So this is where it all began, the launding point for the career of Hong Kong’s gold medal winning Olympian, Lee Lai-shan (San San): The Cheung Chau Windsurfing Centre. Set on a tiny headland between Cheung Chau’s two main beaches, the centre commands fine views of the island, and eastwards to Lamma and Hong Kong Island.
On the ground inside the lower entrance is a big white circle, painted around a point where a demonstration windsurfer is set up for landlubbers’ lessons. It is divided into eighths, and annotated “90, beam reaching”” and “upwind beating”; two arrows lead out, then turn and point to the foot of the steps, where another important label is painted: “Beer”.
At the top of the steps, at home among the crowd thronging the open-air bar, is Lai Kan, the centre’s owner and teacher, and the man who introduced niece San San to windsurfing.
[I wrote this in 1996 – for Window magazine. Much info still applicable]
With teaching over this balmy Sunday afternoon, Lai Kan is taking time to enjoy a cold one, before busying himself with his rescue services. “I’ve had this place 16 years,” he says. “I was the first to start a windsurfing business on the island.” Back then, he had four or five boards that were used by perhaps 20 young kids; today the centre’s boards fill racks at a neighbouring storage site, and 200-300 people windsurf here, 30-40 of them year-round.
Lai Kan starts lessons on land, moving from theory to a demonstration on the board in the circle, then progresses to the sea, with balance practice on a sail-less board, sessions on a tethered sailboard, and free sailing. It’s a tough sport for learners, who spend most of their time falling off the boards. But Lai Kan reckons around 10 hours is enough for a beginner to learn the basics. Then, practice makes perfect.
“Being a good windsurfer doesn’t depend on power,” he says. “No, it’s inside the mind – you must develop your technique, and check the weather all the time.”
The mind game is much in evidence at the launching beach below the centre, where a spectrum of abilities is on show. An absolute beginner clambers onto a sail-less board, slowly stands (“I will do it”), flexes (:Maybe”), wobbles, balances (“I can”), wobbles, and falls (“Next time!”). Two girls with boards with small sails drift in the shallows as they haul the sails vertical; they look almost ready to go, then collapse into the water before trying again. A guy on a harness sets a swanky looking sailboard in the water, climbs on, snaps th sail back to catch the breeze – it sounds like a mini thunderclap – and cruises off to the middle distance.
Hot shots – n beers
The local hot shots favour the waters just east of Cheung Chau, where on windy days some jump and twist over waves on their short boards – harder to control than the long boards – and race courses around buoys. Deciding they’ve been out long enough, they peel off from the pack, then slice their way across the bay, back to the beach.
Members of the regular windsurfing crowd gather at the back of the centre, on a balcony where they can watch windsurfers depart and return. With a westerly blowing today, many of the windsurfing wannabees are brought back in Lai Kan’s rescue boat, their sails furled, their boards towed.
Among the regulars are electricians, carpenters, interior designers, a professor. Several are not Cheung Chau residents, but come over each weekend, drawn by the sport and by the laid-back camaraderie.
Windusurfing has two sides to it, says regular Susan Gray: “It gives you quite a buzz,” and, there’s the social side: “We have fund together …drink a few beers, go to dinner together [and] we go on holiday together.” Poon Ka-kui, who lives in Pokfulam and has been coming here for ten years, says, “It’s good to forget a stressful job for a while. After windsurfing, we may have a party in the evening, and the next day I feel recharged.”
As evening approaches, Lai Kan shouts from the beach, and all hands are set to hauling boards, sails and the rescue boat to the shore. For nine-to-fivers, there will be a few days’ interlude, before fun resumes at the weekend.