Surfing Canaveral Shoals- The Real Story

 

by Bob Freeman bob freeman
October, 1967 Canaveral Shoals…

A small group of us were hanging out at Canaveral Jetties and discussing what the waves might be like out around the Cape. We all knew those beaches were off-limits. Then someone mentioned that on really big days that waves break several miles out where the outer shoals are surrounded by 40 foot depths.

canaveral shoals

The box marks the South East Shoal approximately 7 miles off Port Canaveral image courtesy of maptech.com

“Surfing an outer shoal?” This really got my interest. I had limited experience boating around the sandy shoals off North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Several times I had caught great waves on the shoals between Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout.

“Count me in!”

One of the guys said his next door neighbor would probably take us out there. The neighbor was an 18 year old non-surfer who had permission from his Dad to take the family boat out for fishing. The boat was about 24 feet long with a center console and a 115 hp Mercury outboard. He knew the way out through the Canaveral locks and was familiar with the shipping channel and the outer buoys.

Our opportunity to expore the shoals presented itself the very next weekend when tropical storm Heidi was briefly coming our way. Heidi was northeast of the Bahamas and now sending us an overhead groundswell with no wind effect. Most of Cocoa Beach was closing out the day before, so we decided to head out to the Shoals early the next morning.

Three of us ventured out to surf the shoals and were not prepared for all that was to happen that morning.

We packed a cooler full of sandwiches and sodas. I was happy to see his boat had a little bimini top to offer some shade if we stayed out for the day. I worried that I would sunburn since I had left my zinc oxide in my apartment. Little did I know that sunburn would be the least of my worries that day.

Heading out through Canaveral Inlet we watch about 30 surfers catching some fun chest-high waves inside Canaveral Jetties. One of the surfers, a guy named Bernie was recognized and we invited him along. He paddled over and climbed in.

We could really feel the groundswell as we cleared the old ash can buoy just off the jetty. The ocean was smooth glass. The groundswell were kinda fun to boat over. We could see lotsa waves breaking on other sandbars just off the Cape. We stayed in the channel and decided to travel out as far as we could see anything breaking … that looked rideable.

After about 20 minutes we saw fewer waves breaking on the sandbars, but did see occasional sets breaking way out to the left of the shipping channel. We estimated that we were about seven miles out. We slowed as we approached the outer shoal. The water color was changing from that deep water, dark blue look to more of a Caribbean look as we approached more shallow water.

Then we saw our first really big set. The waves were a solid 8 feet and the shape was perfect. We watched peeling top to bottom lefts move over the outer shoal, then soften as they approached the channel. The broken waves would continue for about a hundred yards then flattened out as they hit the deep water just outside the other sandbars.

We were really excited! I was concerned about getting to close to the break with the boat. There didn’t seem to be much drift but I was still worried about rogue sets. We thought we saw a medium size shark under the boat, but realized it was a cobia enjoying the boat’s shade.

“Do not anchor and do not turn off the motor” I told the guy with the boat as we glided to a stop. The three of us threw our longboards in (no leashes back then) and paddled over to the take off zones. I lost my board on the 1st wave but it drifted out to the deep water and I got to it easily. There were lotsa fish running around the edge of the shoal. That didn’t bother me too much at that point cause I had boated out to similar outer shoals off the outerbanks and was kinda use to the feeling. We had surfed for a while when we saw this big rogue set coming.
I looked over to the boat expecting him to swing a little towards the channel … just to be safe. Then I watched the stern of the boat rise sharply as the bow of the boat was yanked down into the face of the approaching wave.

“Oh, no … he anchored!”

The wave swamped the boat and washed out our cooler, life vests, shirts, towels, paddles and killed the motor (or maybe he had turned it off, I don’t recall for sure). The next wave almost filled the boat with water. He freed the anchor from the cleat and the last wave hit hard and pushed the boat further away from us.

We start paddling to the boat when we saw the sharks.

We froze.

The three of us immediately knew we were in grave danger. There were no waves we could ride seven miles back to the safety of shore. The boat was about 50 yards away and the shoal was not shallow enough to escape them.
I saw 2 very tall and narrow fins.They were cruising past the boat near the edge of the shoal. We had no option but to paddle to the boat anyway and take our chances. That was an incredibly scary moment. We knew for certain that one or all of us were going to get bitten. A large hammerhead emerged from underneath the boat, but quickly moved away from us. Our hearts were pounding as we all knee paddled to the boat as fast as we could.

hammerhead shark cruising Canaveral shoals

hammerhead shark cruising Canaveral shoals

We all made it to the boat OK. But the really scary part was that little bit of time that it took to climb up into the boat. Bernie had built up a lil paddling speed as he approached the boat then jumped to his feet and tried to jump up into the boat off his board, but all he did was kick his board out from under him and he busted his mouth open when he hit the boat’s side railing. He fell back into the water with blood flowing everywhere. There were more sharks now and several very near us. We were back in the deep blue, deeper water. I was afraid of the sharks that we couldn’t see that might be deep beneath us. At this moment we are all scrambling like crazy to get in the boat … and we all do safely. The boat drifted out of the surf zone. Our boards were still in the water.

