Modern history

The Red Canoe

The sun crossed the coast road that afternoon in a declining arc, laying planks of shade under the entrance of the Essex and Sussex. From Ocean Drive, men in hats climbed stairs toward the columns and disappeared, small figures swallowed by the portico, leaving women on the porch in wicker-backed Morris chairs, glancing now and again from books propped on their knees out over the railing to the sea. The women angled the chairs in patches of sun, and occasionally the scrape of a wooden chair fled the nibbling shade. Across Ocean Drive, men and women were returning from the beach for the afternoon siesta, and beneath the hum of roadsters along the coast road came the hissing and sighing of the waves as if calling them back. Slowly, the hotel descended into afternoon slumber. Like clockwork, the hotel received the retreating bathers, porters and bellboys directing them to changing rooms near the elevators. The bathing costumes, smartly cleaned and ironed, would be returned to guests' rooms for tomorrow's swim. Meanwhile, no sandaled feet traversed the cavernous lobby, no seawater dripped across the endless Oriental rugs. Guests with little to do but wait for evening conversed unperturbed in the field of Queen Anne chairs amid a forest of square fluted columns.

Strolling through the lobby with the swagger of an athlete was a young man, blond and muscular and twenty-eight years old, striking beyond the sameness of his hotel uniform. Charles Bruder, the bell captain, a former soldier in the Swiss Army, ran his staff with crisp precision, creating the illusion that the hotel was a smoothly oiled machine, or a luxury liner that sailed through the days on its own power. Bruder's leadership, mature for his years, allowed the hotel to provide the “highest class of summer season hospitality” to meet the standards of the original Essex and Sussex, a beloved Victorian landmark that had burned to the ground a few years earlier, while also “sounding a modern note,” with such amenities as bathrooms equipped with “both hot and cold seawater service.” Yet Bruder was young; running the bell staff could not absorb all his energy. So it was that during the somnolent hours of a Thursday afternoon, after a holiday, the bell captain saw a moment to escape from his duties for a brief swim.

As he strolled through the lobby, Bruder was a familiar and welcome face to the swells at the Essex and Sussex. After a year working in a hotel in California, he had returned to Spring Lake, just in time for the new season at the E & S. Bruder said it was a dream come true to run the bell staff in his adopted hometown. Dutifully, he sent his tips home to his mother in Switzerland.

Under his gaze, the hotel moved in expected and reassuring rhythms. Children played in the courtyard pool behind the hotel. Boys and girls, under the watchful eye of nannies, danced beneath a pergola spilling roses while mothers napped upstairs, taking beauty rests for evening. Men who would be sorely disappointed by Prohibition descended to the rustic nautical bar to sip Manhattans and Planter's Punches under the captain's wheel. Others, smelling of starch and cigars, stood in twos and threes in an open loggia above the courtyard, wisps of smoke and conversation lost in the coloring sky.

As Bruder crossed the vast marble floor of the lobby, the last of the bathers were returning with windblown hair and reddening skin and tales of sand castles lost to the tides. Bruder heard such conversations with a certain possessiveness, given his reputation as the strongest and most fearless swimmer on the beach. As the Essex and Sussex transformed from ocean resort to Edwardian parlor, the sea ceased to exist for the rich and mighty. It was the bell captain's now, for a quarter of an hour.

As he headed down to the ocean, Bruder convinced Henry Nolan, the elevator runner, to break for a swim, and granted several bellhops time off to join them. Bruder, brawny and not quite six feet tall, moved with a confidence that inspired followers. The bellhops were somewhat in awe of his long-distance swims. Bruder had wowed his charges with stories of his adventures swimming the previous summer in the Pacific Ocean. With his natural ability and competitive instincts, there was no telling how far their boss could swim.

The bell captain swam every day now in the Atlantic with his coworkers, but on July 6 he was especially eager for witnesses. Two other men had stolen his glory that same afternoon. Robert Downing and Leonard Hill were the talk of the hotel after their marathon swims, and Bruder was eager to reclaim his place as the beach's star. He also was eager to back up his boasts that he had swum many times with large sharks off the coast of California and was unafraid of them. That morning the bellhops had been discussing the death of Charles Vansant, recently reported in the Asbury Park Press. After Vansant's grisly death, there was talk about whether it was wise to swim in the ocean. Bruder, with characteristic cockiness, mocked the newspaper accounts and insisted Vansant could not have been killed by a shark. According to Bruder, sharks were large and scary-looking, but entirely harmless.

Bruder's experience with sharks reflected the untamed sprawl of America in 1916, before a global media shrank the country and world. What the bell captain knew he knew firsthand. In those days knowledge was local.

Bruder had worked the previous year at a hotel near Los Angeles, and on days off had gone swimming off Catalina Island, twenty miles off the coast.

