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An Inside Look at the Coronavirus in China, From a Surfing Perspective

These are the stories from the people who lived it.


The Inertia

It was Saturday, February 1, 8:45 a.m. The waves were flat but I needed to get my daily dose of vitamin sea. As I jumped in the elevator, I still couldn’t stop thinking about what was going to unfold with this virus outbreak here in China. In my head, I reassured myself that I’m on Hainan Island – in the sub-tropics of Asia, and it’s just about the cleanest air outside of the Pacific you can breathe, so I remained calm and determined to push forward. I hit the water for a three-mile paddle. I was excited because just a few days prior, I received my third prototype stand-up board that I’d designed and had built. At 1:36 p.m., I returned back to my condo from having lunch at my favorite western restaurant called the Dolphin here in Sānyà. I ordered my favorite entree, the California burger, with a side of potato wedges and fries. It’s the cheat day, and trust me after eating Chinese food at least five days a week, you kinda get over it.

(iPhone Alert & Vibration)

It all started with a text from Nik on on our multinational WeChat group. “What’s up guys! Any of you want to share your thoughts or feelings about surfing in China under these difficult times? (Coronavirus Outbreak in Wuhan)” Nik 

The purpose of the multinational surf group that was created three years ago was to share relevant news, media, and events, more importantly, helping to influence and inspire the surf community. The chat is bilingual and has deep roots to the local community. It works as a magnet, keeping the whole community connected and informed by increasing the knowledge of the surfing culture and lifestyle.

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My Relationship with the Republic of China 🇨🇳

I’ve been traveling to China annually since first being invited in 2012, as a competitor, by my close friend, biz partner, and Big Wave World Champion Jamie Sterling for the tidal bore river surfing competition in Hangzhou, better known as the Silver Dragon Shootout. I’ve also played a role in the event working with water safety, as a judge, athlete relations and media. With nine years under my belt, I’m no stranger to the exploration of surfing and the growth of action sports in China. Still, the truth is, I’ve kept this work mostly out of the mainstream mainly because of stereotypes about China. I mean let’s be frank, China has had its fair share of controversial issues but remember, it’s one of the world’s four ancient civilizations and deserves respect.

In the most recent years, I’ve been working behind the scenes, head down, sharing just a few things on social media building the foundation for a startup called Modern Technocracy that was founded in San Diego. MT came to life through the craftsmanship of professionals Aaron Chase, Ben Brown, Bo Bridges, Bucky Lasek, Damien LeRoy, Harley Ingleby, Jamie Sterling, Jeb Corliss, Julian Carr, Mitch Bergsma, Shon Bollock, Sunny Garcia, and myself.

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Our real-life passions, and pursuit of traveling and capturing inspiring content helped drive us to develop a patented performance mounting system that’s made from a sustainable material, reusable, and recyclable. And over the last year, I’ve developed additional divisions and a wide range of innovative products. We’re in the middle of building a new 60,000-square-meter state of the art manufacturing and distribution facility in Zhuhai, just a short ferry ride from Hong Kong, with a goal of becoming one of the first carbon neutral, or possibly carbon positive facilities. In addition, we will work to help fellow action sports and lifestyle brands provide a trustworthy and reliable supply chain. Our target for completion is this summer so there is no time for me to panic, I’m keeping my eyes on the prize and not going to let some Coronavirus stop us. We’ve got some fantastic connections that have taken a lifetime to achieve. In China they use the word Guānxì, (Relationships). 

It’s been bizarre here in China. Each day, new events unfold. In the early stages of the outbreak I was a little concerned, during that time I did some in-depth research and talked things over with my family back home in Hawaii about the Coronavirus, officially named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization. I was confident that I could ride out this epidemic thanks to the tropical Island Hainan, where I rent a condo. They call Hainan Island the Hawaii of China so naturally I was drawn to it back in 2016 and the fact that it’s just a one-hour flight from Zhūhǎi vs. 20-plus hours back to Hawaii, Hainan is a perfect second home away from home. I started to second guess the decision to stay. In general I spent my mornings’ and afternoons surfing at my secret beach when there’s a swell or stand-up paddling to stay active while working remotely from my home office. I shopped at the local market for all my fresh food of choice, but to be honest, fear and anxiety are real and it’s starting to take a toll both mentally and physically and I can’t wait to get back home to Hawaii.

