South Korea is a future-facing, happening nation. The Winter Olympics were held at Pyeongchang in 2018 and the Tate Modern has just announced it’s largest ever sponsorship deal with South Korean car giant Hyundai.
The car firm has also given the Tate Modern the money to buy nine works by one of Asia’s most significant artists of recent years, the South Korean video artist Nam June Paik, who died in 2006. A new wave of South Korean artists are surely on the horizon, and some of them might be surfers. Watch this space.
South Korea is a dazzling example of the exceptional economic achievements of Asia’s Pacific Rim, but a place still more associated with Samsung and taekwondo than waves and reef breaks. The North of the peninsula is frozen in the totalitarian straight jacket of Cold War 1980, but south of the capitalist South in the East China Sea, is a potential Korean surfer’s paradise: Jeju island.
Advertised to Korean tourists as ‘Enchanting Jeju’ and ‘Honeymoon Island’, Jeju is located 33 degrees north, fifty miles from the mainland. Jungmon beach on the south facing coast has excellent exposure to hot-water typhoon swells between August and October. We took note, and a surfexplore trip was planned with John Seaton Callahan, Emi Cataldi, Randy Rarick and George Fujisawa from Japan.
We arrived to greet an intense rainstorm and a perplexing language barrier. It took a gentle stubbornness, some persuasive smiles, and a whole range of air-wrestling hand gestures to load our mass of boards on to the coach bound for the south coast tourist quarter. Here we found a cheap and charming minbak (guesthouse) in humble Sinsuseong Town, near Jungmon beach.
In the morning, the extreme, stair-rod rainstorm had passed, and a sight of the sea confirmed that Jeju has excellent waves. A left point, a right reef, and a safer beachbreak met as one, before unpacking in a brutal shorebreak on sheets of black mica sand, raked as the foam apron rushed up and sucked back.
The curvaceous right was operating like a pressure cooker, trapping air and spitting it back out. We dropped into inviting tubes with a liability clause—a buoy-lined swimming area, over which we had to ollie, like skateboarders, every time we connected to the inside. Otherwise, we got snagged by the buoys’ connecting rope.
As the day ripened, the landscape gave off a wonderful scent—tangerine groves above the basalt cliffs that dropped away to meet cola-coloured boulders rained on by a stunning waterfall.
Developers have spotted this beautiful landscape with a mix of hotels, windmills, bridges and a cherry-roofed conference centre. By 10 a.m. the lifeguards were on duty. Honeymooners hired yellow rubber rings, waded out of their collective depths, then got annihilated by the sea’s sounding board that was a pummelling shorebreak.
The lifeguards zealously guarded the buoy-line. It was the only place in the whole bay they had to keep safe. The trouble was, the lively end-section of the right-hander streamed through this area. I was jet-washed from a tube, straight over the zone, and the lifeguards scared the living daylights out of me, unleashing a monster-decibel air-raid siren.
Two locals paddled out, but the overhead sections were challenging for them. They clung to the shoulder, wide-eyed, and we kept an eye out for their safety. After the session, they took us to the local pharmacy in Sinsuseong Town, where they both worked. This was also the social hangout for the nascent Jeju surf community. They had recently formed the Wave Club, after they caught the bug from some visiting Japanese surfers.
We consumed excessive quantities of fibre-filled, vitamin-rich, sugary health tonics from medicinal-looking 100ml glass bottles, and went online to check the forecast—an increasing swell.
My senses were on hyper-alert for the afternoon session, after another power drink and a huge gulp of Pocari Sweat, a clear fluid that I thought was mineral water, but is actually an iron replacement isotonic. With this much glucose in my blood, I was furious when the Jungmon lifeguards declared ‘No surfing!’ across the PA, refusing to let us paddle out. The swell had tripled in size since the morning. With the beach closed, we did not want to offend the lifeguards, and opted to ride the left point, out of their sight.
Following a tricky walk across slippery rocks, I dealt with an astonishing fifteen-wave closeout set. Pacific typhoon swells are famous for long lulls and chronically overloaded sets. We clawed further and further outback. After heavy rainfall, the water was pea-green and detritus has littered the line-up.
Randy had to turn a regulation duck-dive underneath a breaking lip into a full roll when he saw a huge log thundering towards him. Thankfully, it just missed his head.
Noting that Randy’s board had a hefty chunk missing from the rail, we were now alert not only to hair-raising lips spending their force on our heads, but also to the floating log torpedoes that might be catapulted forward in them.
