Taiwan - Surfing in the Rebel Country (that is not a Country)

The British publication The Economist recently named Taiwan in a cover story as “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” because of the possibility of a shooting war with China PRC to reclaim the island.

The British publication The Economist recently named Taiwan in a cover story as “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” because of the possibility of a shooting war with China PRC to reclaim the island. The PRC considers the ROC to be a breakaway province that must be brought under the control of the motherland by force if necessary.

Modern Taiwan ROC is a mix of the ultra modern and the traditional, all under the cloud of a conflict with China PRC for control of the island

Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China or ROC, is having none of it. They have watched carefully what has happened to Hong Kong since being brought under mainland Chinese control in 1997 and they don’t like the changes at all.

Erwan Simon from France, looking over a typhoon groundswell in Kenting National Park in south Taiwan

While a unilateral declaration of independence is a red line that must not be crossed as it would trigger an invasion to retake the island by force, Taiwan does everything it can to conduct itself as an independent state outside the writ of Beijing.

Taipei is a modern metropolis with heavy vehicle and motorbike traffic and is the economic engine of Taiwan

Taiwan ROC has gone about its business over the decades in a shrinking sphere of influence, as China PRC steadily erodes its space to operate. The PRC mainly does this by turning the diplomatic recognition of “China” from Taiwan ROC to China PRC, with just 13 countries worldwide now recognizing Taiwan as the sole and exclusive representative of the Chinese nation.

A solid swell and approaching typhoon brings local surfers (and the police) to popular spots

While the United States and Japan both recognize the “One China” policy, which states there is only one China and Beijing is its capital, the US and Japan have also committed to defending Taiwan’s right to self-determination and actively sell weapons and provide assistance to prevent a hostile China PRC takeover.

Taiwan is not known for big waves, but if a strong typhoon enters the swell window, it can get big with strong currents sweeping up the Taiwan Strait

The situation is dangerous to be sure, but relations are much better than in decades past, after Taiwan served as an escape destination for the defeated Kuomintang Army after they lost the Chinese civil war to the Communists in 1949 and retreated to the island.

The Taiwan High Speed Rail network was built with Japanese Shinkansen and French TGV technology - not China PRC assistance

Once established under the Kuomintang flag, the newcomers took political control of Taiwan with the Kuomintang leader General Chiang Kai-Shek as President. The government declared martial law in 1949, effectively controlling the coastline of the island to repel the expected invasion from the mainland.

Erwan Simon from France on a solid typhoon swell on the west coast

Despite numerous crises over the Taiwan Strait,  that invasion has not happened (yet) but with martial law in place until 1987, surfing in Taiwan was not possible as the coastline was strung with barbed wire and strictly off-limits to everyone - no fishing, no swimming, no surfing, nothing.

Emiliano Cataldi from Italy, surfing the west coast of Taiwan before we got called out of the water by the police

While other countries in the region like Japan, The Philippines and Indonesia had seen surfers and surfing since the 1960’s, because of the tense military and political situation, Taiwan did not. There was only one area on the island open for ocean recreation, a small bay near Taipei called Honeymoon Bay where the Sun brothers from Hawaii operated a concession renting beach gear and surfed when there were waves.

Surfing is a relatively new activity in Taiwan and there are already thousands of active surfers in the country

Once martial law was repealed in 1987, a small group of expatriates wasted no time in exploring the potential for surfing in Taiwan, especially in the southern part of the island which is exposed to both the northeast monsoon and typhoon swell from the western Pacific Ocean.

The gravel and sand rivermouth waves of the west coast lie dormant for most of the year, until a strong typhoon swell arrives

After the long period of martial law, few locals had access to boards or the ocean swimming ability to start surfing, so this early period was left to expatriate or visiting American, Australian and Japanese surfers, who discovered and named many of the popular spots in and around Kenting National Park and up both the east and the west coasts.

Taiwan is producing more skilled local surfers like long boarder BayBay Niu from Taitung

Local surfers in Taiwan have steadily increased over the past two decades, mainly in the area around Taipei and also with a number of dedicated surfers who have moved out of the city to be closer to quality waves in the southern part of the island.

Big days on the west coast are rare, but can produce world-class waves with an offshore northeast wind

One of the institutions that has thrived in the areas around Taipei is the “Surf Club”, where members pay a monthly fee to store a board and a wetsuit on the premises. They can then take the train or drive from Taipei to the coast, where their board and a dry wetsuit are waiting at their club.

