It beats going to Jeju and waiting for storms

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It beats going to Jeju and waiting for storms

Surfing in Korea is like snow skiing in the Sahara Dessert.

It's not happening.

"You can't surf in Korea," a windsurfer tells me. "Try Japan." It is the reply I get from local water sports professional when I ask about surfing in Korea.

I have never surfed before. I am not a boogie boarder. I have never taken a ride on a boogie board. I've never paddled out into the ocean, sat up and waited for that perfect wave.

I have seen reruns of that old TV show starring Sally Field, "Gidget." I have read about California schools devoted to teaching women how to surf, or become "gidgets." I have been tossed about by the ocean, but I have never done a 360 on a wave.

According to my surfing friends, the world is divided between surfers and nonsurfers. Surfers are rad. Nonsurfers are, well, let's just say nobody dreams about being a nonsurfer.

Korea is not the best place in the world to take up surfing. But I have heard tall tales of surfing off Jeju Island during monsoons.

"It was right after a huge storm," a triathlete once told me. "These two surfers were out there catching waves, and then the coast guard came and chased them away."

I asked, "Can I have their number?"

He said, "I heard this from a friend, and it was several years ago."

So I go online, checking search engines like Naver, Yahoo and Google for Korean surfers. I get plenty of windsurfing sites and a water sports museum in Korea with a paragraph about surfing, but no surf school, surf club, surf store. I find Jet Skiing and even kite-boarding in Korea, but no surfing.

And then one day as summer was rapidly becoming a memory, a discussion about swimming pools led to talk about Carribean Bay in Everland, the big amusement park south of Seoul, and then to surfing.

Several years ago, Caribbean Bay, a water theme park, introduced a surfing simulator called the Surfing Rider. Slowly, but surely, the people and the culture followed.

An artificial ride is not the same thing as catching the Big One at Maui, but I had no choice but to go to Caribbean Bay if I was going to surf this summer.



When I arrive at the Rider, the first boarder I see is Kang Ho-jin. He has dark skin, pierced ears and tattoos. A red bandanna holds his hair back. He is wearing baggy flower-print shorts. His hands reach into the water below him for balance as he leans his lower body to the right, then the left in a movement called edging.

The Surfing Rider is a concrete slope covered by a soft exercise-mat surface over which a pump shoots 117 tons of water a minute in a wide but shallow plane. That is the equivalent of the water spewed by 150 fire hoses. The stream is steady, and a "surfer" on a hard-foam board can, if he is good, stay on the steep part of the slope, riding the wave. The water, which is only a couple of inches deep, glides under the board. The board is about a meter long, too short for a standup routine, but nobody complains.

The ride operator announces that five minutes are up. Kang flings the board away and lets the water pressure push him back into the pool behind the slope. The spectators clap.

Kang is one of several thousand people packed into Everland. It is 9 in the morning. During the peak season, people begin lining up to enter the park, at 6:30 a.m.; it opens at 8:30 a.m.

I find Kang, who's back in line with two of his friends, and ask him to show me how to ride the boogie board.

"It's really easy," he says. He throws the board on the floor and kneels. "Lie down and hold the board half way, on the sides. Lots of people hold it up too high. But that's totally wrong. Push forward to go backward, pull back to go forward. If you're really confident, you can try to ride on your knees."

I get in line, am handed a blue board, and wait by the entry chute. "Early morning and near closing time, there's usually a line of really good surfers," Kang says. "I don't know why they're not here." The first and last 90 minutes of the day are when the serious riders are present because the lines are shorter. They also prefer the time before and after summer vacation. When the line is short, the operator lets you ride longer.

A bunch of kids and a couple of women are in line with me. The operator gives the riders basic tips before they go down the chute. But most have no control and are pushed by the stream right over the top of the slope, thus ending a long wait with a two-second ride and a shriek.

Fifteen minutes later, it is my turn. Choi Ji-hyeon, the operator, takes the board from me, holds it upright against the floor of the chute and says, "Are you ready?"

I hold my breath and take off. If I undershoot to the left or overshoot to the right I'll slide off the slope and the ride will be over. And I do not want to be pushed back and over the slope, the fate of most beginners.

"That-a-girl!" Choi yells as I slide down to the mouth of the machine, then am pushed back up on the slope. I do not know what to do other than hold on. But the flow of the water is hypnotic. After a minute, my strength gives and I roll off the board and slide down into the gutter.

I get back in the line, which has gotten longer. A string of kids slide one by one down the chute and onto the slope. And then, there's another gidget.



Surfing is mostly a men's sport, but more women are taking it up every year. You can tell the gidgets here by their swimsuits -- sporty and modest, not trendy, and no bikinis. Lee Min-gyeong is wearing a tank top with a swimsuit underneath. Her hair is pulled taut in a low ponytail. She tugs on her shorts. She means business.

She effortlessly maneuvers to the center of the water, then jumps up on her knees, then sketches left and right, perfectly balanced. Her smile lights up a dark tan. "She's a co-worker," Choi says.

When she is done, I chase her down. Today is her day off, and she will spend it surfing. The women surfers actively encourage other women.

"Last year, I saw a woman in her mid-30s surfing here," Lee says. "She edged just as good as a guy." She stops briefly to talk to Kang, who is taking a break to check out other water rides. The good riders all know each other.

I am back in line again and determined. When my turn comes, I slide down the chute, but overshoot the slope and fall off. My ride's over in two seconds, and I get a bruise on each thigh.

Meanwhile, the line has grown. The wait is now 30 minutes.

A slim guy with his eyes closed is resting on top of his board. Kim Yong-gyu has a black armband on his arm. He throws his board forward, flips forward and catches the board as the water pushes it back. He jumps on and leans left, then right. When his time is up, he holds his hands above his head as if swan diving. He slides forward and down one side. The audience claps and hollers.

"Surfing here is about performing," Kim says. There is another Rider in Cheonan, he says, "where the serious riders go." The lines are shorter, "but it's too far and it's fun here."

Kim began boarding three years ago. He and some friends are always inventing new techniques and stunts. He says the stunts help promote the sport. Judging by the clapping, Surf Riding seems to have a loyal following.

Kim pulls a piece of chalk from a bag and starts chalking the edge of the board. He is the only one doing this. The chalk helps his grip, particularly since he has slathered sunscreen over his body.

"If you really want to practice, rainy days are the best," he says. All the best riders show up when it rains. They'll ride a couple times, nap in one of the park's huts, ride a couple more times, snack, and ride some more. But today they're about as scarce as those surfers in Jeju.



I get back in line again, and, of course, it is longer. Kang returns and says, "Hey, have you seen the boarder with the black armband? He's really good. You have to talk to him."

My turn comes. I slide down, strain right, then left, then hit the middle of the slope.

Holding the board the way Kang told me, I jump to my knees. My balance holds. The water rushes past. Glorious. I find a focus point and stare at it. I lean left, but my board flips out from underneath me and I slide down into the gutter.

I did not last long, but it was a rush to be up on the board. And when I leave Caribbean Bay, I take with me a thirst for more waves.


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Places boarders can shred it up in Korea



Outdoors

Caribbean Bay, one of three parks that make up Everland, in Gyeonggi province. Beginning in September, the park is open 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. and until 7 p.m. Sundays. www.everland.co.kr.



Indoors

Aquapia in Cheonan, South Chungcheong province. Open 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily. 041-560-9051.



At Home

From the comfort of your own sofa you can go on a safari and take in the best beaches in the world with Sega's "Soul Surfer," a video game released earlier this year.


by Joe Yong-hee

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