Thursday, February 4, 2010

Stuart Kiteboarder Killed by Sharks Yesterday


The first shark attack fatality ever recorded for Martin or St. Lucie county occurred yesterday in Stuart. The victim, Stephen Schafer, was kiteboarding. I believe this was the first ever fatal shark attack on a kiteboarder. The news report from the Palm Beach Post is here. My heart goes out to Schafer's friends and family.

I expect a lot of errant speculation about the circumstances of the attack until the full story emerges, but here is my current synthesis of the gossip and published news:

1. Stephen was kiteboarding about a quarter mile off shore, at the south end of Stuart Beach, when a lifeguard noticed he had dropped his kite and wasn't relaunching it.
2. Through his binoculars, the lifeguard saw Stephen was clinging to the downed kite and signaling for help.
3. When the lifeguard got out on his rescueboard, Stephen was being circled by sharks and has been bitten multiple times, but was still conscious.
4. Paddling with one arm and holding Stephen on top of his upside-down kite with the other arm, the lifeguard made his way through the rough water to shore. It probably took a long time, since the wind was blowing sideshore and wouldn't have helped move the kite, and Stephen and the kite probably created a lot of drag in the water. The lifeguard's actions were extremely brave, but in hindsight he may wish he had loaded Stephen directly onto the paddleboard and ditched the kite in order to get back to shore faster.
5. Stephen was still conscious but in very bad shape when he reached the beach. He died somewhere between the beach and the hospital.
6. No one knows if the shark leapt up and attacked when Stephen was just riding along, causing him to crash the kite, or if the attack occurred when Stephen was down in the water for some other reason, like after crashing a trick or experiencing a kite malfunction.
7. Some of the bite marks on Stephen's lower body were big- like 8-10" in diameter, which would indicate a shark larger than the small spinner sharks common in the area. Bull, tiger, or hammerhead sharks are the likely suspects, but juvenile great white sharks may also occur in the area this time of year.

This matter is of serious concern to me, because many of my friends and I windsurf and kiteboard in the same sharky waters where the attack occurred. Thus far I have had a cavalier attitude about the risks of shark attack, but I think increased caution may be warranted. At the very least, I want to learn more about the seasonal migrations and aggregations of the potentially dangerous shark species in the area, so I can avoid going out at especially risky times and especially risky locations. When I get that info together, I'll post it here on my blog.

PS- I kiteboarded for a bit yesterday afternoon, too, at Fort Pierce Inlet, 20 miles north of the attack. It was uncomfortably windy for me to be kiting, though, so I switched to windsurfing on a 5.5 sail and 83 liter board, and had a real good time. Such a bummer to have the joy of windsports marred by this fearful tragedy.


Johnny Douglass said...

Concentrate on you day job says Dad. Use caution says Mom. Mother Nature is indifferent. The people who love are not.

Johnny Douglass said...

Aieee! The prior comment was your mother commenting from my computer. Well, uhh, anyway I agree with her.

Catapulting Aaron said...

Very, very sad. I was hoping you'd write it up.

I will chalk this up as a very freak thing that happened, as are most shark fatalities.

Van said...

Seems like a freak accident, but either way I think I'll stick to windsurfing. It may be an illusion, but I feel safer on a floaty board - mostly out of the water!

Anonymous said...

Schafer was taken to a hospital and died a short time later. Schafer short time

Mary G. Douglass said...

Hearing about this gave me chills -- increased caution and further research are very good ideas. As for it being a freak thing, well, yeah. That local snorkeler who had his arm ripped off by an alligator probably thought alligator attacks were a freak thing also.

John said...

Hey james! its been awile, hope all is well. I saw this posted and just wanted to chime in because you know how I am with sharks. I will be interested to hear if they ever figure out exactly what happend. I haven't been windsurfing in forever because i'v been real busy. Hopefully I will get out in the spring sometime, but when I do i'm going to watch out for sharks!! no waterstarting for me lol

Paul Richardson said...

That's frickin freaky, and very sad. I agree with your mom, but I also can't wait for it to warm up enough to get back out in the water.

sailingjoe said...

Since a kiteboard looks much more appealing to a shark than a windsurfer, I think those that stick to windsurfing are not foolish. I have gone out with a large inflatable kayak after a shark report from my shore. However, holding onto a paddle gives me a lot of confidence. I knew one kiteboarder who carried a 12 inch knife.