We cruised through the first 6-mile stretch, not exerting too much energy in anticipation of what was to come farther down river. I was able to recall from some landmarks where good sections had been the previous year, and we managed to maximize what was available. I got onto a right that was peeling 50 feet off the steep cement river bank and rode it for about two miles to the stadium-like cheering from the crowd. Every so often I would look over and give a big fist pump or something of the sort, which would intensify the cheer.
It was the first week of October and China was in the midst of massive celebrations for the sixtieth anniversary of the rise of the Communist Party. Jamie Sterling, a couple of our photographer/filmer friends and myself were in the city of Hangzhou, on the Qiantang River. We'd come to surf the riverthe fabled "Silver Dragon."
For the first time, a Surfing Festival was to be included in the city's Moon Festival, an annual holiday during the full moon, in which all festivities go into overdrive. There were festivals for everything. There was the Tidal Bore Festival, a one-day event during the Moon Festival, when everybody comes and watches a tidally-induced wave rush up the Qiantang River. The river actually has a good, surfable wave for several days, but everybody in the city comes down to watch on the biggest day.
People are generally scared and respectful of the river. For thousands of years people have lost their lives after getting too close to the river, so the thought of us going out and riding it was pretty surreal. As far as we can tell, our 2008 expedition was the first time anybody had actually tried to ride the wave. Normally it's illegal and patrolled by police, but our initial mission was enough of a success that we'd been formally invited back during the historic first week of October.
The plan was to introduce surfing and skateboarding to China as an encouraged pastime, much how it is in the rest of the world wherever there is an ocean and a general level of prosperity. It's a big plan, and a great idea considering how much coastline there is in China. This year, our surfing had evolved into a surfing festival, complete with skateboarding demos at a quickly assembled skatepark, featuring bands and parties. It was an interesting circumstance to be involved with of on many fronts.
We were hosted by the Hangzhou City Government, so we had a kind of diplomatic role to play with some high-level cats. There was also the business role, with the entrepreneurial group Wabsono, the brains and promoters behind this event, and then at the core of it, there's us surfing down this river in an industrial town all the while introducing surfing to the masses all over China. It was a bizarre, exciting week in China with long days, tired legs, more food and social situations than Obama takes on, and a couple of full-on Mick Jagger moments.
A Brazilian team was also invited to add a perceived "competitive" element to the surfing, as the Chinese are very competitively driven, especially winding down after the Olympics. They had a full media ensemble as well, and we all got carted around together in a government-owned mini bus. Our faces were pinned to the windows as we routinely drove from our nice hotel to the river every day, with thousands of stares pouring back our way.
Last year we had an interesting situation when a typhoon paused just off the coast and churned up wind and waves, which made the bore wave bigger. On the peak days it was roaring, ranging between six-to-12 feet, and very dangerous in certain parts where a fall would mean a long dragging underwater because the wave doesn't let up. This year there was no typhoon, which meant nicer weather but much less wave power. Our first few days leading up to the peak day, the bore was benign, just a mushy three-foot left going with the same form for about six miles. The wave morphs with different contours and depths of the bottom and banks, so we were constantly on the lookout for new sections that would pop up. Often times they'd only last a couple minutes, which sounds long, but on the span of the river it isn't really that much time, especially when you're darting from bank-to-bank on a jet ski, which can be a mile chase.
The actual Tidal Bore Festival was far and away our best run. It was our fourth day on the brown river and we had open reign to surf 15 miles. Up until this point, the government had only granted us access to six miles of the river. On this da, we were to strategically start and finish our rides where the opening and closing ceremonies were taking place where the skatepark and thousands of people (including city officials and our hosts) were. This was our only day of quality surfing. The wave was the biggest, ranging between four-to-six feet and moving with good speed. As was becoming routine, Jamie and I started our session by taking a 10-minute walk through the crowd to where we launched. It was one of our moments to mix and mingle, stray away from the bus, and check out the river bank scene, which was packed tight with spectators and vendors selling food. Everyone was taking our photos, touching our boards, giving us thumbs up clearly excited to see us surf the bore.
I rode past the densest section of people we encountered, on what proved to be the best section, and kicked out at our ending spot. It was a surreal session. We surfed past hundreds of thousands of people, got off the ski and clambered up a sketchy cement bank where about 15 police were waiting to escort us to the waiting media. Jamie and I were surrounded by police and a cheering mob of people. We went into full interview mode after, took endless photos, had all the models associated with the surfing festival hanging around us it was the closest thing to a rock star moment we've ever had and really the highlight of the trip. Only in China.
That night was the closing ceremony with video of the surfing on a big screen, awards (Brazil: Best Move, Us: Best Style), fashion shows, music and a massive dinner where high-level Chinese guys had their wives challenge the biggest guys in the surf group to drinking contests. The ladies were winning. It was a wild scene and a festive farewell with our hosts.
So surfing in China in the big picture? Not on this river. It's far too dangerous for people without extensive wave knowledge and swimming skills. But on the coasts, that's something I can foresee taking seed and hopefully expanding, because as we all know, it truly is an enriching activity to have in one's life. I might need some time off, though.