Surf skiing helps Hong Kong doctor handle the peaks and troughs

Obstetrician was fed up with recurring injuries from running five years ago when a friend suggested he try surf skiing. He's thrown himself into it, and sees sport as a way to re-energise

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 August, 2015, 12:11am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 August, 2015, 10:03am

Does working in the health industry go hand in hand with being healthy? This month we meet three medical professionals who think so, gaining insights from their active pursuits and applying their experiences to help others live well.

An obstetrician and gynaecologist specialising in infertility, Robert Stevenson spends his days helping to create life. Though the job has many highs, he explains that it also has its share of lows.

"Medicine can be a terribly stressful profession," says Stevenson, 56, who is originally from Britain. "And I've found that in order to keep giving, you have to have some way of nurturing and filling yourself up again."

Every day, Stevenson "refuels" by heading out on his surf ski - a narrower, longer version of a kayak - from Stanley Main Beach. Facing a wall of waves, while balancing precariously on his slender craft, is when he feels most alive.

"Surf skiing speaks to who I am as a person. It speaks to my soul. It gives me something to look forward to - physically and because of the community," he says.

Stevenson was fed up with recurring injuries from running five years ago when a friend suggested he try the water sport. "I was hooked straight away. It's a sport that I can exercise to 100 per cent - absolutely flat out - without getting sore knees or hips."

Fuelling his new obsession was a goal to take part in the annual Dragon Run nine months later, a 24km paddle from Clear Water Bay to Stanley. "I made it to the finish and decided from then on, this is what I am going to do."

Not only has he had resounding success - he's ranked 17th in the world - he's dropped 10kg over the years from his 1.88-metre frame and is down to 88kg.

By the end of this month, following changes in the medical insurance industry, Stevenson has elected to no longer practise obstetrics. Instead, he will focus on partnering with Craig Nortje, a Fina World Masters swimming championships finalist, to build a surf ski paddle school in Hong Kong.

They aim to get a paddler to the World Championships within three years."Hong Kong has huge potential: our waters are warm and we can paddle pretty much everywhere and anywhere," he says. "Surf skiing has a reputation for being difficult because the early skis were very unstable, but the newest entry level models are stable enough for everybody to paddle easily in flat water."

When you get to my age and people younger than you start dying, you realise life has a limit. So you give yourself permission to do the things you enjoy the most. You also get to know things: I know from now on, I want to spend the rest of my life next to the ocean - and that's a nice thing to know.

I can go to the gym and do a really hard workout, but nothing is like surf skiing. I once asked someone what is it about it, and he said: "It's the adrenaline. When you're s*** scared and there's a wall of water coming down on your head, what do you do? Paddle as hard as you can." Now that's a workout.

It's a ridiculous title, really, as "surf ski" doesn't tell you what it is. You're not on shore breaks; you're not paddling surf. You're paddling on the ocean. You're using the energy and the momentum of the ocean to propel you forward.

Surf skiing has made it easier for me to do my day job. I feel good, physically and mentally, so I can survive medicine's highs and lows. My wife always says: "Think of all the families who wouldn't exist if it weren't for your help." And that happens 99 out of 100 times, but it's the one that keeps you awake at night. Surf skiing has made me more resilient.

Hong Kong is a very pressurised place. I think you can get into a lot of bad habits - eating, drinking and working too much and not exercising because you don't think you have the opportunity. But Hong Kong is stuffed with opportunities: mountainside, ocean, countryside. It doesn't matter what it is - getting out on the trails or out on the water - as long as you're doing something other than work that gives you a lift.

I think you can get into a lot of bad habits - eating, drinking and working too much and not exercising because you don't think you have the opportunity.
Robert Stevenson

I didn't deliver my own children. It is too stressful. I looked at my wife's insides when my first child was being born by emergency caesarean section and I felt distinctly queasy, yet I must have done thousands of caesarean sections. These days everyone expects a perfect outcome when they fall pregnant, but, of course, there are still medical risks. Bad things can happen - it doesn't mean a case of negligence; sometimes that is just how life is.

If you pare everything down to basics what were we as humans built to do? Hunt and fish and get out there and be frightened. Fight or flight. If you take something which is designed for a certain purpose and then pop that animal in an office plopped in front of a screen all day, I don't think it works. But if you give it an opportunity to do what it is made for, it can thrive.

There is a joy in pulling out a freshly born baby that never becomes routine, and I will miss it. People tend to say nice things and name their babies after you, too.