Surfing, it turns out, is not like riding a bike.
I learn this lesson well as I tumble in gentle surf, struggling to hang on to my borrowed longboard and trying to relearn what I knew a decade ago as a young backpacker in Australia.
After a half-dozen attempts, I manage to catch the remnants of a tiny wave that has already broken once or twice. I spring up on the board, just like I remember doing at Bondi Beach in Sydney, and then promptly lose my footing and slip backward into the ocean.
"Wow," chuckles a friend, wading into the water from an empty, white beach. "You're really bad."
Just a few beaches down, some more accomplished surfers are having much better luck. There, in Riyue Bay (about halfway between Sanya and Haikou) on this island in southern China, the 2010 O'Neill Surfing Hainan Open is under way. The event, now in its third year, began as a grassroots competition organized by Brendan Sheridan, an American expatriate living on the island. In the first two years, it drew an amateur crowd from around Asia, and participants took the competition about as seriously as their hangovers allowed.
This year, however, things are different.
First, sponsors jumped on board, and then local authorities, initially skeptical about Hainan's potential as a surf destination, sniffed opportunity. With an investment of about $1.51-million, the government improved roads and beach infrastructure, flew in professional surfers and inaugurated the Wanning International Surf Festival, timed to coincide with the Open and featuring a lavish opening ceremony, surf seminars and dancing girls in hula skirts.
The goal is ambitious – to transform Hainan into an international surfing destination. Nobody denies that the island, sometimes dubbed "China's Hawaii," has a long way to go. But the government (and indeed many surfers) is confident that Hainan, with its 5,000 kilometres of coastline, has the potential to become a hotbed of surf culture. This year, the Association of Surfing Professionals hosts a women's longboard event from October 26 to 30, and on Dec. 3 and 4, Billabong hosts the 2011 Surfing Hainan Open.
"The government has realized surfing is a very international sport-slash-religion," says David Greenberg, an urban designer from Hawaii who has done work on Hainan since the 1990s and consulted on the Wanning Festival. "And it's easy to make converts."
Hainan, a 90-minute flight from Hong Kong with coasts on the South China Sea and Gulf of Tonkin, is best known for hosting the annual Miss World Competition. Once home to exiled criminals (and today sister province to Prince Edward Island), Hainan is experiencing a tourism boom.
Sanya, on the southern coast, is now home to luxury hotels by Ritz-Carlton, Banyan Tree, Mandarin Oriental, Kempinski and more. In 2008, 20.6 million tourists visited the island.
While some Western visitors to Hainan – Sanya in particular – complain of crowds and a decided lack of subtlety, the vibe in Wanning is much more relaxed: This stretch of coast one hour from Sanya still feels like a remote getaway. Riyue Bay, where the competition is held, is home to just a few low-end hotels and eateries.
Despite introducing a professional class, the surfing open is still more beach party than serious sporting event. Surfers inhale burgers and sip cans of Hainan beer between sets, pose for photos with locals and, in the evening, party till late on the beach.
Although the surfers here acknowledge Hainan's waves are nowhere near the quality of those in Indonesia or Hawaii, most agree the island has the potential to become a surfing destination.
"Right now, they only know a handful of surf spots here," Robert (Wingnut) Weaver, an American best known for his role in the surf documentary Endless Summer II, tells me between heats in the pro bracket. "But if you go to Google Earth and look at this island, it's got the most crenulated coastline, and that's really what you want."
In the lead-up to the festival, the government hired SurfEXPLORE, a group of surfers that travels the world looking for new and exciting destinations, to see if Hainan has what it takes to draw an international surf crowd. The team members spent 20 days hauling their boards up and down the coast and were impressed by what they found.
"The feeling from everyone is, yeah, it's totally doable," says Emiliano Cataldi, an Italian member of SurfEXPLORE. "It's consistent enough surf-wise, and this location [Riyue Bay]has a lot of options – a lot of different waves. It's by far the best place to surf in China."
Mr. Cataldi says the surf is similar to what you might find in Taiwan or on the European coast in the summer. "It's perfect for beginners."
Despite the enthusiasm Hainan's tourism authorities have mustered for the festival, it's clear that surfing is still a long way from catching on with locals.
In fact, beach culture itself is still new to most Chinese. During the three-day festival, most of the several hundred locals in attendance show up more out of curiosity than because of any real interest in surfing. Many spectators wear long pants and shoes on the beach and carry umbrellas to avoid any direct contact with sunlight.
The competition itself features just a handful of Chinese surfers. One of them is Tie Zhuang, 26, from the grasslands of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in northern China. Mr. Zhuang, who has a chipped front tooth and bears a striking resemblance to Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, followed his brother to Hainan and learned surfing from Hawaiian travellers.
"I stood up on the board the first time I went out. I fell in love with it right away," says Mr. Zhuang, a wet suit pulled down to his waist. He tells me that surfing is catching on in China, albeit slowly, and he's confident surf culture can bloom in Hainan. "Life's more relaxed here," he says. "More freedom."
For now, however, many of the surfers here are happy Hainan's beaches haven't been overrun – yet."It's beautiful here," says Niu Chen Lin, a 35-year-old surf shop owner from Taiwan, minutes before she wins the amateur longboard event. "If there wasn't a competition here right now, there would be no one. That's a good thing when you're surfing."
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Air Canada flies direct to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. China Southern Airlines ( csair.com/en), Air China ( airchina.com) and Hainan Airlines ( global.hnair.com) fly to Sanya or Haikou, the provincial capital, from major Chinese cities. Dragon Air ( dragonair.com) flies from Hong Kong.
Where to stay: Le Meridien Shimei Bay Beach Resort and Spa is Wanning's luxury option. The hotel features 275 rooms, including 25 villas complete with private pools, beachfront access, a gorgeous atrium lobby and several bars and restaurants. Double rooms from $250. 86-898-6252-8888; starwoodhotels.com/lemeridien 21st Century hotel is a bare-bones affair in Riyue Bay and a popular choice for surfers on a budget. Doubles from about $35. 86-898-6258-5588
Where to eat: The local government recently tore down some beachside eateries in Riyue Bay, leaving dining options limited. Barbecue and other Western options at the Billabong Open will be provided by The Dolphin Sports Bar & Grill, an expatriate-run establishment in Sanya.
Surf school: Surfing Hainan; 8 Huayun Rd., Sanya; 86-135-1980-0103; surfinghainan.com. A two-hour lesson and rental starts at $55 a person.
Special to The Globe and Mail