LIFE> Travel
New wave
By Patrick Whiteley and Dania Karina (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-12-03 08:03

 New wave

Zhang Yinhai surfs on his favorite Hainan island point break, in South China. Photos courtesy of Zhang Yinhai

Dahai grips the edge of his surfboard for a split second before jumping to his feet and gliding his board across a rolling mass of blue water. He drops down the face of the wave then races to the top, flicking his board off the wave's peeling lip, and splashing saltwater into the air with delight.

Dahai is the only surfer paddling around on this Hainan beach break, in south China, but he won't be alone too long.

The 35-year-old is leading a small band of enthusiasts who are considered to be China's first surfers.

Before the arrival of the Westerners, surfing on Hainan Island had been mostly pioneered by Japanese tourists, who would sometimes surf between golf games.

China's coastline does not have an abundance of surfing spots, because of the position of its coastline, which does not catch the full brunt of the Pacific Ocean swell. However, Taiwan does attracts surf and the South China Sea generates waves off the coast of Hong Kong and Hainan.

The sport, which is hugely popular around the world, never really caught on with the Chinese until recently.

Zhang Yinhai, 35, also known as Dahai, was a former diving instructor and became intrigued when he first saw surfers in Dadonghai, Sanya, three years ago. Now, the Harbin local has made surfing his life.

"When you go out and surf, when you catch a wave, the feeling is always different," he says. "Also when you're on the board, the instant you stand up, you feel like you've achieved something. A natural high. The world ceases to exist. It's just you and the wave."

This year, Santa Cruz Surfboards organized what it claims to be the first ever surf event held along the coast of China.

Robert "Wingnut" Weaver, star of the classic surf movie, Endless Summer II, led an assembled group of American and Chinese surfers from all walks of life. There was a barbecue by the beach, drinking, music, fun and of course plenty of surfing.

More than 90 percent of the participants were Chinese.

"It was great. A lot of people were brought together by surfing. It was the first here in China, and it felt like a sign of the good things to come for the surf community here in Hainan and for China in general," Dahai gushes.

Fu Rong, 31, has been called the first Chinese female surfer, and is tanned - a rare trait among Chinese women, who generally prefer to keep their complexion white.

"When I am standing on the surf board, I don't think about being a female surfer or even that I might be the first female surfer in China," she says.

"I'm not thinking of anything like that. I just see other great surfers around me. Watching their skills really inspires me to surf more," she declares.

Veteran American surfer Elijah Kislevitz, who lives in Beijing, has surfed in Hainan many times and also surfs in Hong Kong. He points out that China's coastlines stretch for thousands of kilometers so "there is no way that there's no surf in China".

New wave

Hainan is almost the same latitude as Hawaii but legions of surfers from stereotypical surf nations mostly dismiss the idea of surfing in China.

The water in Hainan is warm, and a surfer can get by without a wetsuit for nearly the whole year. There are several good surf spots in the island, one of them is Shi Mei Bay where surfers can get decent point and beach breaks.

The biggest waves, up to 4m, come from typhoons, which hit the coastline up to five times a year. However, 1m waves are the norm.

The empty beaches also promise surfers the luxury of crowd-free fun and locals say there has never been any case of shark attacks.

"Not many people here have seen surfing," Dahai says. "They think it's a very dangerous or extreme sport. But they don't have the right concept.

"They have probably only seen short videos on the Internet of people surfing huge waves.

"That's really a different sport and very different from the kind of surfing that I do. But once people have seen us surf here in Hainan, they see it's not so difficult."

Those who have surfed are bursting with exhilaration.

Software developer Zhao Dongwei was profoundly touched after he surfed for the first time in his life this year.

"This surfing is extremely, extremely exciting," he says. "When I managed to stand up on the board I got a real feeling of freedom. I felt like a bird flying in the ocean breeze,"

Kislevitz, who promotes Santa Cruz surfboards on the mainland, says the sport is in its infancy in China, but sees huge potential.

"Surfing is one of those things where it doesn't matter where in the world you're from. Once you do it and you get into it, you're hooked."

Another American preaching the surfing message is Brendan Sheridan, who set up a surf shop in Hainan.

He says 99 percent of Americans don't have the slightest inkling about China's tropical surfing paradise.

"I grew up in Hong Kong before I went back to the United States, honestly, I always thought that it would be interesting to start a surf business in China." Sheridan says.

Surfing Hainan has grown from humble beginnings as a surfboards rental place outside a beachfront restaurant barely a year ago.

According to Sheridan, about 70 percent of Hainan surfers are expats from Guangdong province but more Chinese surfers are becoming hooked. "Before China opened up in the 1990s, there were no Westerners to really bring surfing into China," he says.

"Now though, the Chinese are starting to catch on to it. And it's even better because now surfing is not just that thing that the crazy laowai do. The Chinese are doing it too."

With the surfing scene in China still in its infancy, both hands-on experience and communication skills are crucial in stimulating a surf revolution among the Chinese.

Kilevitz highlights the importance of basic environmental knowledge to a new surfer.

"They ought to know how to respect the environment, respect the water, pick up the trash and how to understand the waves. Then they can pick up the board to surf."

"The idea is to let the Chinese understand beach culture," adds Sheridan, "I've seen Chinese tour buses pulling up by the beach, and the Chinese start walking around on the sand with their pants and leather shoes. That's not it.

"The idea is to let people understand how great it is on the beach when you can just walk around in shorts and flip-flops."

Sheridan thinks that the current infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired for Hainan to be the future Hawaii. But, as China keeps improving, he has no doubt that Hainan will follow too. Dahai shares his co-founder's belief.

"China is developing - it has caught up with the rest of the world," Dahai says. "Surfing has been around a hundred years, but it's only just started in China.

"We're not lacking for anything here - surfboards, sea, waves, people, brave ones and not so brave ones.

"I think it will get really big here. More and more Chinese are starting to surf and it will really start to gather speed."

New wave