Close to Shore: a story of sharks and the early days of open-water swimming

Coincidentally, given the recent interest in open-water urban legends and shark facts, I stumbled upon a fascinating bit of summer reading that I feel compelled to recommend.

What, a book review on a sports and activity site? Well, call it what you will, but athletes need recovery time too, and what better way to recover from that Ironman than by reading a book on the beach in the dog days of summer? Rest assured that Michael Capuzzos Close to Shore: A True Story of Terror in an Age of Innocence has relevance to you if you compete in open water and have ever wondered what lurks beneath the murky surface of the oceans in which you race.

Linking the terrors of Jaws with the history of ocean swimming in one fascinating account that every open-water competitor should have on their must-read list, Close to Shore details a series of infamous shark attacks that plagued the New Jersey shoreline during the summer of 1916.

Like the film Titanic or the New York Times best-seller The Perfect Storm, Close to Shore uses newspaper clippings, personal accounts, and more than a dash of creative liberty to re-create a true tale of suspense and high drama in this case, against the tumultuous backdrop of early-1900 American history.

The facts are all true, and Capuzzo recounts that terrifying summer with a sense of immediacy and an attention to detail as if it were unfolding in the present. That July 4th weekend, a great white shark appeared on the coast of New Jersey and proceeded to wreak havoc for 13 days, even swimming inland up the Matawan river and attacking unsuspecting bathers. It struck a total of five people, two of whom were competitive ocean swimmers, and forever changed our attitudes toward swimming in the ocean.

Although sharks had been a part of American mythology for centuries prior to that fateful summer, very few had ever been seen, or caught. Little was known about the creatures other than the fact that they were man-eating monsters whose bite was poisonous, resulting in a fatal (even contagious!) infection.

The reign of terror caused by the shark would have been avoided had the media outlets back in the day been able to report on the first incident and warn beach dwellers about the unwelcome predator. Instead, word of mouth about the first attack spread slowly, hindered by the fact that no one really believed sharks came in close to shore.

Killer whales and large fish of unknown origin were initial suspects in the first fatality, Charles Vansant. Vansant was an ocean swimmer who died of a loss of blood after his legs were torn off below the knees during a recreational swim.

As speculation about the shark increased, measures were taken to stop the rogue killer from striking again, but to no avail. Due to a freak current and high tide, the great white turned inland and found itself trapped in the shallow, fresh waters of Matawan Creek. Out of fear, confusion, or plain hunger, the animal attacked again and again, confounding authorities and scientific experts who claimed a shark could not be responsible for the massacres given that the attacks occurred in shallow, fresh water miles away from the ocean.

The whodunit is never quite fully resolved, but the book concludes it was one rogue shark that attacked all five swimmers. It may or may not have ever been found, although an 8-foot great white was caught and eviscerated in late July, with human remains found inside its stomach. After that gruesome discovery, the attacks stopped.

Aside from possessing the nail-biting appeal of a real-life, pre-Jaws shark tale, Close to Shore is as much about the genesis of open-water recreation, tracing the beginnings of ocean swimming as a sport and form of exercise.

The Industrial Revolution was starting to have its first widespread effects on the population, driving hard-working urbanites to the less-crowded shorelines. There, bathers (primarily men, given the conservative dress codes of the time) challenged each other to swim offshore and impress the well-dressed parasol-holding women on the boardwalks.

A new activity was born, and swimming suddenly became the summer sport for vacationing city-dwellers. Women had a tougher time breaking into the sport, as the aforementioned dress codes of the era forbid them to wear anything revealing. Bare ankles were about all women were allowed to show, until a younger generation of trailblazers scandalized regulations by donning apparel that exposed flesh above the knees (and forearms!). Indeed, some of the books most unintentionally humorous passages involve the language used to regulate such modesty in signs along the beach (Modesty of apparel is as becoming to a lady in a bathing suit as it is to a lady dressed in silk and satin. A word to the wise is sufficient.).

With the advent of swimming, beach life and social mores began to shift. The need for lifeguards increased, and competitive swimmers suddenly found a new way to earn extra income while remaining outdoors and in the water. The lifeguard aesthetic was born, and swimming, paddling, surfing and kayaking soon flourished. In addition, dress codes relaxed and women gained entry into the male-dominated swimming world soon after. It would be several decades, but in time they proved to be even more resilient than their male counterparts in the water especially when endurance and tolerance of the cold were in question.

Close to Shore is definitely a fun summer read, but its also the only book Ive come across that weaves a compelling (true) story around the culture of open-water swimming. Come to think of it, I cant think of any other book that even bothers to mention open water swimming.

Something tells me the sport will never have its own section in the library, so take this opportunity to read Close to Shore and enjoy all its guilty pleasures while gaining a sense of open-water swim history.

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