To our amazement, one of the locals paddled out. Heart visibly thumping, he scrambled to avoid getting mauled by what were almost certainly the biggest waves he had ever attempted to surf. With some encouragement and support from us, he snagged two beauties.
After a testing session, paddling in offered little choice but to use the beach, closed to surfing, as a safe exit, risking the wrath of the lifeguards. Emi and Randy got a warning whistle, but I managed to veer west, just in front of the forbidden roped zone. As I stood up on a hurtling, hollow right to take me to the shorebreak ensemble, I heard the siren once again. I walked past the lifeguards with a coy, apologetic wave.
Later, we all had a laugh about the confrontation over a cold glass of Hite beer, recalling the ear-piercing sound and the perplexed look on the lifeguards’ faces.
Right now, maintaining a long-standing tradition, competent surfers and zealous lifeguards will be at loggerheads at some beach or other across the globe. The archetypal confrontation between authority and freedom, played out between the characters in Big Wednesday, is as much a part of the surfing life as your sinuses emptying inappropriately at a black-tie evening function, when you had been surfing all afternoon with some heavy hold-downs.
The local brew is a let-down, and will not offer a memory stimulated by Randy’s collection of obscure beer labels from around the globe that he plans to resin into a coffee table. The beer says ‘made from naturally fresh spring water’ on the label, and tastes pretty much true to the description, advertising a distinct lack of hops.
The food, however, was potent, and the Hite then became a good counterpoise. Hot kimchi fizzed in my throat, and left a curious taste, at the same time both spicy and sour.
The fermented and pickled vegetables were once made to preserve nutrients during harsh northern winters. Now kimchi is an essential part of every Korean meal, even in the south. We were introduced to an amazing range of dishes, where kimchi are accompanied by heukdwaeji bulgogi (black pork), haemuljeongol (seafood stew), and hoe (raw fish). We cooked the meat ourselves over a white-hot stone and grill in a deep hole in the middle of a low table.
I was grateful that we had met the Wave Club crew. Without culinary guidance, who knows what mystery meat you could unknowingly eat here? ‘Duck’ is pronounced with an ‘aw’ sound, ‘dawk’, and since there is no difference in pronunciation between ‘G’ and ‘K’, dog sounds like ‘dawk’, and the Korean word for ‘chicken’ is dak. Culinary vigilance is the watchword for any less adventurous eaters.
I rounded things off with sujeongwa (the local cinnamon and ginger tea), and mentally started dealing with the promise of the largest swell I have seen all year.
The typhoon surf started to close out the whole of Jungmon, so while the local surfers were buckling down to work in Sinsuseong Town, we hired a driver, Jung, and his shiny new Hyundai van. Typically, we searched every escarpment and cove, beach and bay, cliff and harbour along the south coast between Songaksan and Pyoseon, only to head right back to the first spot we checked close to Jungmon.
At Seogwipo, a boulder-strewn cove had a cracking short right, with a hairy take-off. The local fishermen tried to call us ashore, shouting what we learn later was ‘danger!’ in Korean, not just to save us from drowning, but to prevent us from damaging their precious mussel beds. As the tide rose, the shallow left got longer, and we switched over for some fast rides over a sharp bottom, and came in, local mussels intact.
South Korea is a wired society of hardworking, serious and motivated people, based on an economic miracle, self-styled as ‘a dragon that rose from the ditch’. In the Confucian mould, conventional etiquette embodies strict hierarchy, so that everybody knows how to behave and speak with respect towards each other. Status and dignity are very important.
You might think that this attitude leaves little room for a frivolous pursuit like surfing. But in thriving South Korea, new things can attract the young and surfing may take a hold. Jung seems increasingly curious about surfing, warming to our character, and the following morning is keen to go and explore.
The whole south coast was howling onshore, so we opted to search up the west side. Our judgement was good, and at Dangansanbong village next to Chagwido Island, there was a marvellous left-hander. The harbour was lined with squid drying in the sun, and a five-foot left racked across the rock armour, sheltered from the strong east wind.
Elevator-drop take-offs were followed by fast-performance turns where precise timing was essential. When the wave got a little busy on you, drawn-out floaters slowed things down, and off-the-lips were landed as if at the eye of the storm, in a still patch of ocean, the movie reel flicking over, the screen gone white. We finally put on a show for Jung, and he was suitably impressed with our chosen alternative to the golf course.