Catalina Island was a dream for a young man who loved the sea. It was a major fishery in 1915, with huge takes of tuna and swordfish. Killer whales and mako and blue sharks crossed the ship channel, and the new activity of sportfishing was already fabled for black sea bass. Bruder loved swimming offshore amid the dolphins and giant sea kelp. He gravitated naturally to Big Fisherman's Cove, where a young man brave enough could swim with sharks. Diving in the popular swimming areas near the island, Bruder may have encountered docile angel sharks, and small species such as swell and horn sharks. But in Fisherman's Cove were schools of five-foot leopard sharks with dark saddle markings, often mistaken for the dangerous tiger shark, a formidable man-eater. With his characteristic bravado, Bruder swam among them unafraid and emerged, to the admiration of onlookers, unscathed.

But Bruder could not have known that the leopard is considered sluggish for a shark, and is quite harmless to humans, preferring fish, fish eggs, crustaceans, and worms. Or that later in the twentieth century it would be a compliant resident of public aquariums. On Catalina Island, Bruder had swum unknowingly in waters inhabited by great whites. The leopard sharks with which Bruder swam are an easy snack for a great white, often swallowed whole.

With dispatch that afternoon in Spring Lake, Bruder hustled to the bathhouses. He would not have time to match Dowling's four-mile trek, but he planned a fast, powerful swim, and a quick return to the hotel to serve the demands of twilight. Briskly, Bruder, Nolan, and the bellhops changed into standard black two-piece bathing costumes, and hurried down to the beach. While the crowds had left the water to rest for evening, dozens of people remained on the sands, and the Swiss bell captain approaching the edge of the sea at the South End bathing pavilion drew attention. Bruder's reputation was established: He put on a good show in the water.

Before he entered the water, Bruder stopped to talk with Captain George White and Christopher Anderson, of the life-saving station, about the Philadelphia man who had supposedly been killed by a shark. Bruder repeated that “he was not afraid of sharks,” according to The New York Herald,“that off Catalina Island, California, he had seen many and they always fled from bathers.”

Perhaps the bellhops, given their discussions about Vansant, hesitated at the lip of the sea, but as Bruder charged in, they, too, entered the surf with a burst of noisy camaraderie. Bruder was one of the first swimmers in the water. With a slow, powerful crawl, Charles Bruder swam straight out from shore—the same direction the younger Dowling had swum earlier that afternoon. White and Anderson, the surfmen at the South End, didn't budge as Bruder dipped his head under the safety ropes and kept swimming. Anyone else would have been called back, but Bruder was a strong swimmer and often swam beyond the lifelines. With surprising speed, Bruder was soon a thousand feet from shore, drawing murmurs and comments from observers on the beach. At a thousand feet he was still going as if racing a clock. Soon Bruder was a diminishing figure on the eastern horizon, his arms slicing through the waves.

The water was remarkably shallow with the tide receding, the wind light, and the waves softening as the recent storms moved out into the Atlantic. A gentle sun, draped by passing clouds, glinted here and there on the surface of the sea. The waves swelled past Bruder in a comforting rhythm as he stroked evenly toward the horizon. It was the kind of day that recalled the majesty of California, and Charles Bruder kept swimming farther and farther out.

As graceful as Bruder appeared from shore, his movements were sprawling, rough, almost obscenely graceless for a creature of the sea, his limbs thudding flat and hard on the surface like a board, radiating erratic and insistent waves of sound. It was only natural that the shark, patrolling nearby, aroused by Robert Dowling's earlier swim, would decide to investigate. Through the murk of the darkening sea, the great white sped, trailing sonic waves, until it was close enough, within fifteen feet, to see plainly, with its small, emotionless black eyes, the source of the sounds.

Bruder, unaware he was no longer alone as he swam, was twelve hundred feet from shore. The water was over his head, but less than ten feet deep in the low tide. Had he turned around, the view toward shore would have been glorious. Almost a quarter mile back on land, the turrets of the E & S seemed to scrape the clouds. More impressive even was the domed immensity of the New Monmouth Hotel. So small were the distant figures on the beach, he barely made out the figures of the bellhops, frolicking in the surf near shore. The surfmen hadn't moved from their post, which flushed Bruder with pride. Most anyone else would require a boat to travel out this far.

As self-conscious as Bruder was of his gracefulness and form as seen from shore, he gave no thought to the strange and complex beauty he presented below. Below, in the water column, the long outline of his body was compressed and bizarrely distorted in a dark bluish-gray world dusted with sunlight. Yet in the murk was a pleasing form too, a loveliness to the proper observer: a whirling dance of light. As the pale bottoms of Bruder's feet turned this way and that, they emitted a faint light in the gloom—a light that shone more brightly in contrast to the tanned top of his foot. His palms were small points of light, too, as he stroked his arms in a crawl, tiny flares wriggling up, down, and around, darting to the surface and plunging down. The darkened flesh on the outside of Bruder's hand and on his wrist brightened the contrast of the pale palm. The whirl of light was imperceptibly dim to human eyes, but the shark's rod-rich, cone-poor retina gave it heightened ability to distinguish an object from a contrasting background. No more than a dozen feet away, the shark's brain processed the flickering light as the movement of a fish.

