A swell time on the water

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 September, 2011, 12:00am


If there's anyone who gets upbeat when the weather is forecast to turn really foul, it's Lam Nguyen.

As rain battered the city two weekends ago, the Vietnamese-born Swiss national surfed the swells at Tai Long Wan. 'Lucky to be alive, free and in these beautiful surroundings,' he wrote on his Facebook wall. 'Generous skies, clear water and a slow sunset.'

Monsoon and typhoon seasons are happy times for Lam, 33, his wife and a group of friends. On weekends, they regularly haul their boards and hike 90 minutes to the secluded beach on Sai Kung's east coast, surf all day, have a barbecue on the beach, camp overnight, wake up with the sunrise and surf again.

In the afternoon, they make their way back to town for an evening of opera, theatre or movie, followed by a nice dinner to cap off what Lam calls 'a perfect weekend'.

Don't believe you can surf in Hong Kong? Neither did I until I saw Lam's self-shot YouTube video of himself riding crashing waves under threatening skies in Tai Long Wan. It will either make you shudder at the danger of it all or make you want to get out there yourself.

How did you get started in surfing?

I always saw surfers in Big Wave Bay, so I simply rented a board and tried by myself. Hong Kong is one of the rare cities where you can have a cultural life, dynamic business environment and surf spots.

What do you enjoy about it?

It's a mix. It's about being in nature: this sport doesn't require any machine nor sport court, it's just you and your friends on surfboards, rocked by the sea with birds flying and fishes jumping around you. Then I like having to observe and to understand elements such as wind, tide, swell, etc. But what is very specific to surfing is this unique feeling when riding a wave: adrenaline and Zen at the same time. Ultimately, surfing is nothing more than riding the earth's energy.

Where do you ache most after a day out on the water?

The upper back. I soothe it with a good massage, at best right on the beach.

How else do you keep fit?

Basically I try to do at least an hour of sport every weekday, be it swimming, running or going to the gym. I prefer to do a little bit regularly rather than a lot but rarely. I mostly build my training around surfing - for example, standing on a bosu ball while lifting light weights to improve my balance and stability.

I also try to eat healthily. If I have a huge unhealthy dinner, I'll eat less the next day. My philosophy is to keep a healthy balance. The body is not meant to sit 12 hours a day behind a desk, so I use every opportunity for physical activity.

There's a stereotype that surfers are beach bums escaping capitalist culture. Is that true in Hong Kong?

Actually it's a very wrong stereotype. Surfing is technically difficult and physically very demanding. It's also an early morning sport: surfers wake up at 5am to go surfing. So a surfer has to be disciplined, persevering and hard working. Beach bums don't surf. My surfer friends here are entrepreneurs, bankers, engineers, CFOs, designers and professors.

The swells here in Hong Kong don't seem big enough to surf.

That's because you've never been in Hong Kong waters during a typhoon! Actually the swell is very consistent in the winter thanks to the northeast monsoon. In summer we have to rely on swell generated by tropical storms and typhoons.

Do you ever approach a swell with fear?

I'd say it varies between respect and terror. Some spots can be really scary, with powerful waves smashing on shallow water with a razor-sharp reef underneath, not to mention strong currents and rocks nearby. But that's why surfing is exciting: either you get eaten alive by this pure energy vortex or you ride it.

Interestingly, I have never been injured at such spots, only on 'easy' ones when I wasn't concentrating and took it too easy. I remember once after having proudly mastered a big session, I went straight into a reef which was hidden by the high tide. I ended up with broken fins, a dinged board and deep leg cuts.

Any thoughts of becoming a pro surfer?

I wish, but I should have started 20 years ago. Maybe my child will be.