Surfing the 38th Parallel, Photo Essay Series: Winter

For most of us, surfers or not, there was a time when we had finished school only to be left staring out into the great big world wondering what to do next. Travel is often the first line of defense against this uncertainty, and the willingness to let the universe tell you where it wants you to go can lead to some incredible and unexpected discoveries. This is basically how Shannon Aston’s journey to South Korea began. Aston has been documenting the surf scene on that particular part of the 38th parallel since he packed up his board and took off from Fiji six years ago. He is going to tell us all about it in a 6-part photo essay series that we’re calling Surfing the 38th Parallel, which documents various aspects of the surf scene in this surprisingly resilient community. We begin with Winter


There is surf everywhere in the world. I know this now, but I didn’t always. Like most wisdoms, it took time and suffering to glean this simple truth. Surf magazines sold me tropical surf real estate, fish-eyed lies and palm-treed dystopias, which I had blindly followed since youth. The surf industry billboard and its editorial bias narrowed my mind over the years as all pornography does, through me working under the assumption that they must know more than I. But one thing our editor’s never told us was where there is wind and sea, there will be waves. This is surfing’s pragmatic truth.

The changes came when surfing grew up. Our viewpoints grew wider and we became more realistic about expectations. Global surf populations exploded and line-ups swelled, while the Japanese equipped us with much better wetsuits and regular surfers began authoring their own adventures. This is the paradigm shift.

The surfing pragmatist was born. This ‘everyman’ worked all over the world and had to look closely at his new homes out of need for a wave. Not a Desert Point feral or a Costa Rica yoga trustafarian, or even a surfer-soldier scrapping at Arugam Bay. The everyman had to make his own discoveries in strange places, not G-land in scope, but just a decent peak or two.

Not all frontiers are discovered with corporate under-writing or by faux cool-kid rippers. The everyman surfer was a devoted and resourceful type. Surfing strange off-center coves and brave new coasts meant legitimate places to surf for better or worse for the everyman, and now new surf territories have been opened up for others to explore.

I am an everyman, and this is my story.

I was in Fiji, staying above my parents’ Nadi restaurant, budgeting to be on every Saturday morning’s non-guest Cloudbreak boat. Onto my last $1000, I dossed with my family while I worked out the post-school angles. The money was running out, and I needed work; but it was 2006, and the power of MySpace was immense. In an Internet café, I stumbled across an intriguing page about South Korea with interesting photos and a decent salary. Two months later, a free ticket was on the counter for me at Auckland airport. I took my surfboard because I always did. I landed on New Year’s Eve.

My co-workers giggled at me coming to Korea with a surfboard. A peninsula must have waves, I theorized, most others do. Korea has formally and informally been divided for nearly a century, used as pawn in regional frictions, imperial expansionism, and ideological wars. After the bloody Korean War, it was divided officially. The ROK army now polices the most dangerous place on earth, the DMZ. The Japanese, Koreans, Russians, Chinese and Americans all saw the peninsula as a prophecy of what Asia could become, and it has teetered on the brink of disaster ever since. The most tight-knit family unit humanity had ever produced was split in two on the 38th Parallel. This is where I found my secret surf.

Rumours and bar tales spun by roughish Australians who had surfed with Koreans in blizzards drew me in. These rumours lead me down a three-hour stretch of highway from Seoul to the 38th Parallel on Korea’s east coast. When I arrived, I discovered the best waves I’d seen in this country, and to my surprise there were surfers, too. Koreans, Kiwi/Ozzie surf rats, and even some wobbly Nova Scotian’s all surfing and hunting for everyman peaks.

38th Parallel Beach is a surf spot, harbor, military base and highway rest stop. It has fast become a hub for Seoul’s young jet-setting surfer class. It didn’t take long for South Korea to get the surf bug bad, and now they’re amped on all surf conditions.

Another terrible, Siberian-influenced winter has just concluded here. I think of Hawkeye Pierce’s vaudeville complaints on M.A.S.H as the only way to aptly convey its severity. Alan Alda wasn’t over acting on this occasion; it’s bitterly cold. My first entry on my experiences surfing the 38th Parallel is the wintertime. This is what this everyman saw.

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

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