February 8th, the Hainan government canceled Didi, the ride sharing app equivalent to Uber and then my worst fear happened, all beaches were closed off – it felt like martial law just went into effect. The entire country was instructed by the government to self-quarantine for fourteen days and only one person from each home was allowed to leave their dwelling every two days. They gave each resident an official pink slip that you had to use to track how many times you came and went to combat the spread of this epidemic. On February 9th the government released an informative virus app that gave you your GEO location with up-to-the-minute data on Coronavirus cases around you. Lucky for me, the condo I rent is located in an area that is virus free or yet to be affected by people whom have contracted the illness. I prayed things could get back to order soon so the world could move in a positive direction of progression and prosperity. But to be honest I was now looking into plan B and C as I had to be back in Hawaii come mid March. To pass the time, I caught up with some of my friends here that have been instrumental to surfing in China, both foreign and nationals to see how they were handling the Coronavirus outbreak:

An Inside Look at the Coronavirus in China, From a Surfing Perspective

Nik Zanella, longing for things to return to normal, and to be able to ride waves again.

Nik Zanella 🇮🇹

I first met Nik in 2013, In Hangzhou for the Silver Dragon. Nik stood out from all the others with his olive tan complexion, chiseled face – an Italian man knows how to put on a great show. But what was more impressive was that he could speak perfect Mandarin. After we got to know each other, Nik mentioned that in 2007 they went rogue and attempted to surf the tidal bore river and almost got arrested and thrown out of the country. Since then, we have been friends and have shared many similar passions and interests. Nik’s a great guy and a true pioneer of surfing in China:

“I was born on Italy’s east coast, south of Venice. The Silk Road starts or ends there, depending what trajectory you take on it, so it was almost fate. I started flirting with Chinese culture at a tender age, then graduated in Chinese language at Ca’ Foscari University in Italy, working as an interpreter and a surf magazine editor.”

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“I started coming to China in the 1990s, surfing and mapping pretty much the whole coast from Hainan to Shandong, often with photographer John Callahan. I also went further north into North Korea. Most of the spots you find on guides and websites come from my trips. I moved to Hainan in 2010 following a few WSL events where I was invited as a journalist and as a beach announcer. I started working at several levels of the surf development project, and simply never left.”

“I’m locked indoors these days as I was in Beijing assisting my wife on the birth of our first son, Amos, when the epidemic started. Right now I spend my time reading and helping with the baby and dreaming of when I’ll be able to go back to the coast. I’m using my time deepening my knowledge of dynastic wave-riding, translating more documents on it and trying to go on with the research I started with Children of the Tide, my recent book that tells the story of the ancient form of wave riding in China. I’m totally confident in the government and in the measures that China is taking to face this epidemic. I’m just bored stiff, as like over one billion of Chinese city dwellers and haven’t surfed in almost one month. I’m confident this will finish soon and life will go back to normal.”

An Inside Look at the Coronavirus in China, From a Surfing Perspective

Danny Villasenor is an expatriate that has found success in China.

Danny Villasenor, U.S.A. 🇺🇸

Danny is considered to be an expatriate. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, an expatriate (often shortened to ex-pat) is a person residing in a country other than their native land. Danny has become one of my friends and colleagues. I’ve invited him to join me in the near future as we are both passionate and driven by design, manufacturing, sustainability, and the environment:

“I was born in Southern California and started surfing and skateboarding at the age of 10. I skated the California Pro-Am Skateboard league from 1982 to 1986. I first started surfing in SoCal. When I was 20 years old, I moved to Santa Barbara and started surfing full time. At 25, I wanted to take my surfing to another level and knew Hawaii was the true proving ground, so with three surfboards, a one-way ticket, and $400 in cash, I made it to Oahu. I landed at Honolulu airport with no plan or place to stay. I was hoping to camp somewhere but quickly found out that boards can not go on the buses. I ended up walking around the airport in disbelief with my board bags. Lucky for me a surfer from Brazil approached me and asked if I needed a ride to the North Shore. As we were driving up there, he said he and his wife rent beds in their studio and if his wife approved of me I could rent a bed. I was approved, and my first surf session was Sunset Beach. My relationships in Hawaii and the greater surfing world have only grown from there and it’s become my career.”

