilton, and told him if he didn’t go out and kill this fucking shark, he was going to do it himself. Fourteen days later, much to the outrage of the indigenous Hawaiian population, Billy and Ralph Young hauled to the beach a fourteen-foot tiger shark with a ragged dorsal fin. It took a gutted five-foot gray shark as bait and a barbed hook the size of dinner plate. Butchering it offshore away from prying eyes, they found no evidence of Bethany’s arm, her watch, or the 18-inch semi-circle of surfboard that the shark had taken with it. The shark would have long before regurgitated the irritating fiberglass and foam and probably the arm with it. However, removing the jaws and matching them to Bethany’s board revealed a perfect forensic fit to within 2 micrometers. Aside from the jaws, the only other part of the shark that was saved was a section of its dusky, striped skin. This skin was presented to Boy Akana, local Kahuna, who would fashion it into a ceremonial drum to call on the ancient spirits to calm the seas. Governor Lingle would decree in a public statement that the matter was now closed and that the tourist industry should “just get back to normal”.

Seven days later, Bethany Hamilton pays a visit to Ralph Young’s compound with Billy Hamilton and her father Tom. She is there to visit the jaws that took her arm. Crouching beside the bloody things in the middle of the lawn, they come up to her shoulder. For long moments the men stand around uncomfortably as she curiously pokes at the razor sharp teeth one by one. Then she looks up at Billy Hamilton and asks if she can have some of the teeth for a necklace she would like to make. An amulet to protect her in the future. The men are so stunned that nobody speaks.

Upon leaving the compound with her Father, Bethany is overheard saying to herself, I hope I don’t have dreams.

On the way home, with a sleeping Bethany next to him in the car, Tom Hamilton begins to hum a tune he hasn’t heard since he was in the U.S. Navy as a young gunner’s mate. His lips move slightly as he recalls the words of the Navy Hymn:

“Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm does bind the restless wave,
Who biddest the mighty ocean deep,
Its own appointed limits keep,
O hear us when we cry to thee,
For those in peril on the sea.”

Driving on through the rain, these are the only words Tom Hamilton can remember.

He reaches out to softly take his daughter’s hand, but it is not there.


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