Confronting the Kimchi
The surfEXPLORE team imbibe health elixirs, kimchi, and suspicious beer in preparation for a massive typhoon swell closing in on Jeju island.
We arrived to greet an intense rainstorm and a perplexing language barrier. It took a gentle stubbornness, some persuasive smiles, and a whole range of air-wrestling hand gestures to load our mass of boards on to the coach bound for the south coast tourist quarter. Here we found a cheap and charming minbak (guesthouse) in humble Sinsuseong Town, near Jungmon beach.
In the morning, the extreme, stair-rod rainstorm had passed, and a sight of the sea confirmed that Jeju has excellent waves. A left point, a right reef, and a safer beachbreak met as one, before unpacking in a brutal shorebreak on sheets of black mica sand, raked as the foam apron rushed up and sucked back. The curvaceous right was operating like a pressure cooker, trapping air and spitting it back out. We dropped into inviting tubes with a liability clause—a buoy-lined swimming area, over which we had to ollie, like skateboarders, every time we connected to the inside. Otherwise, we got snagged by the buoys’ connecting rope.
As the day ripened, the landscape gave off a wonderful scent—tangerine groves above the basalt cliffs that dropped away to meet cola-coloured boulders rained on by a stunning waterfall. Developers have spotted this beautiful landscape with a mix of hotels, windmills, bridges and a cherry-roofed conference centre. By 10 a.m. the lifeguards were on duty. Honeymooners hired yellow rubber rings, waded out of their collective depths, then got annihilated by the sea’s sounding board that was a pummelling shorebreak.
The lifeguards zealously guarded the buoy-line. It was the only place in the whole bay they had to keep safe. The trouble was, the lively end-section of the right-hander streamed through this area. I was jet-washed from a tube, straight over the zone, and the lifeguards scared the living daylights out of me, unleashing a monster-decibel air-raid siren.
Two locals paddled out, but the overhead sections were challenging for them. They clung to the shoulder, wide-eyed, and we kept an eye out for their safety. After the session, they took us to the local pharmacy in Sinsuseong Town, where they both worked. This was also the social hangout for the nascent Jeju surf community. They had recently formed the Wave Club, after they caught the bug from some visiting Japanese surfers. We consumed excessive quantities of fibre-filled, vitamin-rich, sugary health tonics from medicinal-looking 100ml glass bottles, and went online to check the forecast—an increasing swell.
My senses were on hyper-alert for the afternoon session, after another power drink and a huge gulp of Pocari Sweat, a clear fluid that I thought was mineral water, but is actually an iron replacement isotonic. With this much glucose in my blood, I was furious when the Jungmon lifeguards declared ‘No surfing!’ across the PA, refusing to let us paddle out. The swell had tripled in size since the morning. With the beach closed, we did not want to offend the lifeguards, and opted to ride the left point, out of their sight. Following a tricky walk across slippery rocks, I dealt with an astonishing fifteen-wave closeout set. Pacific typhoon swells are famous for long lulls and chronically overloaded sets.
We clawed further and further outback. After heavy rainfall, the water was pea-green and detritus has littered the line-up.
After a testing session, paddling in offered little choice but to use the beach, closed to surfing, as a safe exit, risking the wrath of the lifeguards. Emi and Randy got a warning whistle, but I managed to veer west, just in front of the forbidden roped zone. As I stood up on a hurtling, hollow right to take me to the shorebreak ensemble, I heard the siren once again. I walked past the lifeguards with a coy, apologetic wave.
Later, we all had a laugh about the confrontation over a cold glass of Hite beer, recalling the ear-piercing sound and the perplexed look on the lifeguards’ faces.
Right now, maintaining a long-standing tradition, competent surfers and zealous lifeguards will be at loggerheads at some beach or other across the globe. The archetypal confrontation between authority and freedom, played out between the characters in Big Wednesday, is as much a part of the surfing life as your sinuses emptying inappropriately at a black-tie evening function, when you had been surfing all afternoon with some heavy hold-downs.