Danny has been building surfboards, stand-up paddleboards, foil boards, foils, and accessories in China since 2006 and like an older brother, has lots of knowledge, and I respect and honor that.

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“I have been the general manager for three factories and have handled day-to-day operations, customer service, sales, product development, and logistics. China has been a great place to make products and the locals are super friendly. As the Coronavirus has taken form, I have been in lockdown in my home in Dànshuǐ, Huìzhōu with my beautiful wife, Cindy, and our nine-year-old boy Sunny. We are wearing masks and taking precautions every time we go out. As the Chinese New Year has come to an end, we should see factories start to operate this week or next, buses are in operation now, and most stores will open soon. The government is doing a great job working to control this epidemic from spreading further.”

Yángjiā in her happy place.

Yángjiā ruì (CC) China 🇨🇳

I first met CC in the summer of 2015 during the Silver Dragon Shootout in Hangzhou. CC was born in Guǎngzhōu, a city without a sea. Since she can remember, the curiosity and love of the ocean ultimately drew her to surfing:

“I first learned to surf seven years ago as a tourist here on Hainan Island. The sport has introduced me to surfers from around the world, I learned that surfing is not just a sport, it can also be an active and healthy lifestyle so my husband and I moved to Hainan Island in 2015 to pursue the surfing and quality of life. I was later selected into the Chinese National Surfing Team. Currently I am teaching surf lessons and helping judge events. I have a deep love for surfing, and it’s something I will do for the rest of my life.”

“My local beach has been closed by the government to prevent people from gathering, so I have been learning new cooking recipes; I’ve done my spring cleaning in advance and spend more time playing with our pets and gardening. Twice a week I go to the supermarket to buy food and necessities. The security guard at our condominium measures the temperature and records the time each time entering or leaving. There is more than enough supply of goods in the supermarket. Here on Hainan Island, we are lucky; many of our fruits and vegetables are grown locally. We have had 13 people get infected by the virus within our community of Wàn níng. The government is doing a great job working to disinfect public areas over and over again. Although there is no specific vaccine or medicine against this virus, for the time being, we can prevent it with the ancient and effective method of isolation. Even though I still have a strong desire to surf, I always choose to stay at home willingly, without increasing the burden and risk to society.”

An Inside Look at the Coronavirus in China, From a Surfing Perspective

ASam, ripping a-frames during a less stressful time.

Āsēn (ASam) 🇨🇳

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I first met ASam in the summer of 2014 during the Silver Dragon Shootout in Hangzhou. ASam was born in Kāipíng city, Guǎngdōng province:

“I learned how to surf on my own 10 years ago in shí lǎorén beach, Qīngdǎo with a surfboard that I bought from a surf club in Shēnzhèn when I was going to university. For awhile, I thought surfing was everything in my life. But after time, I found that the enthusiasm and exploration of surfing is not as good as it was before. After the Coronavirus outbreak here in my country I feel I must experience more exploration, and at the same time, cherish the current state of life. Love yourself, love surfing, love the surfing lifestyle.”

ASam co-founded the North Surf Club located near the very same beach he first learned to surf in Qīngdǎo. Qingdao, in China’s eastern Shāndōng province, is a port city of skyscrapers, parks and beaches bordering the Yellow Sea. Also known for its beer.

“Our club is open during spring, summer and autumn. Winter time is just too cold, so I travel south to Hainan, Bali, Indonesia, Philippines and other tropical areas to escape. Last year our club organized the first national surfing competition in Shāndōng, along with two local competitions. Many surfing related activities are planned for this year and I’m super excited about what’s to come.”

“While majority of the country is in lockdown here in Xīnglóng we have been instructed to not go surfing. We have lots of food and supplies at our local market. In order to help minimize the outbreak I’ve postponed travel and try to avoid contact with strangers. Maybe in another week or two we can go to the coffee shop, meet up with some friends and enjoy some freshly brewed Hainan coffee.”

An Inside Look at the Coronavirus in China, From a Surfing Perspective

Chad, stoked to get back in the water.