Smaller days on the west coast after the storm passes can producer pristine conditions

After a few hours of surfing, they can then have a snack, socialize with friends, update their social media and watch a surf video at the clubhouse before driving back to town. There are more than twenty of these surf clubs to the east of Taipei city with thousands of members, so they must be doing well.
Along with the growing scene of city surfers in Taipei, the southern part of Taiwan, which has more and better wave setups than the north, is also seeing its own surge in the numbers of local and visiting surfers in and around Kenting National Park in Pingtung County.

Local children are always playing on the beach and happy to make new friends

Southern Taiwan, unlike the northern half of the island, has numerous coral reef setups that come alive during powerful western Pacific typhoon swells. These are rare waves, waves that only break during typhoon events, and some of the best waves on the island. Also in the south are the mythical river mouth breaks of the west coast, positioned on the Taiwan Strait and facing towards mainland China. These locations look as if they would never get any swell, but they do.

Erwan Simon, surfing the west coast of Taiwan on the Taiwan Strait

When a typhoon passes below Taiwan, in the Luzon Strait, moving from east to west, a powerful groundswell is directed toward the southwest coast of Taiwan along with an offshore northeast wind. The rivermouth sandbars that have been dormant for months come alive with long and hollow waves, similar to the famous sand and gravel rivermouth waves of Shikoku Island in Japan.

The sand and gravel river mouth waves are similar to the river mouth waves of Shikoku Island in Japan

One of the holdovers from the martial law period is a law that states the authorities have the right to order everyone out of the ocean if a typhoon gets to within a certain distance of the island, regardless of the track of the storm or how good the surf is.

Emiliano Cataldi, surfing on the west coast of Taiwan

This law is still enforced and is strongly resented by every surfer in Taiwan as archaic and outdated. On a good typhoon swell, the police show up in numbers at popular waves like Nanwan in Kenting and use bullhorns to order everyone into the beach immediately.

The local surfing community on Taiwan is growing, with equal numbers of men and women surfers

They videotape surfers who refuse to leave the water and these surfers then receive fines of up to USD $300 in the mail for disobeying a public servant in the course of carrying out their duties. Visiting surfers who willfully disobey can be arrested and deported.

Erwan Simon, surfing on the west coast of Taiwan

It is quite possible to surf a typhoon swell in Taiwan without the annoyance of the police turning up and ordering everyone to the beach and locals employ various methods to do so, from parking deep in the bushes to hide vehicles to only surfing at lesser-known spots that the police don’t know are surf spots, at least until this archaic law is repealed.

Sunset over the Taiwan Strait on the west coast of the island

Surfing in Taiwan has two distinct seasons, the northeast monsoon from November to March and the humid, hot typhoon season from August to October. Both have their strong points, with the cool northeast monsoon being more consistent and having more different waves in different spots on the east coast and the sweaty typhoon season having bigger and more powerful waves on the east, south and west coasts.

The east coast of Taiwan can produce quality waves for much the year

For someone planning a surf trip to Taiwan, the northeast monsoon would likely have more waves, as the entire east coast can get swell with an offshore wind at several well-known waves in the Taitung area.

Surfing is a new arrival, but modern Taiwan can be more traditional than the mainland, as people seek to preserve the customs and traditions they brought to the island in the migration of 1949

Typhoon season is less consistent, as conditions in the south can be hot and flat if there is no active storm in the swell window. These conditions can rapidly change however, with the approach of a typhoon on a favorable track, but caution must be exercised as Taiwan is hit by a number of storms each typhoon season.

The west coast has many secret waves, to hide from the police on a strong typhoon swell

There are plenty of specialist websites to monitor typhoon activity in the western Pacific and Taiwan television is very good at providing regular storm track updates for any active storms in the vicinity.

Emiliano Cataldi, surfing on the west coast of Taiwan

One thing that Taiwan is justifiably famous for is food, with all kinds of Chinese food available, fresh and delicious with night markets of street vendors being extremely popular.

The food in Taiwan is justifiably famous, with the night markets of street vendors very popular

If you want something different from Chinese, no problem - all the major American and Japanese fast food restaurants are in the country and there are many other options as well.

Taiwan strives to be a modern nation independent from China PRC but preserving Chinese traditions from the mainland

The presence of so many American and Japanese companies in Taiwan might be an indicator of the truth of the old axiom “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and that certainly applies to Taiwan.

The coral reef waves of southernmost Taiwan take a seasonal typhoon swell to work - Japanese pro surfer Shuji Kasuya looks over the lineup

Both the US and Japan are rivals to the other China, the huge country across the 160 kilometers of the Taiwan Strait. The relationship with China PRC continues to define China ROC then, now and for the foreseeable future.

The surfEXPLORE Group at sunset on the east coast of Taiwan, crossing the Gangkuo Bridge with our dog friend

Text © John Seaton Callahan/surfEXPLORE Images © John Seaton Callahan/surfEXPLORE

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