Surfing Fuzhou

It’s not the first time my friend and I had wondered about the coastline lying just east of the Chinese city of Fuzhou. We had analysed the coastline on Google Maps. We saw numerous beaches and headlands which held the promise of surfable waves. We could see how swell from the East China Sea would arrive at these beaches and peel past these headlands. We wondered if we would ever get the chance to go and find out if there were surfable waves, or not.

My friend and I have been looking for waves around China. The islands of Hainan and Zhujiajian had proven to be the most rewarding places. Both have some fun waves. We have been surfing these places, making ‘hit and run’ missions from our base in Shanghai.

Hunched over computer screens we scrutinize weather maps. We decide to go to one of these places and then cancel. And repeat. And repeat. Until when we are certain there will be waves we rush to buy cheap airline or bus tickets and arrange accommodation. We stay only as long as the swell lasts. It is hard to concentrate on work at times like this. All we can think about is sliding along walls of salty water.

Our process of finding waves in China is unpredictable. Sometimes the waves arrive like expected and our judgments are proven correct. Other times we go to the effort only to arrive at the beach and find ankle-high waves. That is, we get the prediction wrong. Very wrong. Typhoons are unpredictable and the bathymetry is still unknown to us (such information is guarded closely by paranoid official government departments).

As an ex-pat being posted to Shanghai we initially thought we were doomed to a non-surfing existence. However, we have slowly found that there are quite a few different places with waves in China. During a recent typhoon we decided to visit a place we hadn’t been before, the coastline near Fuzhou.

We watched the birth of the typhoon off the Philippines and then mapped it hourly as it slowly traveled north toward Taiwan and Japan. Another smaller Typhoon was hugging the Taiwan coast terrorizing the local populace there. However, the winds from this system pulled the larger typhoon into the East China Sea and began sending waves to the China coastline between Fuzhou (in the Taiwan Strait) in the south to the archipelago just south of Shanghai to the north. We saw that the most powerful direction of the swell would be headedfor the coastline near Fuzhou.

The problem was that my friend and I knew little about this area. Our own research on had merely shown a coastline that held the potential for surfable waves. We needed some more certainty and some help and it came from an unexpected source.

On Weibo (Chinese Twitter) a friendly Chinese surfer going by the name of ‘Surferlee’ referred me to the newly formed Typhoon Surfing Club in Fuzhou. My friend and I couldn’t believe our luck. Surfers are still rare in China. Surfing ‘clubs’ are even rarer. Yet to our surprise this club had formed only a month earlier and had already grown to over forty members (all beginners).

I made contact with Ocean (a local from Fuzhou) and Renan (from France living in Fuzhou), two leading members of the club. These two surfers responded to my message and offered to help us surf this coastline. My friend and I booked the first flights out of Shanghai.

It’s still amazing to me how sometimes surfing can connect strangers like this. I am not used to such sharing anymore in other surfing locales around the world as people jealously guard their waves from others. Yet the early days of surfing in China mean that the passion for sharing the riding of waves is still strong. No-one is jaded, yet.

Ocean and his friend Sissi came to our hotel and drove us out to the coast. Renan led the way in another car with his brother. We drove to a surf spot which would be the first to start receiving the swell from the typhoon.

Two high cliffs bordered the beach. The run-off from what looked like fish farms spilled out of polyurethane pipes into the sea. The wind was strong and the waves messy. The cliffs offered some shelter from the wind, but not enough.

Some more members from the Typhoon surfing club arrived. After some friendly greetings we all decided to surf. Everyone seemed stoked despite the poor conditions. The begginer days of surfing are like that. I miss it and am trying to get the initial joy back.

On the paddle out my board bumped against probably the only rock on the whole beach. A fin was torn out. I hadn’t even caught a wave. It was a brand new never-before-ridden board. Fuck. I’d only brought one as it’s difficult to travel with more in China as no-one will let you on public transport with a larger board bag.

My friend had a spare board which he let me ride – “damage it you own it, mate”. Set-in-stone rule.

We didn’t surf long. The surfing conditions deteriorated even further.

