Story by Chuck Evans
Here is a story I sent to my daughter through StoryWorth. She provides a question a week. I respond and the stories are printed into a hardbound book at the end of a year. This story was in response to her question, “What is one of the bravest things you ever did and what was the outcome?”.
When I think of the word brave, it doesn’t always bring me back to some of my actions I have taken in my life. I left home and quit college at 18 to grow my hair long. Is that brave or foolish? At 19 years old, I turned down an offer by my company, Host International, Inc., for an all-expenses paid education at CIA (Culinary Institute of America that is, in New York) Is that brave or foolish? I tried to paddle a surfboard from the Bahamas to Florida twice to raise money for the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary and Greenpeace. Is that brave or foolish? I chose to undergo painful chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery to try to live through esophageal cancer. Brave? Not so sure…….. But I do remember one Spring day in Ft. Lauderdale that I would have to, in retrospect, say was a brave thing I did.
In 1978, while working as a baker and going to classes at the University of South Florida in Tampa, I listened to Stella Taylor on the radio attempting to swim from the Bahamas to Florida. She inspired me and I believed it was possible to paddle a surfboard from the Bahamas to Florida. After her failed attempt (she was in the water for 53 hours) I saw a picture in the Tampa Tribune newspaper of a surfer on a 12 foot surfboard accompanying Stella on her attempt. His name was Erik Jersted. He was a lifeguard in Ft. Lauderdale stationed at the corner of Ocean Drive (A1A) and Las Olas Blvd.. His job, with another lifeguard, was to carry a bang stick (metal stick with a bullet in the chamber) to protect Stella from sharks that may threaten her life as she swam. The two surfers would jump in the water and get back to back with Stella in the middle. This would allow them to strike a shark attacking from any angle. I wrote him a letter telling him I believed a surfer could easily accomplish the crossing.
He wrote me a letter back telling me that the Gulf Stream was such a force of nature that could only be conquered by my moving to Ft. Lauderdale and training every day to accomplish the task. He referred to the Devil’s Triangle as almost an energy in which I had to submerse myself into in order to be successful. He invited me to come live in Ft. Lauderdale, train with him to be a lifeguard, and train for a surfboard paddle from the Bahamas to Florida. I did. I quit the University and moved to a small apartment in Ft. Lauderdale. Brave or foolish? I was offered the job as a lifeguard on the Ft. Lauderdale Beach Patrol by Captain Gene Bergman, the leader of the Beach patrol. But he had heard I wanted to make the paddle from the Bahamas to Florida. He said that whenever Stella Taylor tried to swim from the Bahamas to Florida (I think she tried it twice) his lifeguard rotation schedule was disturbed. I had earned a place on the Beach Patrol, but I had to agree to give up the plan for such a paddle. I turned down the job. Now I was in Ft. Lauderdale, quit college, no income, and turned down a job. Brave or foolish?
As it was, I took a job as a security guard with the Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel working the midnight shift so I could train my body to be alert in the wee hours of the morning on my upcoming paddle. During the day, I would run and exercise. I would swim laps in the Hall of Fame Swimming Pool with Stella Taylor and Diana Nyad, another woman with a dream to swim from the Bahamas to Florida. Erik and I became good friends.
A little about Erik….. He was a wild man. He was respected by lifeguards around the world, having won lifeguard surfboard paddle championships. He rode a motorcycle at very high speeds even on the city streets, and even with me on the back. He hung out with John McLaughlin, an underwater cinematographer and the stunt double for Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt, a popular show in the 60’s and 70’s. Erik did everything to the extreme. He had dreams of becoming a stuntman. He kept a typed resume of his lifelong injuries to show movie makers. His injuries filled the page from stitches, broken bones, removed organs (spleen), to feats of accomplishment that were physical in nature. He was written about in a book once as having wrapped himself in towels soaked in kerosene, lighting them on fire, and jumping off a bridge into the Intracoastal Waterway. This was after my days with him. He also rowed a lifeguard dory boat from Bimini to Florida with another lifeguard. His arms were as big as tree trunks. At 5 PM, when Jersted would get off work, I would meet him at the headquarters every day and we would each grab a 12 foot paddle board and walk the block to the beach and paddle out into the ocean. We would paddle out about 3 miles at a very brisk pace and then return at an even faster pace.
Now to what I consider to be one of the bravest things I have ever done and its outcome….on this particular day, it was hot and there was no wind on the ocean at all. It is not unusual for boats to be pulling water skiers out in the ocean when the ocean is very flat with no wind on it. As we were headed out to sea, about 1 mile from shore, a boat was pulling a skier. For whatever reason, the boat captain was being very aggressive and kept coming within I’d say, 20 feet of us at very high speeds. Erik and I were both yelling at the guy to warn him we were in the water. The guy driving the boat saw us but continued to “buzz” us dangerously. Erik became really angry and told me to come back to shore with him. He didn’t tell me what he was planning, but it became apparent quickly. After we got to shore, Erik got off the surfboard and went to the edge of A1A and grabbed 2 big pieces of asphalt right from the edge of the road. I would say each piece weighed about 5-10 pounds. He literally wrenched the asphalt right from where the edge of the road met the beach sand. He walked determinedly back to our boards at the water’s edge and put the pieces on top of his board and said, “let’s go!”. I knew then that he intended to throw these asphalt chunks at the guy driving the boat, if the boat came at us again. The boat was still pulling a skier as we left the shoreline. I knew that if Erik hit this guy or anyone in the boat, with the boat moving at speeds of 20-30 miles an hour, that someone could be seriously injured or killed. The guy in the boat would never think something like that was about to happen, but it was truly about to happen and I did not want to see anyone get hurt. Anyone in the boat, Eric, me, no one.
As we made it out about a half mile from shore, I saw the boat still pulling the skier and we were on a dead reckoning path to intercept the boat and Eric would throw his missiles. We were in about 30 foot depth of water maybe more. I started inching my way closer to Erik’s board as we paddled on toward the speeding boat. All this time, Erik never said a word. He was very focused and angry and I knew he was about to hurt somebody. I kept telling him that we should not do this and we should return to shore. He just looked at me with the same anger he had toward the guy driving the boat. I was now within arm’s length of Erik’s board.
I reached my arm out to where he had the chunks of asphalt and I swept them off his board. I was not prepared for his reaction. He immediately raised up with both arms raised toward me and lunged at me. I reacted quickly and immediately jumped off my board in the other direction from his lunge. I felt his arms sweeping over my back, as he just missed grabbing me. He fell onto my surfboard as I quickly swam deep and away from where Erik was. I think I swam underwater for longer and farther than I ever had in my life. The look in his eyes when he rose up and spread his arms toward me and the primal scream he let out at the same time, let me know the seriousness of the situation. When I came up about 40-50 feet away from Erik and our boards, Erik yelled, “If you ever stop me from doing something I’m going to do again, I’ll kill you!”. I told him to think about what would have happened if he hit that guy with the asphalt chunk. To think about the injury or death that could have occurred.
I wasn’t sure what he was going to do at that point. But he pushed my surfboard in my direction and waited for me to get on it and we paddled back to shore without saying a word. He did not apologize and neither did I. We didn’t speak. I knew he meant it when he said he would kill me if I ever again stopped him from doing something that he was planning to do. Was I brave or foolish to have swept those chunks of asphalt off his board to sink harmlessly to the ocean floor?