What do bananas, great white sharks, the Nordic and surfing have in common: they’ve all shaped Shannon Ainslie’s way of life. And in a big way!
There’s not a lot of people that have had the daunting experience of coming face to face with one of the sea’s greatest predators. Yet Shannon has encountered it more than once and still dreams about riding perfect barrels rather than becoming victim to these incredible apex predators. We caught up with our RYD ambassador to find out how, why and where to next…
Surfing changed you. Be it sharing your story about surviving shark attack(s) or moving across the arctic circle for a surf related opportunity. But before we dive into that: tell us about your family upbringing and surfing?
I grew up as the middle child with one older and one younger sibling. My brother and I started surfing at the same time when my dad, as a single parent, dropped us off at the Nahoon Beach in East London at 7am with bread, bananas and a surfboard. I was 13 years old at this stage and was not into surfing but being at the beach all day for 10 days straight with nothing but a surfboard I had no choice but to give it a go. Both my brother and I fell in love with the sport and we both still surf and love it! We surfed multiple times a week around the coast of East London and really enjoyed the variety of good and powerful waves.
You took a surf gap year in Jeffries Bay and started a surf school…why and what was it like?
It started with a 3-month bible school in J-Bay with Des Sawyer. The school was called Surf Masters and it was an amazing program. I fell in love with J-Bay and the people, so I decided to stay for the next semester of the course and ended up staying for 3 years! I started a surf school and ran a surf development program with the local kids. It was busy - from running high performance surf camps to doing a lot of advanced surf coaching and taking surfers to compete in national and international contests. It was super fun and rewarding to watch them develop and progress into advanced surfers.
And then came the big move to Norway…
A Norwegian guy, Kristian Breivik (who I work with now) ran a surf hostel there and sent his clients and his kids to me for surf lessons. He always spoke about Norway and that I should try to work there. I always refused but it took 2 years of convincing me and then I tried it out. I fell in love with Norway immediately!
5 things that you had to adapt to in Norway – that is so different to South Africa or the Southern Hemisphere?
What is the surfing scene like there?
It is a very new sport up here, so it is still growing, but growing very fast! At the moment the surf vibe and culture are very relaxed and chilled. There’s no real localism here which is kind of nice. People are welcoming and friendly in the water, but it might change as the sport gets more popular. At the moment there are hardly any junior surfers in Norway… maybe just 5 surfers under the age of 18 which is strange. I am hoping this change so we can see groms in the lineup!
We have to ask you: when was your first shark encounter and tell us about it?
This happened on the 17th of July 2000 at Nahoon Reef in East London.
It was a warm winters day and about an hour and a half into my surf I was attacked by two 4-meter great white sharks. One came from the left and bumped me into the air, grabbed my surfboard and hand and dragged me under the water with it. The shark on my right missed me because the one on my left got me first!
It transpired so fast that I had no idea what was happening. Everything slowed down and I thought I was dreaming…
The shark that grabbed me, let go and starred at me for a while. We were about 50cm apart - face to face just looking at each other for a few moments. Then it swam away and I came up to the surface. When I reached the surface, I noticed my board lying in front of me and all the other surfers scrambling to catch a wave to shore. I was very confused. I grabbed my board, jumped on and started paddling and noticed that my hand had been bitten. Two fingers were hanging off, there was a hole in my hand and wrist with blood rushing out of my hand.
I realised at this moment I was not dreaming. My dream became a reality and I started panicking! I remembered thinking about life and death and how intense it would be to die!
I got so scared and started crying and freaking out as I looked around and behind me, to my left and to my right, expecting the sharks to come back and eat me. I knew I was in big trouble! The worst thing was that the ocean went dead flat and no one stayed in the water to help me out! I was left about 100 meters in the ocean with two 4-meter great white sharks. I remembered just panicking, shaking and seeing my life flash before my eyes. I didn’t know what to do besides to pray and ask Jesus to help me out. As soon as I prayed all my fear disappeared and a wave appeared out of nowhere and I was able to catch a bellyboard all the way to safety!
The feeling of relief, knowing that I was safe and sound was great!
What were some of the battles you had to face after that day and getting into surfing again?
I had to overcome my fear of sharks and conquer the thoughts about being attacked again - it kept racing through my mind! The crazy thing is that my fear of sharks disappeared only days after my attack. It was a miracle and even to this day I don’t fear them. Yes, I respect them, and they can be ‘scary’, but I don’t have a crippling fear. I am super thankful for this.
Was the second encounter with a shark calmer or more dreadful having survived the first one?
I’d say the second one, when I rescued another surfer from a shark attack, was even scarier than my own one! I think the reason why was because I was more aware of what was happening and I was in a position to leave the surfer and save my own life, but instead, I turned back to help him out! It was an intense situation, but I prayed and knew we would be ok!
And then you had the intense moment of meeting Orca’s in the water whilst competing in Norway - does this happen often?
This does not happen often but it has happened at least four times while surfing with other locals. I think that they are very curious creatures, similar to dolphins. They’re obviously a lot bigger and the main predators in the ocean. Fortunately, they are super intelligent and knew that I wasn’t in their diet haha. I really enjoyed this experience! It was so beautiful and powerful at the same time and I hope to have another encounter.
One looks at life very differently when having near-death experiences. What is your perspective now?
To make the most out of life! I don’t say this in a way that one should live a careless life, but the complete opposite!
I’ve learned to appreciate the life I have (whether I have a lot or a little) and appreciate the people around me. I make conscious decisions to love people, show compassion and to take care of the earth.
Any advice for others that take up surfing but fear running into these big fish…
Surfing with friends in nature is one of the most amazing and beautiful experiences ever! It’s definitely worth trying it even if you share the lineup with some sharks. Without risks in life there are no rewards so get out there and give it a shot - experience the joy that surfing brings!
Apart from the guy that survived two shark attacks and encountered Orca’s – who is Shannon Ainslie – your passions, why you love surfing and what you’d like to be remember for?
I love good coffee, bananas, traveling, keeping fit and sharing things or moments with people. Back in the day I would have said I want to be remembered for being the biggest charger in the lineup, but now I’d say I want to be remembered for a person who has integrity and faith in the God who has given me abundant life.
Thanks Shannon, you bring a new perspective to (surf) life. Keep on inspiring people and keep on charging hard in the cold water – you’ll be well remembered!