Last round of Dazzling Blue we brought you some of 1976 world champion Peter “PT” Townend’s memories from his formidable life in surfing. This round we focus on the present: About a year ago he became the coach of the Chinese National Olympic Surf Team Program.
How did China come about?
My friend Glenn Brumage, who’s just been appointed the executive director of Surfing Heritage (SHACC), he was already working on the Qiantang River Shootout in Hangzhou, or the “Silver Dragon” as it’s referred to, he needed a judge and he just randomly called me up at the last minute. So I went, and I was just a judge with the rest of the crew, and then I opened some doors, and the owner of Mansuan asked me to be the event director. I said, “Sure.” So we figured out a deal, and I’ve been doing it now for five years. And that opened the door for what ultimately happened: Now I’m the coach of the Chinese National Olympic Surf Team Program. I’ve evaluated pretty much every surfer that exists in China. I’ve got sixteen surfers on the team. One of them is a little eight-year-old who’s the first-ever second-generation surfer in China. He’s already ripping at eight—he looks like a little Occy.
It must be such an unspoiled surf culture.
You feel like George Freeth or Duke Kahanamoku. Because they’ve only had surfing amongst Chinese people for less than a decade. When I first went the surfers didn’t even know who Simon Anderson was. I had ten of my team members here in California for a month. I brought them to SHAAC and they looked at me and they go, “Coach PT, you mean people rode boards made of wood?” They have no concept of the history. It doesn’t exist.
Is their interest in surfing more cultural or athletic?
The government takes the athletic approach. The kids are intrigued by the history, and I’m trying to make it a point of educating them about that history. But the first thing that has to happen is they need to learn English. Very few Chinese people speak English. They primarily speak Mandarin. And I told the government, “Nobody’s going to be speaking to them from the commentating in Mandarin.” So it’s mandatory that they have to learn English. It was the same thing with the Brazilians.
What are the waves like?
It’s completely untapped territory. I train the Olympic team on an island called Hainan, which is a tropical island off of Hong Kong and Vietnam, and it’s like living in Hawaii or Fiji, except there’s nobody there. There are beachbreaks and points and reefs. Some incredible-quality waves, particularly during typhoon season. There’s a right-hand dredging wave there that’s like Kirra. And then on the mainland you’ve got a thousand miles of coastline. It gets colder as you get up north, but in the south there are waves everywhere.
What would it take for surfing to catch on in China?
I think the Olympics is going to be a motivator. In China, government is the arbiter of sport. They don’t have major league baseball or NFL commissioners like we do here. In China, government runs sport. And you got to realize, there really is no beach culture yet. There’s no “beach look,” they go to the beach in Speedos or fully clothed. There’s no beach lifestyle. It’s still a novelty. But the moment it becomes a lifestyle it might be like what happened here in the sixties when Frederick Kohner wrote the book about Gidget and actually exposed that this was going on, and then came the TV show and the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean and everyone went to the beach. The same thing could happen in China in the next decade.