The Inland Paddler: Filleted by the Fin

When SUP Fins Act Like Chef’s Knives

It was a nice, beautiful Carolina morning at Wrightsville Beach. A small rain squall was moving offshore, little to no wind and the waves looked pretty clean.  A perfect morning to have a long overdue sup surf session with a good friend, who just happened to have a new board to break in.

The first wave broke left. Lefts always get me.  I wiped out immediately.  The water was soft and warm and it was good to be in the salt again.

The second wave I went after was starting to form nicely.  I wasn’t quite ready to take off but I paddled into position in my offset stance and lined up the board.  About that time, I heard it break behind me.  Way sooner than I expected it to, after having watched the break on the sandbar.   That’s the way it goes on our coastline.  There’s very little consistency.  It’s not like Hawaii, where the take off zone is always in the same place and you can line up with a fixed point on the shore for every single wave.

I got ready to try to ride the white wash.  Paddle ready to brace behind, like Jeremy Riggs showed me in the Kahului Harbor earlier this year. But the falls slammed into me and I ejected off the back of the board.  I tried to jump as far away as possible but I got sucked under.  Immediately I covered my head and tucked.  I saw my board rebound above me. I rolled.

When I popped up, all was good.  I recovered the board and was about to get back on when I felt a little sting on my leg. “I wonder if the board hit me?” I thought to myself.  It was just a little sting.  I reach down to my left calf.

I have been thinking about what I felt at that moment ever since it happened.  I can’t get the sensation out of my mind, or my hand, really.

I won’t be graphic. Sufficed to say, I knew immediately it wasn’t good.

It was a very surreal moment. 

But there was no time for that.

I have ACA instructor certification and Wilderness First Aid training.  At REI Outdoor School, as instructors we routinely go through risk management and response training.  I never thought I’d be using that on myself.  But I am grateful for it.  And grateful that experts like Brett Friedman, Nick Cross, Casey Marcum and Jose Gonzalez were my teachers.

“Sarah. I’m hurt.  I need to get out of the water.”

Sarah swam over, gave me her board, wrangled mine and we calmly floated in.

I won’t lie.  The thought of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit did cross my mind. But I had to let that go and concentrate on getting into the the shore.

As soon as I could stand on the sandbar, I took my paddle top off and wrapped it around my leg and using the long sleeves, tied it off nice and snug. Yes that is standard first aid protocol— direct pressure over the wound — but honestly, I did not want to have to see it.  I knew that if I did, I would likely add even more chum to the water and probably pass out.

On the beach, Sarah looked at the wound and said we needed to call 9-1-1. Sarah is an OR technician.  I was grateful she was in the lineup with me that morning.  A young woman on the beach with a cell phone did that for us — I told her to tell them to send Dave Baker, head of Wrightsville Beach’s top notch ocean rescue squad and the man who talked me down from the ledge last year when I thought I might have a major health issue. The nice young woman with the cell phone offered to go wait in the parking lot for EMS to arrive.

I sat on the beach with Sarah. I knew, given the location of the cut, no major arteries were involved.  My Garmin Fenix 5 was on, so we could monitor my heart rate which remained normal. Two police officers arrived but then the Ocean Rescue truck zoomed up. 

It was Dave. He did a slow-mo double take and shook his head.

I have never been so glad to see that man in my life.  Unless it was the time, as I struggled in the inlet in my OC after multiple hulis and I caught the site of his truck on the beach out of the corner of my eye.

As long as Dave Baker is around, “every little ting gon be aright.”

“How big was the shark, Lisa?”

“Wasn’t a shark, Dave. Cobia.”

When is a shark not a shark? When it’s a cobia!

Perhaps the fellow riding by on his Fat Tire bike without a helmet misunderstood our sarcastic banter.  Perhaps he thought it really was a shark that nailed me.  He started taking pictures. Guess he thought he’d be the next viral Facebook sensation. He was there when the woman was attacked by a Great White at Wrightsville Beach – film at 11:00.

Dave told him to move along. He didn’t. He kept taking pictures.

I told Dave I did not want to see It.  They flipped me over to get a better angle so they could wrap it up and Sarah knelt in front of me, took my face in her hands and started talking.  I think Maui was mentioned a lot.

Then Tanner, one of the ocean rescue guys asked me for my vitals. 

“How old did you say you were? 40?”

Sorry Dave Baker, I love you but Tanner is now my favorite.

“Hey, you were out there surfing, so you know, I just assumed,” Tanner said, a smile on his face.

Clever boy.

There was never a lot of blood.  That’s just how clean and deep a cut it was.

I got to ride in the back of Dave’s truck to the parking lot, with John, the other WBOR team mate with the absolutely coolest Star Wars tats you will ever see.  In the Access 2 lot, Sabrina the EMT was waiting with her partner, who’s name I never got.  They asked- per SOP – if I wanted transport.  I looked at Dave.  If Dave Baker says take the ride in the box, you take the ride in the box. You don’t  even think twice.

Sarah grabbed my backpack with my dry clothes, phone and wallet and we were off.

Sabrina kept me talking and monitored my blood pressure and pulse and checked my blood sugar.  Everything was good.  There’s still no pain.  I can move my toes and foot just fine.