And, for the 1st time we could clearly see the sharks and noted that the hammerheads were longer than our longboards. Watching the hammerheads cruise by and under the boat gave us a great view of their unusual shape. Somehow they did not appear so menacing, but I knew they were very dangerous. We finally restarted the motor, retrieved our boards and most of our stuff. Bernie had busted his nose, cheek and top lip open, but seemed OK. He was still visibly shaken. We had seen several Hatteras style boats heading out when we were still adrift but none stopped. Maybe they were too far away to see we needed help. But just as we were running back in, a party boat came right for us. We slowed to hear the Captain say he had received a radio call from one of the boats we saw earlier to check us out. We told him what had happened. Captain said we were nuts and was not sympathetic.

“Why did you anchor?” he asked.

The next trip I made was with a different group of guys a couple years later during a fall North East swell. This time the water was not as clear and there was a steady Northeasterly breeze. The size was double overhead and hard to judge the takeoffs. I was very nervous and, after surfing less than an hour, encouraged the others to not push our luck and return to the boat. I couldn’t believe that I was making the nightmarish paddle back to the boat again.

Back on board we began to see lots of sharks. They were everywhere!

Looking back … I enjoyed the great waves and the thrill of surfing Canaveral’s South East shoal.

Since then I have talked to many fishermen and divers who frequent that area. They see sharks everytime they are on the shoals. “It is a major shark feeding area” I was told. “They go after the cobia and tarpon that frequent that area.”

I consider myself fortunate to be one of the few that actually surfed the spot.
And, I do consider myself very lucky that I survived it … twice.

Me surf the outer Canaveral Shoals again? Nope.
Me go with anyone as a guide? Nope, sorry.
Me paddle out at 16th street? Yep

Comments

  • I grew up surfing in Satellite Beach, and later Melbourne Beach. I could very clearly visualize your adventure and predicament while reading this story.

    The only other person I can recall telling stories about surfing the shoals was Dick Catri.

    Thanks for a great story!!

    joseph neves27 August, 2015
  • Myself and a fiend were dropped off once at Playlinda Beach one morning around 5 AM with a goal to paddle paddle boards ( NOT SUP!) to Cocoa Beach, there was a small swell and as I paddled south I could see all along the north of the cape were fabulous surf breaks with long long rights . This was before 9-11, we ate sandwich’s in the shadows of launch pads up and down the coast. It was about 25 something miles that day if I recall. I just remember how good the surf was on the shoals . One of my all time favorite paddles. The misquotes at Palylinda will KILL YOU in THE AM !!!!! I think it was 1999 or 2000.

    Michael O'Shaughnessy27 August, 2015
  • Loved your true story…and surfing adventure

    Bonnie Dervage27 August, 2015
  • Before 9-11 I invited Don Long to explore the Cape with me on two ski,s I trailered down to the port from my home in N.S.B. at the time circa late 90,s. Rumor, had it that Jeff Crawford had Surfed the “The False Cape” with Mr Dick Catri. Waves were not big enough so we ran all the way to the fence at Play Linda. Our goal was Tow Surfing it. Encounterd , a few miles out a shallow sandbar with backwashy two way sea colliding, conditions. On our second attempt , Don Longs board washed up on the Cape. Miles up ahead of him, I did not know Don ran up on the Cape and retrieved his board. Again ,we were in to close because the waves did,nt appear to be big enough to be breaking further out. Running two skis without a boat seemed like a bad idea and we decided to turn around and wait for better swell and wind conditions. Relaxing ,taking a break in front of the Assembly Building began to notice heavy miltary presence on the beach at the walk throughs. We decided to go back to Port when we realized that they were all over us. The boat that pulled up on us .Automatic gun,s drawn informed us to raise our hands and prepare to start answering questions. Such as what were we doing outthere when they were launching a spy satellite the next day. A pleasant officer and a unpleasant officer riddled us with questions. When they contacted my father at his office McNeill Automotive Gandy Blvd St Petersburg asking . Do you own these ski,s,where is all the proper paperwork and current licensing decals. Also, did you know your son is interfering launching a spy satellite with your jet skis right now just off The Cape………Of course I was under the impression because I married a U.S. citizen that I was a Naturalied U.S. citizen. When in fact,they accused me of lying because i was still a Canadian Cit even ma king mtaters worse. . We thought we were both heading straight towards “The brigg” .If not under it. In the end the good officer vs. bad officer said they were examining the satellite loop footage . All I could think of was a beach cam with film on it revealing what appeared to be a Russian looking Dolf Lundgren character storming the beach. Not a far reach if you knew what Don Long looks like……….Finally , not before the bad officer said things would go easier if we came clean on this Surfing adventure yarn. He asked us to just come on out and admitt that we were Green Peace?? Not only did they let us go without any severe consequences. They requested we contact the Harbour Master should we take another go at the outer mysto break………That never happened because the next day a red McNeill Automotive car hauler truck pulled up in front of Ocean View Towers and pulled away with my two ski,s. Bought two more Kawasaki,s on a trailer but could never get anyone interested in charging what was referred to as the “False Cape” back in those days. Would go on the next good swell if anyone,s “Got the stones” to Surf it with me. After all that . David McNeill Surfer/Photographer