Ā chāo (Chad) 🇨🇳

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I first met Chad (Ā chāo) here on Hainan Island, when I was invited to compete in the Hainan Island Open Surfing competition in 2016. I recall Chad being super helpful and always amped to go surfing. Chad had his driver’s license and would drive us around while we searched for surf. Born and raised in Hubei Province, where the Coronavirus outbreak started, many of his friends and relatives are caught in the middle:

“I first learned how to surf six years ago here on Hainan at Hòuhǎi beach at a Surf club called Karma. I was hooked on surfing and fell in love. In 2016, I co-founded Shaka Surf Club located in the surfing capital of Rì yuè wān, Hainan, by far the most well-know spot in all of China. Each year we host international competitions and, most recently, our first-ever WSL QS5,000.”

“Unfortunately, the beaches are closed to the outsiders, and business has taken a huge hit. About 25 percent of our annual income comes during the Chinese Lunar Holiday. On a more positive note we just had a swell and we can still can go surfing. Our life has become really simple. Eat, sleep, surf, watch movies and repeat. We hope and pray that everything will return to normal as soon as possible; and we trust our government in facing these tough situations and what I would like our friends from around the globe to understand is that the virus is a virus, not human, not Wuhan and it’s not China.”

An Inside Look at the Coronavirus in China, From a Surfing Perspective

Nathan Mettler going big.

Nathan Mettler, U.S.A 🇺🇸

Nathan and I both share something special in common; we grew up in Hawaii on the Big Island. Nathan grew up in Captain Cook (South Side), and I grew up in Waimea (North Side). Although we are some years apart in age, we only crossed paths just a few times as groms but never met.

So we officially first met surfing against each other during a competition here on Hainan Island in 2016. Over the years we have also shared many common interests like entrepreneurship, caring for the environment and discovering new surfing spots:

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“I was born in Sandpoint, Idaho. My parents moved there from Southern California for work opportunities. Soon after, in 1979, we moved to the Big Island to live out my father’s dream of a tropical surfing paradise. I was so fortunate to have grown up in Hawaii. Thanks, mom and dad!”

“The first time visiting China was in 2000. My wife had just moved to Dalian, China, for an English teaching job opportunity. China was very intriguing, and I could immediately see there were some opportunities. What the opportunities were precisely, I did not know at the time, but I knew I needed to learn the language and put the time in to figure it out. Needing a Visa to stay in China, we both settled into English teaching jobs in 2001. In March 2008, we arranged a surfing trip to Hainan, which included Wingnut and a group of others. Back then, the Chinese did not even know what a surfboard was and often called it a skateboard. There were maybe three Chinese surfers at the time. The idea of the surf trip was to spend time promoting surfing and its related lifestyle. We pushed some locals into waves, caught some ourselves, had bonfire BBQ’s and documented the five days. We later edited and released a DVD for ongoing surf promotions. In January 2009, we were the first international brand to sponsor the first annual Surfing Hainan Open. The comp was a super grassroots event where most of us started with beers for breakfast, and we had to push start the coach bus, first thing in the morning to get to the contest venue. From then until now, we have been actively supporting events and sponsoring riders, both surfers and skaters through the help of our distribution company Drunk Monkey Distro.”

“I feel this virus could have been avoided. Lots of politics surround this topic, and false news has been spread everywhere. No one knows the truth. Scary times. My family and I are so fortunate to have made a last-minute decision to come back to Hawaii just before the outbreak. We bought our tickets two days before we left. It was purely spontaneous. I feel sorry for all the people who are being affected. I can’t even imagine what they are going through and the uncertainty of it all. It’s scary to think about (the possibility) this virus wipes out hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. These days, we are just waiting it out here in Hawaii. Surfing, eating lots of avocados, and enjoying the fam until it clears up. My daughter has online school classes, my employees are working online from home. They occasionally go to the warehouse to send out a few products. Orders are next to nothing. No one is surfing, no one is skating and no one is going outside. It’s a ghost town everywhere, and I don’t see it getting any better any time soon. Workers will be given the ok to go to work soon by the government. Maybe premature, as I think the number of infected people will continue to rise. Only time will tell. Thoughts and prayers go out to all who have been affected across the globe by the Coronavirus.”

Editor’s Note: Things have changed in the two weeks since Reno wrote this piece for The Inertia. He’s currently flying back to Hawaii and says COVID-19 is subsiding in China as surfers are starting to ride waves again and people are slowly returning to work. Unfortunately, Nic Zanella flew back to Italy and is now having to go through the ordeal of experiencing another major outbreak there. Reno advises all to take precautions and stay informed when traveling. He can be reached through his website, here

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