"You're not going to China to surf! Or are you?"
For the first time in a long time I don't really know what to answer. Yes? No? Maybe? The more I get asked this question and the more confused I get about what the most appropriate response would be.
China, Hainan Island in the South China Sea
How do I know if I'll surf when I don't have the foggiest idea of what awaits me when I arrive? Although I've tried to research as much as possible beforehand, I don't really know what to expect from this trip.
Hainan Island in the South China Sea, the search for surf
And the information superimposed on the screen of my laptop is so contradictory that the picture becomes even less clear. Is China PRC a first world or third world nation? Capitalism or socialism? Rich? Poor? Freedom of speech? Waves? Even that trusted and omniscient adviser that is the World Wide Web seems to have unclear ideas about it.
Erwan Simon from France and the fun river mouth sandbar wave at Shimei Bay
So what now? Nothing better but go and see for myself. I decided to play it safe - keep the expectations low and get ready to be surprised.
Holly Beck from California, at the river mouth sandbank wave at Shimei bay
The only certainty I have is that this journey's destination is the Wanning region of Hainan, a tropical island in the South China Sea that the local government aims to make an international tourist destination. Think Bali or Hawaii, only in China.
Emiliano Cataldi from Italy, surfing in the south China Sea
But there's more - one of the main attractions the government relies on to achieve such an ambitious goal is surfing, and to assess the surfing potential ahead of the upcoming Wanning International Surfing Festival, due in early November, they decided to invite a crew of international surfers to spend some time in search of waves on the island.
With many points and headlands and no government restrictions on where we can go, there are many possibilities for waves in Hainan
The first recruit and a key player of the project is Californian pro surfer Holly Beck: intelligent, smart, enthusiastic, well traveled, and always stoked on whatever the day dishes out for her. As far as ambassadors go, they couldn't have picked a better one than Holly.
On behalf of U1st sporting agency and as the main figure of the international surfing contingent, one of Holly's tasks is to pick a team of surfers that could bring a wide array of knowledge and best represent the international surf community at the formal meetings we'll be attending.
Sam Bleakley from the UK, getting up on the nose in the South China Sea
The surfEXPLORE Group (consisting of Cornish longboarder Sam Bleakley, Breton surf explorer Erwan Simon, photographer extraordinaire John Seaton Callahan and myself) is her next pick, along with Save The Waves CEO Dean LaTourette, longboard legend and Endless Summer 2 star Robert “Wingnut” Weaver and Santa Cruz pro surfer Kim Mayer.
Nik Zanella, editor of Italy's Surf News magazine, is invited as well thanks to his invaluable knowledge of Chinese culture and languages.
Riyue Bay (Sun Moon Bay) is one of the most popular surfing areas on the island
On the guest list are also Maui based eco-architect David Greenberg and Malibu longtime local Jim “Jimmy’z” Ganzer, while surf brand O'Neill sends over from Australia former WCT competitors Rob Bain and Jarrad Howse along with big wave charger Mark Matthews to compete in the inaugural Hainan Surfing Open.
China meets Surfing. Sounds like a big deal? It is.
Entire villages along Wanning's picturesque coast get a face lift, access roads get paved, trees are planted, beaches are cleaned up and locals instructed not to use beaches as a local dumping ground for appliances and rubbish. Surfers are flown to Hainan from the four corners of the planet and posted in the posh Le Meridien beach resort at Shimei Bay for two weeks.
Many of the local people on Hainan were not sure what surfing was, but enjoyed the events
Journalists, reporters and TV crews flock into Wanning from as far as Beijing for the conferences and the Festival's opening ceremony. Giant billboards with surf shots taken just days before are now scattered across the viaducts and bridges along the island's main highway to advertise the event. Ever wonder how China became the world's second largest economy? Things get done quickly. People work hard.
My hair's still wet as I sit in the front row at the Festival's opening ceremony waiting to be called onstage. So is everyone else's. Surf is pumping just out front, and it's been like that for almost two weeks now. I nearly miss my name called on stage to watch a set of solid righthanders wrap around a tiny island about a mile offshore.
The northeast monsoon season of November to March brings consistent swell to the east coast of Hainan, with waves over two meters.
Every day we seem to stumble upon some crazy new setup: epic beachbreak one day, rippable pointbreak the next, hollow river mouths, fun wedges, reefbreaks - the place has it all.