    David McNeill27 August, 2015
  • Thanks for the great stories, guys. We love hearing this kind of stuff.

    John Hughes27 August, 2015
  • I was fortunate enough to get invited along on a shoals tow-in trip. Around 5 years ago my buddy Jay Uvarro invited me to join him and a few friends early the next morning to take a boat and jetski out to the shoals. After hearing the myths passed around about these infamous shoals for so long I dared not turn down the opportunity.
    We left the port at first light on a large commercial fishing boat with the jetski riding in our wake. We traveled straight out of the main channel as the captain told me he’s seen these shoals break many times. “I know right where to take you”, he claimed. “I fish there quite often.” And then made a point to mention the very common large grey suit sightings.

    With the sunrise slightly off our starboard bow the Captain slows the boat. We look ahead and in the distance see a set of large left handers peeling in toward us. They were a ways off so a bit tough to judge their size but clearly very large. We pulled cautiously closer as we made our game plan. The boat was going to idle a safe distance off the break and we would take turns having the jetski pull us from the boat and into the waves.
    As we got closer and witnessed Mother Natures beautiful power crashing down into the shallow waters, all the other surfers decided they felt more comfortable in the boat. I don’t really blame them. But I had the tow ins all to myself!

    The anxiousness and pure excitement leading up to this point weren’t going to let me back down from this opportunity. The fact that this was my first time doing tow-ins paired with everyone else choosing to pass on the opportunity made me hisitant for a split second. But I was in great shape and mentally prepared for this. And I wanted it bad. I’m in!

    I jumped in the water with my surfboard, grabbed the ski rope handle and we were off. I have a strong wakeboard background so I felt right at home being towed around..As we got closer I could see the waves had a slight bump to them yet were holding a very consistent 60 to 75 yard left. I’d give them a solid 4′ overhead on the faces. Others said bigger but who knows… regardless they were impressive. The blue-green waves were sucking up the bright tan sand into the faces delivering an everchanging color display of their sheer power. At the base of the peak the waves had a massive bowl that was deep and recessed from the oceans rushing surface. The jetski driver was also new to this so was a bit hesitant to get right near the peak. And I don’t blame him.
    After a few passes I decided it was time. The jetski pulled me toward the peak and made a slight left turn. I cut hard right as I gained a ton of speed. I was aproaching this left, from left to right, at around 15 mph. We had timed it right; I rolled over the right side of the peak just as it stood tall. I dropped into the largest perfectly round bowl and made a huge sweeping bottom turn as I gazed up at the massive frothy lip rising over my head. I was hauling tail as I came out of a 150 degree bottom turn. I suddenly hit a surface bump that sent me a few inches airborne. I landed back on my board and continued back up to the lip where I took it easy then dropped in for another dip. After another good turn I bailed over the back and attempted to swim away from the break. The current was no joke! Thank goodness we had the ski because paddling back out was not an option.
    That first wave went well so I decided to tow into quite a few more waves and had a great session! All in all I walked away with a few vividly memorable amazing drops paired with some fun bumpy turns. I got my ass handed to me a couple times when a set prevented the ski from grabbing me. And I was spooked from imaginary sharks a couple times. All in all I flat out had an amazing experience.

    I will be back!
    Look me up if you have a spare seat!

    Cheers, jeremy

    Jeremy Edgar28 August, 2015
  • Great stories! Thanks for sharing.
    I remember Don Long when I was a wee Inlet kid. Haven’t heard that name in a long, long time. Actually, he was kinda like Darth Vader in the lineup.
    Keep your eyes on the water and your feet off the beach, there’s still adventures to be had….

    Laitham Kellum28 August, 2015
  • I remember watching Mike Tabling ride the shoals from on top of Canaveral pier with binoculars . I think I was with Jeff Crawford and it was in the late 60’s.

    David (big wave Dave) Moore28 August, 2015
  • A photo/video documentation would most interesting.

    Mike Schmidt28 August, 2015

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