Thursday, July 28, 2011

Look like a seal and ..... GULP!


Triathlon athletes warned of sharks in Vineyard waters

By Laurel J. Sweet
Award-winning court and crime reporter Laurel J. Sweet has been featured in the ABC miniseries "Boston 24/7" and the 9-11 documentary motion picture "Looking For My Brother."

Thursday, July 28. 2011 FIN-ISH LINE: Swimmers training for the Vineyard Warrier Triathalon have been warned about great white sharks in Cape and island waters

Hard-charging ironmen training for the one-mile swimming leg of the first-ever Vineyard Warrior triathlon are being warned not to wear shiny jewelry and to steer clear of seals as sightings of great white sharks have islanders watching the waves.

Though the last fatal great white attack in Massachusetts occurred 75 years ago this week in Mattapoisett, there have been 23 confirmed sightings of the maneaters since May, according to the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Experts say the predators have been drawn to the all-they-can-eat gray seal buffets offered up by Martha’s Vineyard and Monomoy Island off Chatham.

“I wasn’t thinking about this, but now I’m scared to death. I ran into some seaweed and I screamed,” said Liza H. Williamson, criminal clerk of Edgartown District Court, who has been training regularly after work with friends for the September 11 endurance test. “My thought now is to not look like a seal when I put on my wetsuit.”

Race organizer Matthew Brackman said more than 300 people from as far away as Italy have already registered for the Vineyard Warrior, and he hopes to attract 300 more — with or without the state’s current preoccupation with great whites.

“I don’t think people are scared of sharks. I think people want to see them,” Brackman said. “Certainly everyone has that fear because you’re swimming and can’t see what’s below you, but it’s an overblown fear.”

Brackman, a Boston native, advises against training early in the morning or after dusk, wearing bright colors or anything shiny — including wedding rings. “Sharks tend to ignore you if you blend in,” he said.

Brackman said the event, whose intensity is illustrated on the Vineyard Warrior’s Web site by a sea monster chasing frantic swimmers, will take athletes off Oak Bluffs’ Inkwell Beach no more than 150 yards.

But it was only 150 yards offshore of Solana Beach, California that a triathlete in training in 2008 was killed when a great white between 12 and 17 feet long lifted him out of the water in front of other swimmers and chomped through the femoral arteries in his legs.

“Listen, lightning can always strike,” said Tony LaCasse, spokesman for the New England Aquarium. “We do know that white sharks are not deliberately attacking humans. It’s usually a case of mistaken identity. Despite the obesity problem in our country, they’re looking for prey that’s full of blubber and rich in fat. If you see a seal in the water, you shouldn’t be in the water.”

Oak Bluffs police Lieutenant Tim Williamson — Liza Williamson’s husband — stressed, “We have no concerns of sharks whatsoever. People swim here every day. Some people swim here year-round.”

Robert MacLean, a Vineyard Haven-based ocean swim coach who anticipates helping the triathletes to get in topflight form, said he’s been swimming in island waters for 20 years and has never come face to face with a great white.

“There is no need to worry, depending on your common sense,” MacLean said. “Some people feel something on their foot and jump. I teach calmness, confidence and control.”

It’s not just her butterfly stroke Liza Williamson is now taking in stride. “Note to self: Get rid of silver Speedo swim cap,” she said, laughing. “It should be interesting. At least if there’s 600 people it cuts your odds.”

lsweet@bostonherald.com

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