Surfing in South Korea? Why Jeju Island is a welcoming place for new learners who want to get used to it

“Start paddling. “

My arms sank into the water frantically at the command of my surf instructor. I was sure to soon swallow the salty sea I had breathed. The gray clouds were low, squirting rain in short gusts.

I kept my lower back tight, my head held high, and looked forward to the palm-fringed shores of Iho Tewoo Beach on the north coast of Jeju Island. With as much nerves as impatience, I listened to the crashing waves and the creak of my wetsuit against the hard surfboard, mustering courage for my teacher’s last signal.

A professional Korean surfer I had met earlier today called Iho one of Jeju’s “ugliest beaches”, but that did not diminish the popularity of the sandy beach among locals and vacationers. .

The oval-shaped Jeju Island, about an hour’s flight south of Seoul, is famous for its spectacular scenery, including Mount Hallasan Volcano and its semi-tropical national park. The banks are dotted with dol hareubang, or “stone grandfather” statues, carved out of black volcanic rock, sometimes as tall as a person.

I hadn’t come to see these sites, however. I had arrived with three friends and a simple itinerary: eat Jeju’s famous black pork, ride a bike to the tiny Udo Island off the east coast of Jeju, and go to the beach. Our chimera? Trying to surf for the very first time, in a destination considered to be the Hawaii of Korea.

It was a daunting idea: not only had I grown up in a small town in the Midwestern United States, learning everything I knew about the beaches through Shark Week, but I also felt far from being. a born athlete. It wasn’t that long ago that a gentle yoga class was enough to wear me out, and I had spent years working my strength bit by bit.

But Jeju seemed like the right place to try something I had once thought impossible, with its laid back personality so different from South Korea, where I had lived for three years.

Due to its distinct geography, the island has developed its own cultural nuances, and people joke that Koreans who are fluent in the Jeju dialect practically speak another language. Calling up local surf schools, my friends and I used every ounce of our Korean ability to find a place willing to teach us, eventually landing on Jeju Barrel Surf.

Jeju Island offers not only gentle starting waves, but also tougher swells.

Sitting on a board on Iho Tewoo beach the next day, running my fingers through the wet sand, I listened intently as our sunny instructor, Sam, explained why the island is such a welcoming place for newcomers: the history of the sport here is remarkably short, and the oldest generation of surfers in South Korea are still alive today.

The country’s first original and serious wave surfers moved here in the 2000s, importing the hobby from places like California and Hawaii, and enthusiastically imparting what they knew.

A professional organization dedicated to the development of the national surf industry, the Korea Surf League, dates only to 2020, although the local popularity of the sport is growing among both men and women. Surfing, it seems, is the opposite of an otherwise successful culture. It’s just about taking the waves as they come, in the ocean or in life: the antithesis of a turbo-beaten Seoul.

Eventually we were ready to put our rookie skills to the test, as the rainy day rolled up some decent beginner’s surf. Lying face down on long surfboards, my friends and I pretended to paddle with our arms, gusting up sand.

Iho Tewoo Beach, near Jeju City, is a more docile spot for novice surfers.

Under the direction of our teacher, we moved: splint on the hands and toes, slide the right knee up to the hip, keep the gaze straight and rotate upwards on the feet. I should have stretched before!

Sam took us through our rhythms, over and over again, correcting the position of our feet or reminding us to keep our knees on the sand.

Then there was no more time for fear or doubt – I was as prepared for the water as I would ever feel. Pushing my board towards the waves, I climbed aboard and stood still, my body long and flat, preparing for my countdown.

“One… two… go for it!”

I jumped forward as Sam pushed against the tail of my surfboard. I thought the rush was going to stop soon, but the board only propelled faster. My first wave caught up with me.

“Up! Up!”

The mantra of the steps we had made earlier on the sandy beach crossed my head. To my surprise, they clicked calmly through my mind and body: eyes forward, hands and toes, right knee to hip, pivot on feet, hands off the board… and there I was.

I was riding my little wave. I couldn’t help but laugh, breathing in the fresh, salty air with a sense of relief, walking to the shore swollen with a joy I won’t soon forget.

Travelers are reminded to check for public health restrictions that may affect their plans.

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