Aired on 2021, Aug 14th  in Legends and much more! / Podcast

Interview with Nik Zanella


Welcome back, I hope you enjoyed this small summer break and our special series about Olympic Games (Tokyo 2020 or 2021 as you like…).

We are back to the third series of our podcast with fifteen more episodes, continuing the journey in to surf and surf culture.

Today’s guest is Italian, but lives in China since few years, he is the author of the book “ Children of the Tide, an exploration of surfing in dynastic China”

You can find the episode in all major podcast platforms or read it here in its transcribed version (please forgive spelling mistakes)


Courtesy of the Surf Boda Caravan

TTOS: Aloha Nik, welcome to the show, where are you today?

Right now, I’m in Shinjuku peninsula, which is a peninsula on Hina island down super south in the south China sea, not many of our readers or followers will know about this place, it's a small island, but we had six world's longboarding championship, the most famous spot is called reebie. We have about seven left point breaks and a mighty right-hander…

TTOS: Today, we're going to talk about you as a surfer, your book, surfing in China and many other things, but the first question I ask everybody is, what is the most important thing, in your opinion, in surfing?

For me surfing is about catching waves, I could go on for a couple of hours about, you know, mystical implications and what surfing means for me, but, when I get in the water, the most important thing for me is to catch a lot of high-quality waves, possibly alone.

It's getting crowded everywhere on the planet and it's actually picking up here as well, but I still have a few secret spots where I can surf alone.

TTOS: That's good. Keep them secret…..When did you start surfing? What was your first surfboard?

The proper one when my started surfing in Italy back in 1982, I was on a wind surf board and I was on the east coast of Italy, I fell in love with the scene of catching waves and then, fast forward a few years, I traveled to California during my high school years, I caught a few waves in Caribbean beach, in San Diego, and I got completely blown away by the experience….I've been surfing a hundred days a year ever since…. not bad.

My first proper surfboard was a surfboard built in the canaries, it was one of my first destination back in the late eighties, early nineties. I used to spend my winters surfing Lobos almost alone, we used to camp there and my first surf board was six, four shade by some crazy Italians that used to work there. And it was called “no work team” and that was my first proper shortboard.

TTOS: Do you prefer shortboards or longboards?

My surfing is controlling me, I went through different stages and I've been a shortboarder and a skateboarder for most of my life. I'm mainly short boarding right now, but I went through quite a few years of longboarding because I've been working for the WSL and for the ISA at several longboarding world cups here in China, I've been influenced by people and I got really deep into longboarding for two years. Then, right now, I'm back into short boarding, surfing pretty much manipulates me the way it wants.

TTOS:  from you surfing in China to even write a book about it (Children of the Tide) , as far as I understood, surf in China is as a sport relatively new, but there are maybe under a year of history…..

If we talk about it from a linguistical point of view, which is the approach that my book took to this discipline surfing as the word surfing that we know, is maybe only 30 years old, the first surfer that caught waves in China was Peter Drouyn , he was a flamboyant, gold coast surfer who got a commission, the first surf development project right where I am today,  pretty much in 1885.

The project lasted for a couple of weeks, it was a big culture shock, but then Peter went back to the gold coast and became a woman…. There's a book about him that's called “Becoming Westerly”.

This happened, then surfing picked up again, let's say in the early 2000 and the island has been pretty much the epicenter of the surf development projects since then in 2016, when surfing entered the Olympic program. A national team was built, I was commissioned to recruit the athletes together with Peter Townend and from then it's been a crescendo, now we have about 15 regional teams, one Olympic team, and there's a lot of money behind it.

Surfing pools are being built, it's a big project…

If we talk about surfing from the wave riding point of view, the history is much older, we go back towards any wave ride in dynastic, China. I found traces of people riding in China and those documents go back to the ninth century. From that point of view, wave riding is a 1000 plus years old…

My book, Children of the Tide, it's one chapter of the history of wave riding and, you know, wave riding popped up in different cultures in different years, think about the Cabaitos or Totora in Peru that's around a thousand BC and then there are traces of surfing in West Africa, possibly to the 15th century.

It popped up in many different places, wherever the environment, wherever the culture was ready for that, wherever there were enough resources for people to be on a bay with waves and having enough free time to enjoy what they had with pops up, God knows how many times it materialized out of nowhere. The book is just telling a different beginning.

TTOS: You were just talking about Chinese surfers and Chinese surf industry that is getting structured behind all the circles of  surfers and then, you were talking about Olympic Games… what I know, when it comes to Olympics and Olympic teams, China teams are very competitive and very, very strong. But in surfing, it's not happening for them,  at least in the tour and among top surfers. How long will it take, in your opinion, to see the first real surf Chinese champ?

Well, you know, surfing has about a hundred years of white history and there have been competition going on since possibly the fifties and sixties….we're pretty good at that! Think about Italy for a second, how long did it take for Italy to produce someone like Leonardo Fioravanti? It took 30 years!

China is starting from a completely different point of view, in Europe and in the US the common situation is that your father is a surfer, it takes you surfing, you become pretty good, he pays for all your expenses until you get sponsored and, eventually, you start to win competitions, maybe you get into the Olympics or you become world champion.

That's not what happens in China, here is the government that started from zero, recruited kids from other sports and started train them and paid for some of the best coaches that you can have in order to get them to the level of the international surfers. That means that the kids have been training and they don't do anything else. They surf, they train, they work six days a week to get to that level. What does that mean? That means that they're improving at a speed that you guys have no idea.

