It was a calm morning at Gwang-An Beach when I launched my paddleboard into the absence of surf. Since the winds were down and swells small, I paddled away from the beach, which was enclosed by skyscrapers and mountains now blocked by the buildings. The long bridge across Busan straddled the bay and I made the twenty-minute trip to one of the concrete blocks serving as a support.
Kai Surf shop owner, who rents paddleboards to Gwang-An beachgoers, and whose shop is a miniature skate park, said that it’s a rare site to see anyone paddle to the bridge as fear or winds stop most. But as I stood there, small to the concrete blocks and to the entirety of the bridge itself, I listened to the contrast of swells pushing beneath the rectangular supports and the siren above meant to keep Korean motorists awake on the road.
I paddled around the concrete block and made it back to shore. A fish jumped out of the water, either running from a predator or escaping the pollution. A little wave started to present before the tide got too full, so I spent the rest of my morning testing the miniature shore break, ending each ride nearly on sand, cutting my foot and hand open on all sorts of debris.
I had never expected to surf Korea, as I had never heard a single word about waves there. Neither did some of the other Koreans in the water that day. Some of the boys were wearing water shoes, the sparkly jellies of long ago; a few others, finding inspiration in watching me on the paddleboard, ran back to the beach to grab double-bladed kayak paddles. They stood for a brief moment on their much smaller surfboards, taking a few ungainly strokes with a paddle they couldn’t hold correctly, laughing their way into the drink.
Later that day, I made my way to Song Jeong Beach, where I had been told the oldest surf club in Korea stood.
Decades ago, Mi Hee Seo, once an avid windsurfer and owner of a failing windsurf shop, had seen a young Korean-Australian running down to the water with a small board. She wondered how he was going to ride the swells at Song Jeong without a sail and with such a little board. But he did and it transformed Seo forever. She ran to the shore and clutched his arm. You have to teach me, she said. Not long after, in the mid-90’s, Seo, closed her failing windsurfing business and converted her shop into a surf club. Riding Korea was lonely. So she bought a few boards, taught ten people to surf free of charge, and gave them access to the boards whenever they wanted. She was constantly fixing boards then, making no money, waiting for surfing to take off in Korea.
About five years ago, the lady who brought surf to the mainland, watched the Korean surf scene explode in Busan, (and finally after nearly two decades, started to turn a profit).
On the day that I arrived, the once empty waves of Song Jeong Beach were packed with about two hundred longboarders, sitting and waiting for swells that were a little larger than the shore surf at Gwang-An. Seo’s shop was bustling, too, with dozens of youngsters reading surf magazines and waxing their boards.
I sat down with Seo to talk about her shop’s history and how it felt to bring a sport to a nation. (The article that I wrote about her was featured in the New Republic.) Unlike most surfers who watch their old breaks grow crowded, Seo grew emotional. “I’m so proud,” she said and presented to me the two hundred persons in the line up, as if they were hard to see. “I did this.”
Seo and I paddled out for a wave. She commands respect in the water, paddling through the line-up like some revered master, which is the title that most bestow upon her. “Master taught at least half of these people to surf,” said a local, who was not accounting for the other half, who had most likely indirectly learned from her.
With hair that looked bronzed by the sun, Seo caught waves and moved along her board as nimbly as any of the others half her age. The surf was awful, but the stoke among the young Koreans was like watching toddler accomplish anything for the very first time.
The next day, I flew to Jeju Island and then drove to the south, heading through a storm gathered atop the mountain. When I reached the sunny cliffs above Jungmun Beach, three surfers waited for the swell to spread itself over the reef before launching off the rocks. Others were setting themselves up for the waves pushing through at the center of the beach. The surf broke clean and long. I went down to the beach to inquire about a board and had to haggle my way to a fair deal, coming away with a longboard on the condition that I agreed to pay for any and all damage. It felt like the fine print of a scam.
Regardless, I took the board, but began a little more carefully when paddling through the surf. The waves hadn’t appeared head-high from the cliffs, but they steamrolled forward with size and power foreign to the mainland. Riders went both left and right, as the wave manifested two paths with shape and elegance. Once, out at sea, however, I dropped the caution, fighting to get in the right place among the skilled surfers, who were preparing for tomorrow’s Korean Surfing Association’s 6th Annual Socsokkak Surf Contest.
Jungmun was a strange wave to catch, as it seemed to approach with enough force to takeoff at any point along a twenty-foot stretch of peak. But then, at the last moment, the peak grew fat, and only a small window of wave had the juice to move a surfer down the line. But when I did catch a wave, the surf found its momentum, and the long wall stood like any great ride.