On Sunday, October 20, surfer Jeff Horton spent his morning catching waves off Pila’a, a beach on the north side of the Hawaiian island of Kauai that he’s called home since 2010. Three hours in, during an idle moment drifting in the line-up, Horton saw something in the water that he didn’t recognize until it was almost too late: a tiger shark coming straight for his leg.
The shark probably should have been more concerned with Horton’s fists. Horton spent around five years training boxing back in northern Virginia, much of it with coach Jim Ed Jones at Olympia Boxing Center in Falls Church, and he credits his ability to throw a punch to those training sessions. “Jim Ed Jones is an old-school guy,” Horton told me. “He trains you the way I think a lot of people in the 70s used to be trained: You have to do everything the hard way. When he was teaching me how to throw a jab, he’d go around and knock the wind out of every single guy in the class just to show you how powerful a jab can be.”
“Boxing saved my life” is one of the hoariest of sports clichés, but it's hard to take it literally until you have to punch the shit out of a 12-foot-long shark.
Jeff Horton: That day, it was getting pretty sizeable. If you took a ruler out, the waves were probably like 20 feet. As far as big-wave surfing, they were just beginning, but it was big enough to have guys next to you wearing inside vests and another guy wearing a helmet. For big waves, they were breaking really good, and they were really clean. I was riding my friend’s board that he had given to me. It was one of the first days I rode it—it’s seven feet long and it’s really skinny, kind of for bigger waves but not a serious big-wave board. It was kind of a board my buddy just handed to me at the last minute.
We were pretty far out, probably about 150 to 200 yards. The bigger the waves get, the further out they break. Everyone was getting waves all day—at Pila’a, there’s not really a pecking order when they’re that big. Everyone’s just kind of taking off on whatever they can get. I was having a great day.
Me and two other guys were probably the furthest people out. We saw a shark come up—at first I thought it was two dolphins, but one of the guys said, “No, that was a shark.” We were all like, “Whoa,” you know, “that’s kind of crazy,” and then it disappeared.
Then 20 minutes later, I was waiting for a wave and I was looking down at the water. I’ve been spearfishing for about two years, and I’ve seen a lot of sharks—it’s not like this was the first shark I’ve ever seen. I’ve been up close with them a bunch of times. But this time, I didn’t know it was a shark at first. I thought it was a stingray. It had a white belly and it was really dark on top.
Then I saw how big it was, and I was like, Oh my god. It was basically like, What is that? What is that? Whoa whoa whoa!—and the thing just jumped out with his jaw opening up. He was right about to get my leg, and I yanked it out of the way in the nick of time. Half of its mouth chomped on the board and it kind of got its teeth stuck. It lifted me out of the water and I rolled onto the shark, not really by choice. And just by instinct, I grabbed on and started hitting him. I had my leg halfway wrapped around him, and I was punching the shark as much as I could.
I keep saying I threw eight punches, but it’s really hard to tell, you know?
I didn’t take any time to breathe because I thought I was gonna die. I thought that was going to be the last breath I ever took, the last beam of light I ever saw. I thought it was over. But I wasn’t gonna let that happen, by all means. I was going to do anything it takes to survive being put in that situation.
The skin was really rough—it was like sandpaper. And when you punch a shark in the head, it feels like a brick wall. It was the hardest, toughest thing I ever tried to punch. Which is funny, because in boxing, when we first started out, the coach taught us how to punch brick walls. I was using all of the little things I remembered. It didn’t even really hurt me at all.
I saw his eye open up and I just punched him right in the eye. After I hit the shark, it went down and it still didn’t leave. It was still right behind me—it was following me. But I caught a wave and went past it. It was pure timing. If I didn’t get on the board quick enough and catch that wave, he probably would have taken another bite and that would’ve been it.
When I got back to shore I was jumping up and down with my hands in the air. It was just like a complete victory of life. It’s like falling out of a plane, your parachute fails, you think you’re gonna die, and you land in a pillow factory. Like, the chances of that happening and surviving it are really slim.
A half hour later I went back out—I started drinking, and I felt really confident again, so I went back out. I didn’t go to the same spot though. No way. I went to kind of right next to it, probably about 500 yards away. But I knew the chances of that happening again—in my head, I was just like, “That’s not gonna happen again. I’ll be fine.”
All the other sports I’ve ever done, if you get hurt or you have a really bad experience, the best thing to do is get up the next day, or the same day, and try to do the same trick again and land it so you’re not traumatized from trying it. It’s the same thing with surfing. You don’t want to let it really get to you because then it’s going to actually get to you.
I’m sure it was all over in about 10 to 15 seconds, but for me it seemed like 10 minutes. It was just the fight of my life. It was completely out of control—you’re just out there having fun, and then you have this huge monster come up and try to bite your leg off.
I go everywhere and people say, “Oh hey, it’s Shark Bait.” I’m just glad to be alive—like, god, it could’ve gone so wrong, so much different. And so many people have been there. I had some lucky board shorts on that day.
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