Surfing the Qiantang River's Silver Dragon

The "Silver Dragon" is China's most famous wave, but it's illegal to surf there…and it's in the Qiantang River

When Surf Industry Manufacturer's Association (SIMA) president Doug Paladdini stood in front of a group of Olympic surfing advocates recently and proclaimed that wave pools will play an integral role in the sport's future, it was a clarion call that, in this day and age of struggling surf brands, anything goes. And while he was speaking about the impact artificial waves will have in years to come, the gist was obvious: the world (and surf brands) need more surfers.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. According to Business Insider, in 2007 Billabong held a peak valuation of $3.45 billion. Today, after admitting to being virtually worthless, they're suffering from a 13.5% decline in sales this year and are reporting an annual loss of $733 million. Quiksilver is also hurting, reporting a $32 million loss last quarter. Of the surf industry's "Big Three" brands, only Rip Curl eked out a profit. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Rip Curl cleared after-tax profits of $14.12 million for fiscal 2013.

The Qiantang River and the Silver Dragon

This brings us to the the other solution: surfing in population-rich China. Considering other major population regions like North and South America, Europe and Australia have all taken to the sport, tapping into new markets is an obvious strategy. Boasting a population of 1.35 billion and a coastline of 9,000 miles, there's definite opportunity in China. There are already a handful of events on the calendar in China, including the Red Bull Qiantang Shoot Out, held during the annual Moon Festival that takes place on the Qiantang River in the city of Hangzhou.

Created by a dramatic surge of the tide during the Fall Equinox, large waves push up the river, hitting a height of well over double-overhead and a speed of an upwards of 40 kmH. The event is produced by Glenn Brumage, the business director Wabsono International, a company specializing in promoting board sports in China. They own the rights to and operate the Red Bull Qiantang Shoot Out and the Vans Dragon Sk8 series.

Historically, the Chinese government has kept access to the river illegal due to numerous drownings and other accidents over the year.

"I'm sure this hasn't been tried in the past because of the numerous challenges to holding a contest on a tidal bore. You have only one wave per day to work with, a limited number of days that it breaks and you have to keep the officials and crews ahead of the wave as it moves upriver at over 40k hr," says Brumage. "As well, most of the world's tidal bores are limited by size, 'surfable' faces or accessibility. Luckily for us, the Qiantang wave is unusual in its size, its variety of workable faces and its path through the middle of the city of Hangzhou."

The contest works as such: riding Jet Skis, four teams of two surfers alternate towing each other into waves on the river. Surfers can ride whatever kind of board they choose and are judged on the quality of their rides. This year Hawaii's Kalani David and Makua Rothman won the event, edging out former world tour surfers Phil MacDonald and Trent Munro. Thousands came out for the contest, both amazed and inspired.

"When we first started doing this a few years ago nobody really knew what to make up it," says Matt Wybenga, who produces video for the event. "But every year we go back it gets better and better. The government is opening up new parts of the river and the crowds seem to be understanding what's really going on more and more. It's not like going on any other surf trip, that's for sure."

Other events scheduled in China this year include the Riyue Bay ASP World Longboard Championships, which is coming up at the end of November. The ASP and ISA are also collaborating on another rendition of the Hainan Wanning Riyue Bay International Surfing Festival, which they jointly held last January.

There's no silver bullet that's going to save the surf business at the moment, but between wave pools and wild and crazy events in China folks like Paladdini and the heads at SIMA are desperately hoping something sticks.

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