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O.C. surfers head to China to spread sport

ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Imagine thousands of miles of coastline dotted with waves to explore – in a country that has yet to grasp the concept of surfing.

That's what you'll find in China, a virgin when it comes to surf culture, but a region ripe and curious about the sport.

"Sitting there on the beach or waiting for waves isn't part of the culture. The beach culture as we know it in the Western world doesn't have much anchor in China," said Fernando Aguerre, president of the International Surfing Association.

"The Chinese have been busy building a country and working. Going to the beach and doing nothing – laying on the sand or playing with the waves – they are very intrigued. They love it, and they are very curious about it."

Introducing surfing to regions unfamiliar with the sport is the premise that ISA was built on, and soon surfers from Orange County and around the world will showcase talent at the second annual Hainan Wanning Riyue Bay International Surfing Festival, Jan. 25-30.

It's the second year the festival has been held in China and is made up of two parts: the ISA China Cup, a team competition of eight national teams, including the United States, plus the Hainan Classic, an Association of Surfing Professionals 4-Star men's event that is offering up to $95,000 in prize money.

The USA team includes Huntington Beach's Chris Waring and Newport Beach's Erica Hosseini, who will try to overtake the reigning Australian team in the ISA China Cup. The USA team is led by executive director Greg Cruise of San Clemente and coach Ian Cairns of Laguna Beach. Eight Orange County surfers will battle it out at the Hainan Classic.

Cairns said the USA team has a lot of potential, with former World Tour surfers Gabe Kling and Cory Lopez, as well as young talent such as Waring and East Coast's Cam Richards.

Cairns said he was surprised at the waves at last year's event and found it unusual there were so few Chinese surfers.

"They didn't seem to know anything about the ocean. The people who were there would just stare at surfers and wonder what was going on," he said.

It's going to be a long road before China becomes a surfing culture, but Cairns said it reminds him places like Japan and Brazil decades ago.

"Surfing just lit up all over the coastline, and that's the sort of thing that can happen here," he said. "We're right on the beginning of something here."

It's also something big surf brands will be keeping an eye on, with a whole new marketplace opening for leisurely sports such as stand-up paddling, he said.

Aguerre said last year's event had huge exposure for the Chinese to learn about surfing. Celebrities, government officials and crowds showed up, and through news media and blogs, more than 1 million eyeballs saw the event.

"For me, as president of ISA, my No. 1 goal is taking the sport to places where the sport doesn't exist, but also to bring the nations and different countries together," Aguerre said. "The world has so much conflict and misunderstandings with people due to language, religion. ... In the surfing culture, it doesn't matter if you're Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist – it's a culture that cuts across all boundaries."

The events kick off with a "Parade of Nations" and "Sands of the World Ceremony" in Wanning, where countries will pour sand from their favorite local beaches into a handmade glass container, "representing the peaceful union of the nations through the love of the sport of surfing."

Last year, surfers were blessed with offshore waves for the entire event, beginning with shoulder- to head-high waves at the left pointbreak, with waves two feet overhead showing for the event's final days, Aguerre said.

The area was selected by the late Sean Collins, founder of Surfline.com, who researched the region's best place to hold a contest.

The island where the contest is being held already is a Chinese tourist destination, with a climate similar to Hawaii's and plenty of accommodations along the coast.

"By bringing surfing and putting this island on the world map, we're going to change the reason why people go there and who goes there," Aguerre said. "And then you look at the whole coast of China – you're talking thousands of miles of coast.

"My hope is, with surf schools and training with competitive surfers, we're going to help them, so in a few years, they can have their own athletes on the World Tour," he said.

Contact the writer: lconnelly@ocregister.com


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