It’s Springtime in Nova Scotia, but the water is still more than cold enough to freeze off dearly beloved extremities. As I sit on my board, shivering, I am reminded of different days, warmer days, far away. I originally took up surfing in a very unlikely place, a small island off the coast of South Korea called Jeju-do. It’s not a place often talked about as a surfing destination, and if you didn’t live there, you’d be taking a big gamble planning a trip. When it’s good, it’s very good, but the fact of the matter is that it’s not good very often.
That being said, our little island was a pretty good training ground. The northern coast occasionally caught some decent swells being funnelled down between the mainland of Korea and Japan, but it was usually short period wind chop. The south coast was open to the Pacific, and every now and then a rocky point would light up with some beautiful peeling lefts. Most of the island’s coast was made up of jagged volcanic rock, but there were sandy beach breaks at fairly regular intervals.
When I moved to the island I was terrified of the ocean. I had been a bookworm as a child with a fascination for sharks, and years of reading accounts of attacks and shark biology had led me to respect those noble animals so much that I stayed the hell away from them at all costs. It got so bad that I couldn’t even go into fresh water without panicking. However, the beaches on the island were so gorgeous that I finally began forcing myself to wade into the turquoise water from time to time, but I always received a great deal of ridicule for my peculiar habit of backing out of the water to avoid being snuck up on.
Then I met a girl. She had a smile that stopped my heart and an 8’6”longboard that she lugged over from Santa Cruz. We quickly became inseparable – except when she went surfing, and eventually I got tired of sitting on the beach feeling stupid. I got wind of someone selling a board down south, and I snapped it up. One wave later, and I was hooked. As the girl (now my loving fiancée) later said, and now often says, she created a monster. There were a few surfers who lived near us on the north side, and a few more down south, and our board-laden old cars became a common sight on the coastal roads.
The waves were notoriously hard to predict. There is a bad joke in Nova Scotia that also applied to Jeju: Don’t like the weather? Just wait fifteen minutes. Conditions were constantly changing, and as a result, we logged a lot of driving time in a typical day, catching a few waves at one beach, relocating to another when the surf got blown out or died. But the weather was only one of the challenges that we faced.
Surfing is a very new, and very misunderstood sport in Korea, and perhaps even more so on Jeju. Despite living on an island, most of Jeju’s residents cannot swim, however, beach recreation has exploded in recent years. What this leads to, sadly, are several drownings each year. The most popular beach, called Jungmun, is also the most dangerous, with strong rips and a heavy shore break. The lifeguards are usually young kids who pay very little attention to the swimmers. On one occasion, a friend of mine had to go pull a kid out of the water while the lifeguards were busy burying each other in the sand, laughing hysterically. When he angrily pointed out their negligence, they apologized profusely, then ran off down the beach to play soccer.
Because so few islanders can swim, it often set off a panic when we foreigners would paddle off outside of designated wading areas to surf. Whistles would blow from the beach, megaphones would call out to us, and eventually police boats would come and buzz around us, all to save us from getting killed in small, mushy surf in three feet of water. It would have been comical if it wasn’t so annoying to have a boat nearly run you over while its occupants try to tell you that what you are doing is too dangerous. There were times when we would be surfing in isolated spots far away from any beach crowds, and drivers passing on the highway would stop and call the coast guard.
Korean swimmers could also be a hazard. Because surfing is so new to the area, most islanders had never seen anyone surfing before, so they were extremely curious. It was not unusual for a group of swimmers to follow you around in the water or tread water directly in front of you, and they would be completely oblivious to the fact that they were getting in the way and putting themselves in danger. It was sometimes hard to deal with, but it was usually only a problem for about two months out of the year. Koreans have a very particular beach season that lasts from July 1st to August 31st, and hardly anyone goes near the water outside of that window.
Another obstacle was the Korean surfers. After a couple of years a surf club opened up at Jungmun beach down south, and a group of about six or seven Korean surfers laid claim to the point break. There was a great deal of animosity between Koreans and foreign surfers for quite some time. From what I was able to gather, and was ashamed to hear, there were a couple of foreign English teachers who lived near the beach that had been sneaking down in the early morning and “borrowing” boards from the club to catch some waves before anyone showed up. Not only was this very ignorant behaviour, but it also reflected badly on the foreign community as a whole. When the Koreans found out, they were understandably upset.
What followed was a lot of bad blood and misunderstandings. There were many stories of run-ins in the water, with Koreans trying to force foreigners off the point. It was a strange situation because some of us had actually been surfing on the island a lot longer than most of the Korean guys, so it was debatable as to who the “locals” actually were. There were people on both sides taking things too far, dropping in, dropping threats, etc. I heard that one guy was even chased off the beach with a speargun. Those of us who had not been directly involved in the board-stealing debacle did our best to keep our distance from these incidents, but it was a small island, and tensions continued to grow. What resulted was that all of the foreigners thought that all of the Koreans hated us, and all of the Koreans thought that all of the foreigners hated them. In reality, there were only a few people with legitimate grudges, but it took some time for the rest of us to figure that out.