We loaded up the cars and drove back toward Fuzhou and to the local regular surf spot at “Changle”. Here there are a series of sandy beach breaks. The sandbanks twist the swell into some decent-looking peaks. It’s simply a process of finding a good sandbank and surfing it. With an offshore wind there are many options. The water off the coast is shallow, though. So size matters. Too much swell and the outer banks cap and suck the energy and shape out of swell.

With the wind blowing strongly from the north most of the beaches were wind-affected. We drove past an abandoned hotel, all concrete and exposed steel girders. The government has had plans for this coast but as per usual in China the project seems to have been another successful effort to siphon money out of government coffers and into private pockets.

We arrived at a beach nestled behind a pine tree forest. A large smooth rock-strewn headland at the northern end protected the waves from the wind. A small white temple clung tenaciously to the tip of the headland. The wind swung around the headland and smoothed out the wave-faces.

Head-high waves peeled left and right. The sun was high. The surf was fun and playful. All afternoon we slid down and across and up as members of the Typhoon surfing club surfed with us, hung out on the beach, took photographs and ate watermelon. It was a great surfing afternoon – one of my best ever in China.

This afternoon surfing experience with Typhoon Surfing Club reminded me of the early days of surfing in Australia (where I am from). When the surfing population is small or in its early days it’s not competitive and everyone simply enjoys each other’s company. However, in Australia like many other places it’s increasingly become dog-eat-dog. It felt good to be with a surfing community that still had ‘fun’ well and truly at the centre of its surfing ethos. Actually, the members of the Typhoon Surfing Club don’t know any different.

The next day Ocean, Sissi and Renan took us exploring for waves at Pingtan Island in the Taiwan Strait. The swell was still building and we hoped the peak of the swell would arrive at the island when we were there.

As we traveled the island we drove through amazing stone house villages built into the rugged coastline that gets battered by Typhoons. I have seen the same villages in Taiwan. The architecture and peoples have close with those across the strait. Not that they can travel freely across it anymore. Two militaries in a stand-off have put paid to that.

There is extensive modern development on the island. This “development” threatens to destroy these villages and the traditional villager’s way of life. Highways and five-star exclusive resorts will soon be the status quo. Modernisation brings employment and facilities but it also has its costs.

When we looked at most of the surf spots on Pingtan the waves were still too small. The swell wasn’t strong or big enough yet. However, we saw the potential of the island. There are several surf spots with promise, although they will be difficult to get good. They each require a very particular and so fickle arrangement of swell, wind and tide. Unfortunately, the best and most beautiful surf spot is in a military zone so you can look but you cannot touch.

That afternoon we went back to Changle for a surf. The swell was at its peak and it was it was too big for the beach break we had surfed the day before. The outer banks were causing problems. The waves would surge and wash through the lineup. Water rushed along the beach and into deep holes as the sand washed away all too quickly. The swell couldn’t get a grip on a stable ocean floor.

We decided to try and surf a nearby left-hand point break nearby that we had looked at the day before. However, it too wasn’t breaking well. The tide was going high and the swell bounced around off a rock break-wall protecting the local fishing fleet. The backwash wasn’t going to let the waves peel off evenly.Nevertheless, we saw that the potential for this lefthander is excellent. With the right sand build up, a low tide and a clean swell the waves will peel for a long way.

A surfer’s optimism and visualization are an interesting partnership. They keep us coming back for more – “maybe, just maybe”.

We went back to the beach break and tried to surf there. We caught a few waves but most of them were washing through and simply creating turmoil. As I was again swept onto the only rock on the beach I decided to call it quits.

That night my friend and I flew back to Shanghai. Despite not really scoring good waves all the time it had been a fun surf trip. The coastline is one of the better regions in China for surfing a variety of surf spots. However, most importantly we promised to go back and spend some time with our new friends in the Typhoon Surfing Club. They were generous and welcoming. Surfing is maybe getting a bigger grip in China than we first thought. Thankfully, the Typhoon Surfing Club is showing everyone how to do it well – with stoke and generosity.