This October marked the 5th annual Silver Dragon Shootout, held in the town of Hangzhou, China. Six teams made the final cut, surfing the world’s biggest tidal bore. Former professional surfer and Patagonia ambassador Mary Osborne worked as one of the “athlete wranglers,” keeping the surfers safe while riding what’s one of the planet’s most unique waves.
“Mary simply rocks. It’s a tough job as some of the best sections of the wave are in really dangerous areas,” says Shootout sponsor Wabsono International’s managing director of business development, Glenn Brumage.
“It’s really intense,” Osborne says. “On the river, all my senses are heightened. There are bridges, boats, jetties. The guys don’t like it when I call them off the wave but I have to keep them safe.” Osborne, who has been returning to the Qiantang for the Mid-Autumn Festival since 2010, says it’s being that close to some of surfing’s best athletes that keeps her coming back. Each day, before the bore is scheduled to plow upstream, she launches her ski and shuttles her rider to the starting point, marked by a bridge. “It’s pretty scary,” Mary Osborne says. “We’re all sitting there on the throttle, waiting for this monster wave. When it comes, it looks like a tsunami.”
The Qiantang bore, which is created by the triangular-shaped Hangzhou Bay funneling the water upstream, is at its biggest at this time of year because the full autumn moon’s pull acts like an amplifier on the already large tidal swing. By the final day of the four-day contest, the full moon made the wave as big as 30 feet. “It’s so unpredictable,” Osborne explains. “As the river bottom varies, the wave completely changes, from flat to twelve-foot faces, from breaking left to breaking right, all while the surfers are riding it.”
Osborne was impressed by the latest development in Chinese surfing: women surfers. The presence of Chinese women surfers is remarkable considering that most Chinese parents think surfing is too dangerous for their children—boys or girls. Because of this and other factors, surfing is still in its infancy. The oldest surfers in China are in their 20s.
At this year’s Shootout, over 170,000 visitors flocked to the banks of the Qiantang to watch the bore and the contest. The hope, according to Brumage, is that the contest will promote the participation of boardsports in China. “It’s changed the view of boardsports in general, which is a start. We’ve been at it hard for almost ten years,” Brumage says. “But you have to put into perspective that the average Chinese citizen still has no connection or perspective on what surfing is.”
That’s changing, thanks to surfing now being an Olympic sport.
China certainly loves winning gold, and so it’s no surprise that a development team is trying to play catch up. Coached by ISA surf instructor Nik Zanella and world champion surfer Peter Townend, the team of 50 athletes living and training together at Riyue Bay has scrimmaged against other junior teams in the U.S. and will even compete in this year’s ISA World Surf Championships in France. “Though in 2020, there is zero chance that a Chinese surfer will medal,” Brumage says.
Zanella doesn’t let that discourage him, though. “Surfing is literally booming right now. So given time and the right tuition, things will improve. In the past two years, China has surprised me once again. The acceptance of surfing in the Olympics made all the difference. I’ve never seen a nation doing as much as China for our sport.”
Osborne is equally impressed. “They’ve improved so much since last year,” she said of the Chinese team. “One woman surfer even told me that she’s started a beach club. I was like, a beach club? You can do that here?”
But much like U.S. parents in the 1950s and 60s, Chinese parents today want their kids to go to school and get a good job. “I’m convinced surfing and Chinese culture get along pretty well, actually,” says Zanella. “Think about Daoism. The concept of unity with nature.” In China, families that don’t have the resources to send their children to the best schools and hire the specialized tutors to support their success are left with a choice: stick around in the big, polluted cities and have their children grow up with little opportunity, or find another, more sustainable lifestyle. “More and more of my Chinese friends are into this path,” Zanella says. “They’re searching for a different, more organic way to grow their kids. Surfing appeals to these modern families.”
Osborne agrees with this trend. “In the years to come, there’s just going to be more athletes, more money, and things like live streaming of the contest as they gear up for the Olympics.” Asked if she would consider running one of her popular surf camps for girls in China one day, Osborne, replied, “Why not?”
The other good news about the spread of Chinese surfing is the opening of its beaches to foreign surfers. “There are still stumbling blocks like beach access, but there are thousands of miles of undiscovered breaks with unridden waves,” says Brumage. Though that’s changing, too, according to Zanella. “I’ve spent years chasing waves in what I call The People’s Republic of Empty Waves, but I’ll have to change that hashtag. They are not empty anymore.”