One Korean surfer was particularly intimidating. He was small, but dark and wiry. He was heavily tattooed, which was extremely unusual in Korea and normally implied mafia ties. He was a fantastic surfer, and always wore a very intense, serious expression. One day, out of the blue, he simply paddled up to my friend Isaac and me and said, “We think you guys are okay. You should say hello sometime. Everyone thinks the foreigners are not friendly. ” After that, every time I paddled out, I would spread my arms wide, give a bow, and yell “Annyeong Haseyo!(Hello!)” as loud as I could, and it was a relief to finally see those guys smile and nod. I’ll always be grateful to that surfer, who turned out be a really nice guy who spoke excellent English. He went by the English name of Gabriel, and he deserves a great deal of credit for finally extending that olive branch and ultimately dissipating much of the tension between the two surfing communities.
There were some amazing moments out there. Jeju has a wonderful tribe of diving women called the Haenyeo. These women are mostly in their sixties or seventies, and still free dive every day for abalone, sea urchins, octopus, and different marine plant life. Their gear consists of old wetsuits, masks, a knife or prying tool, and a float up at the surface. They can hold their breath for a few minutes at a time and dive to depths of five meters or more. They have a unique habit of whistling whenever they come up for air. I never found out if this was a breathing technique or simply a way of letting the others know they were okay. These wrinkled little women are some of the toughest and jolliest human beings you will ever encounter. One time I saw a tiny old woman trudging up from the water carrying a huge bag of seaweed and shells. When I offered to help her, she just started laughing and stumped off down the beach, grinning and shaking her head at the silly foreigner. I also heard that these women formed their own militia and fought against the Japanese during their occupation. One sunny morning we were surfing the point when we started to hear faint whistling coming our way. Sure enough, little round floats started to appear, and wrinkled little faces started popping up around us, whistling and flashing gapped, gold-toothed grins. My friend Chandra quickly paddled in to shore and returned with a mask, and we took turns diving alongside the Haenyeo, watching them work. Eventually they passed by us, and carried on down the shore. It was one of the most incredible experiences I had in that place. Those little women are quite literally a dying breed, and I felt very fortunate to have been able to witness an ancient profession and tradition that may not be around much longer. It was something that very few people have had the opportunity to see, and it is something I will never forget.
Later that year, Gabriel contacted me about a surfing competition that he was helping organize down south. He really wanted to have a foreigner division, so he enlisted me to round up the troops. I got quite a few guys and a few gals signed up, and we all headed down, not sure what to expect. It turned out to be a great weekend, although the swell didn’t really cooperate. There were surfers from the mainland of Korea, Japan, and a few from China that had flown in, and we were all put up at a great little hotel just above the beach. My friend Chandra from Pacific Grove, CA, danced all over the women’s division and won a nice little shortboard for her trip to Indo, and one of the South African guys took the men’s title. There was a very friendly vibe the whole weekend, with bands playing on the beach at night, some great food, and huge barrels full of beer and rice wine on ice.
Another thing that I’ll remember was a night-surf with my fiancée. Jeju had a fleet of squid boats that fished the north coast of the island, and each boat had bright exterior lights to attract the squid. They could usually be seen at night just on the horizon, lights bobbing slowly on the open ocean swell. One evening we were surfing a small beach break, and were getting ready to call it a day. It was getting dark and my shark-sense was just starting to tingle when the squid boats came chugging along. They set up a few hundred meters offshore, lighting up the beach in a gentle glow. The incoming waves shimmered as we slid quietly along their faces, grinning at each other. We both still talk about that night, and how lucky we were to share something so unique and special. It was the only time I ever saw those squid boats set up that close to shore. I always thought of them as friends afterwards, and would think of them and wish them safe returns whenever the weather would turn bad.
When we finally left the island, we reluctantly sold off the collection of boards that we had amassed. The trip home was too long and we already had luggage, guitars, and a dog to carry, so we grudgingly let them go, making sure that each buyer promised to give them a loving home and plenty of exercise. I still think about those boards, and those boats, and all of those finicky island breaks. That island was an amazing place to live. It’s where I met the love of my life, and where we made so many memories and lifelong friends. It wasn’t the best surf spot in the world by a longshot, but it was the place where I fell in love with the sport, and it will always be a part of me. So if you ever find yourself in Jeju-do, and you happen to see a Hot Buttered board with a triple stringer lying on the beach, give it a pat and a message from me. Tell it I said, “Hello, old friend! Thanks for the good times. Be safe, be sound, and happy surfing.”