Surfing the 38th Parallel, Photo Essay Series: Seoul Surfers

For the third installment of Shannon Aston’s photo essay series Surfing the 38th Parallel, we learn about the uniqueness of this welcoming, although crowded, surf culture.

Seoul Surfers

Lowering your expectations doesn’t always mean having a negative attitude; sometimes it protects against harsh realities. If you surf in Korea, then you must lower your expectations to cope with the bad and to truly appreciate the good. On the three-hour ride out from Seoul, I constantly argue with myself, “Will I be an optimist or a realist today?” Initially as a makeshift surf fix to break the grind of Seoul, the good surf days remain vivid in my mind because my lowered expectations only amplified the stoke. The surf and culture on the east coast of Korea surprised me, and my experiences were, in a word, unique.

Surfing in Korea is tinged with madness and magic. Koreans go full throttle with everything they do, and surfing is no different. On a weekend, the lineup resembles a chaotic Korean marketplace with people and boards going every direction. Over three feet, Mother Nature takes control of the space politics, and the lineup clears out significantly. Korea is a small country with an enormous amount of people, so fighting for space is a way of life, and the surfing lineup is no different.

My first trip to 38th Parallel Beach was to investigate surf rumors. Arriving at a protected harbor, some small but nicely shaped waves were intermittently peeling down a well-defined bank. I was impressed and could see its potential, so my friend and I jumped in. Surprisingly, when we came back to shore, a film camera was shooting us as we came up the beach together. Turns out they were filming a commercial for nuclear waste storage, and our water exit appealed to them. I posed for a photo with the bespectacled producer and later learned that we made it in the commercial. Only in Korea would I make it into a commercial my first trip to the beach! 38th Parallel Beach felt special from day one, and this odd tempo set the tone for my future visits.

“A millionaire who chokes at a late take-off is a kook.” A baffling quote from the first Surfer Magazine I ever read as a kid years ago. Strangely, I had to come to Korea to really understand it. One session, a beefy older Korean guy wearing an expensive sealskin suit and riding a Meyerhoffer longboard politely called me off a steep wedge, as one might in California or Australia. I was surprised, as most Korean surfers are usually very shy. He rode it expertly and paddled back out, and we talked story about his life in California for a bit. In the car park, I see him again changing behind a Porsche SUV, puffing on a cigar in an Italian leather jacket with a gorgeous woman in toe. It was quite the scene, and I later learned this affable fellow was some kind of Korean gangster. Definitely an ‘only in Korea’ situation, but this millionaire was no kook.

A 38th parallel surfer is a Seoul surfer. The car park overflows on every swell with weekend warriors, chain-smoking in the latest gear and waxing up only the hippest of shapes. Koreans like to do things together, be it banquet-style eating, all-night drinking or raucous socializing. Surfing has become just another activity to share, and the entire culture is geared up for it with various surf store/camp operators down the coast catering to the amped up Seoul surfers.

In 2012, a WQS 2-star event was hosted on the southern island of Jeju and will run again this year. This contest, which was moved from Japan, post Tsunami, marks the absolute ambition of Korean surfers to be part of the global surfing community. The hyper-competitive Korean matrix is not diluted by the easy-going beach culture at all. In the future, I think more Korean surfers will come across your path. Make sure you say hi – they might invite you to dinner.

For the full Surfing the 38th Parallel photo essay series, see:

Part 1: Winter 

Part 2: Soldiers and the Sand

Part 3: Seoul Surfers

Part 4: Waves

Part 5: Strange Tales

Part 6: Saying Goodbye