A Board, a Breeze, a Great Escape

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A Board, a Breeze, a Great Escape

Friday was the summer solstice and that means summertime has officially arrived. Make the most of the sun and take to the outdoors. Better yet, get wet.

Now is the time to step off your treadmill and add a splash to your workout. For those living in Seoul, the Han river is a nearby destination with several outdoor sports possibilities.

The river is divided into several neighborhoods, each with its own personality and athletic venues. Ttukseom, on the north side of Han River between Jamsil bridge and Hannam bridge, is the first area to be spotlighted on this page in a series of articles to appear during the next few weeks.

At Ttukseom, there are several sports options for land and water. Once the temperatures soar, many people can be found waterskiing or frolicking at the outdoor swimming pool, which opens Saturday through August. The area's specialty, though, is windsurfing.

The best months for experienced windsurfers are March through May, or September through November. The wind is calmer during the summer months, which is why beginners, including this reporter, prefer to try out their skills from June to August. The breeze on the river may be weaker than by the ocean, but if the wind picks up, as many as 500 people can be found windsurfing or hanging out, even during the rainy season.

"I've heard it all," Jung Un-yong, a bronzed, TV entertainer who windsurfs when he's not on the job, is telling me. We are sitting on a riverbank that has a view of the cityscape. "'I'm going to the hospital,' 'I have a business meeting,' and then they play hooky from work."

On any given work day when the breeze picks up a fair number of the adults who are windsurfing really should be at work. In the tight-knit windsurfing community, "You can't hold a job and surf" is a mantra. The call of the water, the wind and the sun is as tempting as a siren.

Onewindsurfer, a manager of a gas station, started windsurfing 10 years ago on his lunch break. His break, noon to 2 p.m., soon increased to 3, then 4 p.m., until finally he was sacked. It's a common story in the community.

Surfers are also reputed to be big liars. "The way I see it, there are three sports that draw liars: fishing, golfing and windsurfing. Look at those beginners," Mr. Jung said, gesturing to the Han river. After surfing, those beginners will scramble up to the shore with excitement, bragging about their hot ride, when the wind was clearly a light breeeze.

Mr. Jung turns his criticism into a compliment of the sport, saying, "That excitement, it shows how much they love windsurfing."

After hearing a lot of talk about how easy, exciting and safe the sport is, I decide to see for myself.

The next day, I packed a pair of old green shorts, an Adidas tank top and some sunscreen and head for the river. Ttukseom became a windsurfing spot after the 1988 Summer Olympics. To prepare for the Olympics, 160 windsurfers from various countries got together and displayed their talents in the water next to the Olympic Stadium, drawing attention to the untapped potential of the river. The government eventually cleaned up the polluted river. But to this day, the Han hasn't completely shaken its dirty reputation.

My instructor, Jun Soon-gu, meets me outside the Geondae subway stop in his Galloper sports utility vehicle. He is an oldtime windsurfer. When he began in 1983, there were few professionals and Ttukseom had not yet developed as a windsurfing mecca. Mr. Jun and several friends taught themselves by watching windsurfing videos. Now he runs a ski shop during the winter and teaches windsurfing during the summer.

We drive past an asphalt parking lot onto a rocky dirt road. About 60 windsurfing schools, headquartered in metal shacks, face the river.

Classes are generally 50,000 won ($39) for a day, 200,000 won for five days, and 400,000 won for a month. The cost includes use of equipment and showers. Equipment rental alone costs 30,000 won a day.

After strapping on a lifejacket, I help Mr. Jun carry a board down to the dock. He demonstrates the three basic moves of staying upright: rolling, pitching and yawing.

I take a look at the river and decide even though it is not blue and clear, it appears sanitary enough. I hop into the water while Mr. Jun gets into a motorboat.

"Balance is key to staying dry on top of the board," Mr. Jun tells me as I crawl onto the board. After 20 minutes, I am soaked.

We pull the board back onto the dock to try a simulation practice on land. After fitting a mast onto a practice board, I learn about hoisting the mast and harnessing the breeze. Finally, Mr. Jun sits me down for a safety lecture.

After this crash course, I am ready. I carry a sail down to the dock, lock it into the board, and set out to ride the wind and the water.

The revitalizing efforts of the government paid off and Ttukseom exploded as a windsurfing spot in the early '90s. It's easy to see why.

While windsurfing is best acomplished in a vast body of water where a participant can pick up speed and skim the water, there is something uber-cool about windsurfing smack dab in the middle of a sprawling metropolis. Even with only a slight breeze, I sail right off the shore. The wind picks up around 2 p.m. and then I really get going. I can't say I have mastered the sport, but it is a kick to mix sailing, surfing and the great outdoors under the shadow of the Olympic Stadium, Seoul's great monument to a sporting life.

I show up for work the next day, and leave in the afternoon for a two-hour interview. What, my hair looks wet? You didn't notice that brief afternoon shower?


WHO THEY ARE: Those who like to be waited on need not apply. "And you can forget about the golfer type," one windsurfer said. Windsurfers carry their own equipment and aren't afraid to get wet. Lifejackets are required.

BODY BENEFITS: Upper arms - from controlling the mast and carrying the equipment. Abdomen - from maintaining balance and keeping the body upright. Calves - from balancing on the board.

GETTING THERE: Ttukseom subway stop is close to the river, but there are no buses that will take you to the windsurfing schools. Get off at Geondaeipgu, Konkuk University, subway stop, walk out of exit number five and take local bus 57-8 to Ttukseom jongjeom, the last stop.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call 02-456-1114, 02-454-4651 or 02-486-6462 (Korean only). If you give the instructors advance notice, they will find an English-speaking teacher.

by Joe Yong-hee

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