She put an IV in to give me some saline, just as a precaution.

“You might get a salty taste in your mouth,” she warned.

“No problem. Already have that.”

She laughed.

I was deposited to the New Hanover Regional Medical Center Orthopedic Hospital and quickly was installed in a bay whose sterility was immediately compromised by the sand that seems to detach from me all at once.  I guess an ED at the beach is used to that, though.

The most delightful team of nurses took matters in hand, under the direction of Dr. Kevin Reese.

“How big was the shark?,” Dr. Reese asked.

I shook my head.


“Oh, I just had that for the first time for dinner last night!” one of the nurses interjected. “It’s really good!”

(I suppose I need to explain about the cobia. Cobia is a sport fish often mistaken for a shark. If you want to know why it’s a thing with me, read Katie Elzer Peter’s post here.  It’s funny, I promise.)

Dr. Reese and the nurses were efficient with task at hand, er leg.  The worst part of the whole thing was the lidocaine injections.  And still, three days after the fact, that’s still the worst pain I have felt.

I don’t always hang out in the ER, but when I do, I make sure I am wearing a nice cozy Bluesmiths top.


I was lucky. Very lucky.

There is no way to know for sure, but this is what I think happened, based on Dr. Reese’s explanation of the wound, which was caused by one of my quad fins hitting my leg about three or four inches below my knee, catching and then dragging down toward my foot. When I tucked and rolled, I must of ended up with the front part of my body facing down, back side facing up.  I was pulled under the backside of the wave going toward the beach as the board was careening tail end first going back toward the ocean.  My calf was caught on the fin’s “hook” just like a…well….cobia on the business end of a 50-lb. fluorocarbon leader with a buck-tail jig.

Dr. Kevin Reese and his handiwork

I don’t know if that’s right but it’s the best thing I can come up with. I don’t know. I didn’t feel a thing.

All I can say is, when I wiped out,  I tried to get as far away from the board, as deep down in the water as I could, I protected my head. Next time, I will do everything I can to go more sideways, to mitigate any launching of the board.

But when you get caught like that, you can only do what you can do.  Not much is left to your control.

If you paddle, paddle surf, or downwind, you need to know that the fins can have attitude.  I know to stay away from them. But this is a good reminder to me that no matter how comfortable you are in the water, no matter where you are, accidents can and do happen. Paddling comes with inherent risks. What happened to me has happened to both beginners, intermediates and pros alike. Kai Lenny’s board at Jaws almost split his foot in half. The very same board I was on almost tore off an arm of one of my Maui downwind friends who is extremely accomplished in the water.

I won’t call this a freak accident, because it’s not.

According to the MDs who authored the book Surf Survial: The Surfer’s Health Handbook, cuts are the number one surfing injury and cuts from fins account for 41 percent of them.  The most common place is the face, followed by the head, then the foot and then the leg.

My injury was deep.  It was big.  It was gross.  But, it hit the beefiest part of my calf, it did not come near any major arteries, nor did it hit the muscle or any tendons.  There is a small scratch on the inside knee of my right leg. Had it taken the brunt of the impact, I would likely still be in the hospital, hopefully, facing a long and painful recovery.   I was sewn up quickly, with a total of  27 stitches – 13 on the outside, 14 on the inside – given three antibiotics to take, and was even able to drive myself home.  No narcotics were necessary. Right now, I just have to let the tissues heal and watch against infection.

The gravity of what happened is starting to hit me, though.  When I look at the pictures, I am convinced I was being looked after by a higher power. No doubt.

What are the takeaways here?

One, buddies are good. I am so, so, so glad Sarah was there.  She had my back and I will always have hers.  Always have a plan, buddy or not. But especially if you are alone.  Know what you would do if you get into trouble. Assess that the same way you do the waves before you paddle out. ID people who might help you on the beach.

Two, get first aid training if you don’t have it already. It might save your life or the life of your buddy.

Three, wear long sleeved rash guards or paddle tops.

Four, practice your wipe out technique so you get away from that board.

Five, change your gear.  The Surf Survival folks recommend sanding down the nose of your board a bit or using a nose guard to lessen the damage from getting hit by that.  Rob Casey recommends switching out those nice, sharp Ginzu carbon fins for flexible fins, like these. I am going to replace all the fins on my surf boards with those. I am not good enough to notice the slight difference in performance and it might just keep me from damaging my other leg. Plus, in our sandbar laden break, it might also save my board from damage.

And finally, if you do get cut, always, always, always get out of the water and get it checked out.  Our water quality can make even the smallest of injuries serious.  And listen to what the first responders tell you to do. And do it.

More on staying safe in the surf zone.

After THE BEST grilled cheese and tomato soup EVER at Spoonfed- in my Force of Nature REI t-shirt. #irony

I again want to thank everyone who was there Friday – from Sarah, to Dave, John, Tanner, Sabrina, the ambulance driver, and the great staff at New Hannover.  To Katie for being there for the post ED comfort food session and to the staff at Kim and Mark Lennert’s amazing eatery Spoonfed Kitchen.  If you are ever in Wrightsville Beach, stop in for an amazing meal.  Mahalos y’all..beers on me next time I’m down your way.