And it's got swell! The seasonal northeasterly monsoon blows pretty much non stop from November to March producing some solid windswell aimed straight to Hainan's north and east coasts.
Emiliano Cataldi, taking advantage of the morning conditions at Riyue Bay
Erwan Simon from France, surfing in the South China Sea
Holly Beck at a high-quality beach break wave on the east coast of Hainan
Wanning's southeast facing coast still gets plenty of swell with the added bonus of the offshore wind, meaning that clean and offshore conditions are the norm during most winter days.
Erwan Simon, off the top at a punchy beach break on the east coast of Hainan
I used to think that the only ties between China and surfing were the clothing and surfboard factories scattered around the mainland, but I was wrong.
Holly Beck from California, was entirely comfortable in the clean beach break conditions
After working behind the sewing machine and in the shaping room for over a decade now, China is finally ready to take it to the beach. And it's happening right now. It's got the drive, money and government backing.
Erwan Simon from France, surfing in the warm tropical waters of the South China Sea
Even the ASP is eyeing a WQS event on the island for next year, as confirmed by Australasian Tour Manager Dane Jordan during the Festival's opening ceremony. More importantly perhaps, the Chinese people are now taking it to the ocean.
With relatively low population density, Hainan doesn't feel as crowded as other places on the Chinese mainland
Mind you, within surfing's inner circles it's never been a secret that Hainan had rideable waves. Australians and American expats have been surfing these beaches quite regularly for the past thirty or so years, ever since Aussie legend Peter Drouyn first laid his eyes on Sun Moon Bay's pointbreak.
Emiliano Cataldi, surfing in the clean water of the south China Sea
The biggest deal perhaps is the birth of a local scene. Mama's restaurant on the beach at Sun Moon Bay is the epicenter of it all, with Mama's two sons leading the pack of a dozen or so surf stoked locals.
Sam Bleakley from the UK, long boarding in fun offshore waves on Hainan Island
Thanks to Surfing Hainan's Brendan Sheridan and the visiting surfers that left behind their boards over the years, the local surfers can now count on a stock of over 40 boards to choose from. Some, like Mama's oldest son Huang Wen, support their surfing lifestyle by renting out boards, giving surf lessons, taking care of visiting surfers and honing their skills on the point just in front of his mom's warung style restaurant.
Holly Beck from California, using her knowledge and skill at a beach break on Hainan Island
Back on land, our daily strolls down the beach unveil slices of everyday life: far from the hectic city life and the glamours of Shanghai and the likes, Hainan seems to move at a pretty relaxed pace.
Sam Bleakely from the UK, on a sandbar wave next to the granite rocks
In most of the countryside the life's still pretty village-oriented, reflecting the locals' strong bond with the island's own culture and traditions of fishing and farming.
Life on Hainan Island is decidedly rural for many residents, focused on traditional occupations like fishing and farming.
Thanks in large part to its geographical isolation, Hainan managed to preserve much of its cultural identity even through the vicious Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s that wiped out a big portion of the country's historical heritage on the mainland, as Mao’s Red Guards rampaged through temples and hutongs, the ancestral courtyard houses of north China, burning and ransacking priceless cultural treasures to please Chairman Mao.
Hainan can produce high-quality waves throughout the northeast monsoon season from November to March
Having served as a place of exile for intellectuals and dissidents in the past, far from Beijing and the reach of the Emperor, played a significant role in shaping up the island's character.
Inevitably, there are plenty of contrasts too. But being presented and learning how to deal with them is the very same reason because we all love to travel.
Holly Beck, surfing in the Hawaii of China, Hainan Island in the South China Sea
Erwan Simon from France, surfing in the warm, tropical waters of the South China Sea, a big contrast to his home waves in Brittany.
Emiliano Cataldi, working over a quality beach break wave on Hainan Island
If there is one thing that I've learned during the two trips I've done to China so far, is that I should stop trying to classify things that happen around me according to models that belong to my own culture rather than theirs. See things for what they really are, not for what they appear to be.
Sam Bleakley, a good day at the beach break of Hainan Island in the South China Sea
Good times and good surf aside, this is the true essence of what Hainan really taught me. I came for the waves and got home with a whole new perception of this special place. I kept my expectations low and she made me want to come back for more.
Now, that's a surprise.
Erwan Simon from France, on a clean and hollow wave at the beach break on Hainan Island in the South China Sea
Text © Emiliano Cataldi/surfEXPLORE
Images © John Seaton Callahan/surfEXPLORE