TAIPEI, Taiwan — Every year around this time, typhoons lash Taiwan and whip people into a panic with strong winds and rain heavy enough to bury entire villages in mud.
Now a growing demand for rights to hang ten off the West Pacific island’s shores has created a new kind of storm.
A defiant group of some 200 surfers argue that typhoons generate perfect swells. Despite the intense storms, these die-hard surfers say conditions are safe enough if you know what you're doing, and they resent the local television crews who follow them through downpours and wind gales for gee-whiz images that often land them in deep water with the authorities.
County governments have declared typhoon surfing illegal, empowering them to nudge violators back to shore and fine them thousands of dollars for any resistance. They call off school and work ahead of the worst storms.
“Typhoon swells are probably the best surfable waves in Taiwan, even though the coast guards and the media hate us for being in the water during that time and often make a big scene of it,” said Chris Hsia, 30, who runs an inn for surfers on a south coast segment that gets hit by most of Taiwan’s four to five typhoons each year.
The drama points to a glaring gap between a growing contingent of younger Taiwanese and the more conservative majority that associates oceans with fishing accidents and the specter of a naval battle with China just 100 miles away.
Deaths from mudslides or high winds on land have also heightened overall vigilance during typhoons, which usually occur from June to early November.
Typhoons can generate surfable swells of 10 feet along the north and east coasts of Taiwan. The best waves occur just before or after a storm hits, or at the height of an offshore typhoon that generates swells without hitting the West Pacific island head on.
During an unseasonably early typhoon last month, Taiwanese surfer Jonathan Yan stayed upright on a swell for one minute, up from the usual 20 seconds. The government allowed surfing that day since the typhoon did not make landfall.
“We don’t need to go to Hawaii or Bali. We can do it right here,” said Yan, 34, a professional lifeguard trainer. “But TV makes us look bad, like we’re protesting.”
The sport once dominated by Western expatriates has taken off locally over the past six to seven years. Taiwanese see local celebrities spending time on beaches, which in turn have grown more developed.
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Some surf to rebel against conservative elders, while others try to beat the elements or set personal sporting records as cameras roll.
About 200 people surf during each typhoon, said Clayton Wholley, an Australian-born general manager of the Quiksilver surf gear brand in Taipei and credited as a local trendsetter for the sport. They’re part of an “established” group whose skills and confidence have improved over the past half decade, he said.
But as the surfers risk being slammed into rocks or sucked underwater by rip currents, officials in the four counties prone to typhoons take no chances. They declare it illegal after the Central Weather Bureau issues a land warning, then pursue violators.
“We are preventive in nature, not interested in seeing disasters strike and then responding to them,” said Chen Cheng-wen, disaster prevention officer with the fire department in Taitung County, where a long Pacific coastline attracts scores of typhoon surfers. “We have high waves here.”
Because of the country’s enforcement, he said, no surfers have died or been badly injured in the county so far this year. Few if any people die from surfing in an average year, a spokesman with the National Fire Agency's disaster response center said.
Around Taiwan, typhoons usually kill between 10 and 20 people annually, with as few as three deaths in 2006 and as many as 643 in 2009.
Local television networks that air images of typhoon surfing paint it as a dare-devil sport that goes against reason.
Authorities feel they must prove they can enforce the law, said George Hou, film and television department chairman at I-Shou University in Taiwan. “The media will give the police their homework,” Hou said. “Government officials have to follow the issues that media assign them.”
Authorities elsewhere, such as Bali and Mexico, have allowed surfing in all conditions, well traveled enthusiasts in Taiwan note. Taiwan county officials, they argue, have simply jumped in with the conservative side of Taiwan’s generation gap.
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“It’s a direct reflection of local culture. It’s very protective and conservative and this is how they teach kids to avoid danger,” said David Lin, 46, a Taiwanese surfer of 23 years. “These types of values are killing the kids.”
But they haven’t killed the sport.
Some surfers find beaches where the coast guard seldom scouts for violators. Others surf around dawn, before patrol boats see them.
“The thing they don't understand is that we are living on an island, so of course people will get in the ocean,” Hsia said.