Between sets, I stared out towards the village, seeing more squid hung out to dry like laundry. I thought of stories I had heard from Pacific fishermen about 50-foot squid with eyes like dinner plates, and the water seemed more alive with sea-life, the nutrients stirred by the storm and surfacing. I suddenly felt unwelcome out there.
Next morning some of the Wave Club crew jumped into the van, and we continued our tour of the 120-mile island. We passed the long lava caves spawned from the porous basalt of the Hallasen volcano, and watched the famous 60-year-old Haenyeo diving women go as deep as twenty metres with no scuba gear, to gather seaweed, shellfish and sea urchins.
We made it just in time for a well-earned evening session at Chagwido (aka Squid Point). The Wave Club members took on the lefts, fuelled by dangerous quantities of energy tonics, with rising lips taping them on the shoulder out of curiosity, but not breaking their backs because they were learning to ride with speed and timing.
We checked every conceivable beach, reef and coastal highpoint, and mapped five good new reefs, far more exciting than the beachbreaks the locals had previously considered Jeju’s choice surfing terrain.
Speed is essential to surfing. It is about confidence and rapid decision, positioning, getting in the pocket, but also using the body as a motor, making your way in to the sweet spot rather than waiting for it to happen. Nobody does speed well unless they have practised over and over, but their physical prowess must be matched by a mental agility.
The paradox about speed in surfing is that, where you need it most, in tube-riding, slotting in and making it out the other end, or at the tipping lip of a big wave drop, time also slows down.
After a crisp dawn session at Squid Point, riding the beginning of the new super-typhoon swell, we energized with an early lunch. I ate some severely hot kimchi. We had our fair share of heated moments riding ledges and boils, sliding long left points, and eating strange food on this trip, but this meticulously prepared spicy kimchi took the biscuit. And I began to like it, taking more lip-stinging hits. The stuff was still fizzing in my throat when we left.
Over the next hour, the wind swung offshore along the whole southern coast, and an enormous right was breaking far out beyond the east side of Jungmon Harbour, all the way into the tetra-pod harbour entrance. We drove around, and the whole Wave Club crew were lining the quay in anticipation.
There was no more time to let the kimchi settle. The spice must now show in displays of courage and hot surfing. Randy, inevitably, was first out to taste the larger stuff. He hurtled down a mammoth face on his magenta big-wave, gun-shaped board. It looked more like the North Shore of Oahu than the East China Sea.
Heart pumping hard, I paddled like lightning to the deep channel to avoid the next wave in the set cracking me on the head. I glanced back to the tangerine groves that sprawl towards the sea to check my line-up marker and caught a screamer.
Randy was back out and into another cascade, blaring down the wall and cranking a billowing bottom-turn, followed by a classy hook under the lip and then a poised stall before he gracefully stepped forward to pull into a menacing-looking tube.
Emi followed suit, also comfortable with the size from a number of trips to Hawaii, trimming at triple time as if on a piece of elastic drawn to breaking point, then just making the shoulder with a flourish of cymbals over the rock bottom.
Bigger waves, larger faces, give surfers the opportunity to carve big turns like snowboarders on steep, open runs—except that surfers have to cope with a moving and unpredictable surface. It is the quality of improvisation against this fast-moving pulse of the ocean as it races to dump its energy that always makes me think of surfers as kinds of jazz musicians.
The next three hours were the highlight of my surfing time in Asia. A Korean bolt from the blue—and we all scored, with John getting some remarkable magazine spreads.
We travelled with an openness to engage, gave something back, and reaped the rewards. We gained the respect and friendship of the Wave Club members, and opened their eyes to new waves; and they opened ours to great food, and, of course, the body-blanket that is kimchi. If food were matched to mood, then this addictive hot stuff would be courage.
After the session, Jung, who had diligently acted as our tour guide, driver, and gracious host, summarized what he had seen. We managed to make sense of it, as he now had some basic English, and we had a few words of Korean, and together we had a translation dictionary. ‘Sam-san,’ he says, ‘surfing is full of beauty.’
I cannot argue with that. South Korea had delivered on all fronts in a beautiful manner. It is a brilliant corner of the surfing world, offering quirky solos in the manner of Thelonius Monk, with strange melodies and discords that nevertheless seem to add up. (And since we visited, a Korean Surfing Federation has formed on the mainland.)
Words: Sam Bleakley / Photographs: John Seaton Callahan
A surfEXPLORE story