Moving closer, beneath its prey, the shark had seen its quarry in full silhouette, etched by sunlight—outlined, in a glimpse that triggered both excitement and wariness, as not a school of fish but a mammal. After its struggle with Vansant and his rescuers, the shark had good reason to fear the large, slow coastal mammals. Yet perhaps Bruder's shape suggested seal, and the shark considered an investigatory bite. The evidence suggests that the juvenile great white, driven by necessity or insanity, was deliberately stalking undesirable prey for which competition was scarce: human flesh. No sharks in history have been known to travel so far to locate and consume so much human flesh.

Something else about Bruder greatly appealed to the shark. He was alone—no one within hundreds of yards—a prerequisite to the vast majority of shark attacks on humans. A lone swimmer is particularly defenseless. Unlike the shark, for whom every movement is calculated for advantage in the struggle of life and death, the man swam with no protection, no attempt at concealment, no sense of urgency. Charles Bruder swam as if he were alone in the sea, as if he were invincible.

Bruder never saw it coming. The great white's surprise attack was launched with overpowering force from behind. Such drama eludes other man-eaters. The ferocious bull shark angles in slowly with little force compared to the white. In Florida shark attacks, in which white sharks have not been implicated, more than half of initial attacks are reported occurring “with minimum turmoil,” George Burgess reports. More than 92 percent of white shark attacks on humans, however, have been reported to be “sudden and violent.”

As the shark moved, its dark top reflected virtually no light. The denticles on its skin muted the whoosh of its movements as the shark rose, driven by the power of the great tail sweeping from side to side, like a scythe. The fish exploded upward.

Charles Bruder felt a slight vacuum tug in the motion of the sea, noted it as a passing current, the pull of a wave, the tickle of undertow. He could not have heard the faint sucking rush of water not far beneath him. He couldn't have seen or heard what was hurtling from the murk at astonishing speed, jaws unhinging, widening, for the enormous first bite. It was the classic attack that no other creature in nature could make—a bomb from the depths.

Concealed in grim privacy beneath the surface, white attacks are often not visible from shore. As the films of A. Peter Klimley show, the surface of the water tells the story. Klimley made films of 129 great white attacks on the aquatic carnivorous mammals (such as the seal or walrus) known as pinnipeds in California's South Farallon Islands. A sudden pooling of red was a great white attacking an elephant seal. In attacks on sea lions, the water simply erupted, rising in an explosive spray nine to fifteen feet high, indicating the force with which the white struck its prey.

History did not record Charles Bruder's thoughts or feelings as he experienced a surprise great white attack. Instead, the sea told his story.

Guests on the beach in front of the Essex and Sussex suddenly saw a massive spray of water rising out of the ocean, a quarter mile out. As the plunging wall of water descended, a woman on the beach cried out, “The man in the red canoe is upset!” The surfmen White and Anderson shoved their small rescue rowboat into the water and began to row frantically east, while panicked shouts rang from the boardwalk and beach. As White and Anderson pulled closer, they saw that the “red canoe” was blood, spreading now in a wide circle. Rushing toward the red stain, eyes straining the surface of the water for Bruder, they were suddenly greeted by the unimaginable sight of the bell captain—or what was left of him—pinwheeling above the surface of the sea with incredible force.

As the surfmen drew closer, the huge fish struck Bruder again and again. “Swimming away and darting forward like an aeroplane attacking a Zeppelin, the shark made another lunge, cutting a deep gash in Bruder's abdomen,” the Philadelphia Inquirer later reported. Finally, Bruder was pulled completely under. As White and Anderson's rescue boat entered the sea of blood, the bell captain somehow managed to lift his head above water once more and to gasp, “A shark bit me.” The surfmen lowered an oar, and Bruder, with tremendous effort, lifted himself onto the gunwales, then collapsed, clinging helplessly to the side of the boat, sliding slowly back toward the ocean. Quickly, White and Anderson grabbed Bruder under the arms, and pulsing with adrenaline, hoisted him into the lifeboat. The surfmen, their strength fueled by urgency, were surprised how easy it was to lift the husky bell captain to safety. Laying him carefully on the bottom of the boat, the reason was immediately evident: There was little of Bruder left to lift. In a glance, White and Anderson noted “the loss of both of his feet.” The surfmen were covered with blood.

While one surfman pulled the oars of the boat, the other tried desperately to stop the bleeding from both Bruder's legs by ripping off his shirt to cobble together makeshift tourniquets. Blood continued to pump copiously, soaking the boat. There was little time, but Bruder was still conscious.

According to the New York Herald, Bruder described the attack to the surfmen in the boat. “He was a big gray fellow, and as rough as sandpaper. I didn't see him until after he struck me the first time. He cut me here in the side, and his belly was so rough it bruised my face and arms. That was when I yelled the first time. I thought he had gone on, but he only turned and shot back at me [and] . . . snipped my left leg off . . . He yanked me clear under before he let go . . . he came back at me again . . . and he shook me like a terrier shakes a rat. But he let go while I was calling, then suddenly . . . took off the other leg. He's a big fellow and awful hungry.”

Perhaps the story was embellished by the Herald, but whatever Bruder said, White and Anderson listened wide-eyed as they rowed their wounded friend to shore, trying to hurry yet make him as comfortable as possible. As the lifeboat surged through the waves, Charles Bruder closed his eyes and lost consciousness.

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