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Catching winter’s waves

A surfer catches a wave off Chilgok Beach in Pohang.(Oh Kyu-wook/The Korea Herald)
A surfer catches a wave off Chilgok Beach in Pohang.(Oh Kyu-wook/The Korea Herald)
Local surfers embrace ‘best time of year’


POHANG, North Gyeongsang Province ― Now that we are in the deep of winter, most of us try to escape the winter chills, seeking the warmth of our homes. But for surfers in Korea this is the best time of the year to go to the beach.

Many may raise their eyebrows if you say you are going to stand on a surfboard, waiting to be hit by waves, especially in these sub-zero temperatures.

But the number of people surfing in our waters has increased significantly in recent years, said Min Kyung-shik, 28, a surfer who works at the Songjeong surf shop in Busan.

“People think there are no waves in Korea, but the waves are just under your nose,” he said. But the question is: can we surf in icy water?

“Yes you can surf, and if you have a wetsuit and gloves you can stay out as long as you want,” Min added, while fitting a surfboard into the inside of his van.

On a Saturday morning, a team of brave winter surfers set off at about 9 a.m., heading from Busan towards Pohang, in North Gyeongsang Province.

“There are no waves in Busan today, but a friend of mine told me Pohang has great waves,” said Min, a current of excitement running through his voice as he describes how big the waves can be in the winter season.
Surfers embrace the winter waves at Songjeong Beach in Busan. (Song Jeong Surfing Club)
Surfers embrace the winter waves at Songjeong Beach in Busan. (Song Jeong Surfing Club)

“Pohang is a good spot for surfing. In winter especially, under the right conditions the waves can be world-class.”

Winter is actually when Korea’s waves are at their best, according to Min.

“In summer, the waves come from the south, but from the north in the winter, and winter waves are usually bigger and stronger.”

And with the wind in the right direction, winter surfing here can be as good as Hawaii or other world-renowned surfing destinations, he added.

Another reason for surfing in winter is the lack of crowds, Min said.

“We are not allowed to surf between July and August when summer crowds take over the beaches. But by the end of October, the crowds have gone, and the beaches are empty.”

After a two-hour drive, the van pulled over near the Chilgok Beach in Pohang. There were already a few surfers waiting for us.

“We often surf together, sometimes in Busan or sometimes in Pohang wherever there are waves,” said Hwang Sang-won, 34, a salesman from Busan, who said he moved to Haeundae Beach because of surfing.

“I can’t find anything that I’m as passionate about in my life as surfing. Whenever I see the waves I just jump into the water.”

The temperature in Pohang reached minus 4.5 degree Celsius on that day. Although the sky was clear and the sun was shining it couldn’t disguise the fact that it wasn’t just cold, it was freezing.

“Don’t worry, the water is not as cold as you think. It is usually between 5-10 degrees Celsius, and never goes below 3 degrees,” Min said.

He and other surfers got suited in their 5mm wetsuits, 7mm gloves and booties. They waxed their boards and smeared on some petroleum jelly to prevent wind burn. They were ready to jump into the water.

Despite having a little trouble wearing my wetsuit ― I had to wear two layers of 3mm wetsuits as I couldn’t prepare the more-protective 5mm wetsuit, I was also ready to brave the winter water.

The water, like he said, was not as cold as the air temperature, and it actually felt quit warm. The problem, however, was not the temperature but the waves: they were so relentless and high, making it difficult to wade into the water.

While I was still struggling on my surfboard to get balance, other surfers were already further off the shore, waiting for the waves.

Min, who is also a champion windsurfer, was very quick. When the big swell came, he paddled fast toward the shore and less then a second later he was on the board standing still. Min then nicely executed his surfing moves, twisting the board and making a couple of turns, before diving into the water.

Meanwhile, I was still fighting with the choppy waves. As I tried to paddle out my board snapped at my face as a big wave hit it. And I got caught on the inside water again. During the three hours of trying, I wasn’t able to stand up on the board once.

“This is normal for beginners. I wasn’t able to stand up on the board for eight hours at my first surfing,” said Min.

When I came out of the sea my feet were so numb that I could barely feel the ground, and my teeth start chattering and I wondered if I would ever feel warm again.

We threw our towels on the carseat and drove to the nearby guest house. We hopped into the shower with the wetsuit on and started to strip down as we felt the warmth again.

It was a refreshing and definitely a great feeling.

“For me the best part of winter surfing is the hot shower and cup of tea afterwards. It’s the best insulation against the winter cold,” said Seo Mi-hee, 45, who runs a surf shop in Songjeong in Busan.

Seo, who has been surfing for more than 10 years, expects that more Koreans will take up surfing in the future, citing the sport’s easy accessibility.

The benefit of surfing, she said, is that once you learn, you can do it anywhere.

“You don’t need go abroad. There are many good places to go here. And the good thing is you don’t pay anything to get into the water, and you can enjoy it all year-round,” she added.

By Oh Kyu-wook (596story@heraldcorp.com)

If you want try surfing and feel the pleasure of the hot shower and cup of tea afterwards, here are the five favorite spots in Korea to catch winter waves.

1. Chilgok Beach in Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province

The sand beach that lies at the southeast tip of Korea gets the fastest low-tide waves in Korea.

2. Haeundae Beach in Busan

Korea’s most popular summer destination is also known for its amazing waves. But it is place for advanced surfers, as there are many rocks below the water.

3. Songjeong Beach in Busan

Songjeong is a beach break, where waves break on the sandy seabed. It has plenty of sandy spots and good waves for beginners.

4. Gisamun Beach in Yangyang, Gangwon Province

Gisamun, which located along the 38th parallel, has plenty of sandy spots, and is relatively easy to reach from Seoul. But the water is a few degrees chiller than other locations.

5. Jungmun Beach, Jeju Island

This sand beach surrounded by steep cliffs is known for gorgeous scenery and amazing waves. Also, surfers say the water is so warm that you don’t need to wear a wetsuit even in winter.

The popular surfing destinations have surf schools and surf camps for the beginners.

For more information visit the http://www.surfschool.co.kr and also http://www.ksasurf.org.
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