I give you this example, I was working with the national team first, and then I moved into one of the regional teams. Some of the kids that I coached from zero, I was pushing them on a soft top in november and they're surfing in Sumatra on a short board the next August! They're doing top turns and they're doing cutbacks and they're freaking enjoy. Give them another three, four years and they will be ready to compete in a high level QS.It takes time, you know, it's not something that's going to happen overnight, it might take 10 years….from 2016, you count 10 years and that's pretty much the timescale that we're talking about now. It's only a matter of when it happens, because it will happen.

I was a judge recently at the nationals, because I'm freelancing right now for the water sports department and I was blown away. I mean, I was really blown away, especially by the girls that some of the girls are at that level.

TTOS:  you told us about your role as a surf coach, what is the most important advice or the most frequent advice that you always give to the people you coach?

Well, the most frequent advice is “if you like it, go on, if you don't like it, get a job”.

I live in a pragmatic communist environment and I'm pretty straight when I speak to my kids, if you like it, if you're enjoying what we do is if you enjoy the wake up surf, eat surf, sleep routine, go on with it. If you don't, get a job. I think that there is the part of enjoying surfing not like as a professional sport and there is a part of enjoying competitive surfing.

I'm addicted to surfing, like a junkie ao I think that they're really lucky to be doing what they do.

TTOS: Let's go back to the book, I have two questions, the first question is what was your objective when you wrote the book? And if you feel like you reached that objective….

My goal while writing the book was to tell a story that had never been told before. I had the feeling that the story of those guys surfing in the 17th century and doing what they do, chose me to come alive.

Surf was quite famous in between Chinese people, but they didn't know that that was surfing, I graduated in an university, in Venice and my major was Chinese language and philosophy and I felt like I was picked up by those guys lost in, in dynastic chronicles. I was picked up to tell their story because their story is so fascinating. I think I reached my goal, the book is doing really good, it has been reviewed very positively by the intelligentia of the surf world and published, until now in over 30 media being them surf related or mainstream. Could I have done a better job? Of course yes, but I'm very happy of the final result.

My book came out in English and I have to thank Sam Bleakly you know, English author and filmmaker who turned my Italian, Chinese English into Cambridge English. Still not many Chinese people know about my book, when I tell the story, they're pretty blown away, but it's not easy when you're looking at the future of a sport to appreciate the past. I'm also in touch with the editors who will translate the book , but, so far, it's been way more successful abroad than it has been inside China.

Courtesy of Nik Zanella

TTOS:  among the stories of the book, Is there one particular inspiring story for you that you consider to be meaningful?

The book has 250 pages and there's a lot of fun storytelling inside that it's not an asset, even if it revolves around dynastic Chronicles and the poems there's, it's solid about me. It's not only about their stories, but also about how their story got to me. One of the funniest stories of the book, I don't want to get in too much into, as symbology or linguistics, that's part to be one of the funniest stories is when you know, after working at the sources of the book for a few years, I finally went and surf the waves that they surfed….

You have to know that all the, their surfing was based on a river-wave, a tidal wave that happens in Hanjo which was the capital of the Song Dynasty, it was, possibly, the biggest town on the planet around 1250 of the current era, there were parades, they were surfing and all book revolves around that.

In 2007, together with the John Callahan (photographer) and few European riders (among them was Francesco Palatella that was Italian champion back then), we went to hunt and tried to surf the river. What happened was that the river was completely off limits, you cannot even get close to it…. we got in touch with local fisherman, we collected info and we pretty much poached it, we did it illegaly….we nearly got to jail, we got kicked out of town…..That is one of the funniest chapters of the book from, from the storytelling point of view.

Couresy of Nik Zanella

TTOS:  What are your future projects?

My son was born in February this year and we were in Beijing, it was like the first red zone that I crossed, then I flew back to Italy to be with my mom and my friends for a few weeks. I got stuck in Italy for eight months that I spent in Spain. I figured out that all my friends in Spain, that they were surfing with me, were from another epicenter of the coronavirus. In September, I managed to catch a crazy flight back to China, and then I've being quarantined again….

This year, I've been quarantined for over a hundred days.

So for now, just the fact of being back on the island and being able to surf, it's already an achievement. I'm freelancing for the water sport department right now and I don't even want to think about the future, I'm just enjoying the present and just being able to be with my family, surfing good waves with not many people around.

Regarding my research, I'm working on a documentary about the book.

I also run ISA trainings here, I just want to keep rolling like that. You know, I call it the “People's Republic of empty waves”, I just want to keep surfing empty waves….

TTOS: we're going to finish our interview in a short Q/A session,please answer the thing that comes up to your mind.

The best surfboard that you ever ridden….

It was Hawaiian island creation, Martin Porter model, which he won then 1991 world champion… I bought it in Bondai beach in 1991 BH blue, Hawaii.

TTOS: Your favorite shaper?

Nev Hyman

TTOS: Your favorite song?

My favorite song is “what I got” by the Sublime.

TTOS: Favorite surf spot….

Oh man, I fell in love with so many surf spots in my life.

My favorite spot right now is a left in front of Le Meridien hotel here that have been surfing for the past 10 days. It's been unreal, like 150 meter left-handers and bottom point, you just can do 10 top turns. I live in the present and this is what I'm surfing really love with that left and I'm a regular!

TTOS: your favorite surfer….

Right now would be Torren Martin, otherwise Tom Curren.

TTOS:  Last question, your best relationship advice….

Get a wife who doesn't surf,  let's say I tried several different degrees of relation in between wives and girlfriends and surfing and I came to the conclusion that surfing is something that I do for myself and I'm not willing to share.

TTOS: You really want to keep all those waves for you! It’s Radical! Lol 🙂

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