First kitesurfer to cross Pearl River Delta plans clean-up sail

‘I always thought it would be fun to zoom to Macau’: kitesurfer who crossed Pearl River Delta

  • Having set record for 55km crossing from Hong Kong, Hillian Siu hopes to lead 30 fellow kitesurfers on same trip to raise funds for marine pollution fight
  • Champion windsurfer Lee Lai-shan’s uncle taught her to windsurf, and she caught the kitesurfing bug while studying in Australia

    Hong Kong kitesurfer Hillian Siu’s route map for her journey from Soko Island, southwest of Hong Kong’s Lantau Island, across the Pearl River Delta to Macau on March 1 this year. She wants to lead a mass sail of the route to raise awareness of marine pollution.

    Kitesurfer and ocean lover Hillian Siu Chun-ying had her light-bulb moment while watching passenger ferries criss-crossing the water between Hong Kong and Macau.

    “I’d be kitesurfing on Lantau [Island], close to where I live, and notice the ferries passing by,” says Siu, 33. “I always thought it would be fun to zoom all the way to Macau,” she says. On March 1, she did just that, taking just two hours and 18 minutes to get from Soko Island, southwest of Lantau, to Macau, breezing into the record books by becoming the first person to kitesurf cross the Pearl River Delta between the two cities.

    Siu became the first female Kiteboard Tour Asia champion in 2009, and has competed in the Philippines, Vietnam, China, Thailand and – her top spot – Taiwan. But not interested in accolades; her priority is the environment. She is planning a rerun of the 55km route in November. This time she wants between 20 and 30 experienced kitesurfers to join her with the aim of raising awareness about marine pollution and raising funds to help tackle the problem.

    “For a long time I’ve wanted to support an ocean cause, to do something proactive to draw attention to the city’s massive marine pollution problem,” she says. She is looking for an innovative ocean clean-up project to which she can donate the funds they raise, and hopes to get support from government bodies in Hong Kong and Macau.

    Kitesurfer Siu nears Macau on her March 1 journey. Photo: Scott Clotworthy
    Kitesurfer Siu nears Macau on her March 1 journey. Photo: Scott Clotworthy

    “This has never been done before, so that bewilders the government organisations. Some are quite conservative and worried about safety,” she says. “But I’ve shown in my trial run that with proper preparation and the right conditions it’s a safe and easy sail.”

    Siu has consulted a director of large race events, to whom she has presented a safety plan for the mass kitesurf, and says it has been well received.

    A love of the ocean inspired Siu to help raise awareness about marine pollution.
    A love of the ocean inspired Siu to help raise awareness about marine pollution.

    Siu has seen at close hand how bad the pollution problem is. She spends most of her waking hours on the water, whether it’s for fun or work – she is a certified kitesurfing instructor. She loathes the way the ocean is being treated.

    “[Shui Hau Bay on the south coast of Lantau, a popular kitesurfing spot] is really busy but it’s always full of rubbish. For a long time people, including myself, have turned a blind eye to the garbage piling up in the bay,” says Siu. The pollution she saw on her March 1 sail was disgusting, she says.
    In 2009, Siu (left) was crowned the first Kiteboard Tour Asia women’s champion. Photo: KTA
    In 2009, Siu (left) was crowned the first Kiteboard Tour Asia women’s champion. Photo: KTA

    “Along the way I spotted larger pieces of rubbish, and when I was behind a cargo ferry there were materials emitted from the boats that changed the water colour completely,” she says.

    “Closer to Macau, the colour of the seawater changed; it was more polluted with a lot of residue and there were some dead fish, especially at the arrival point at the Macau Yacht Club [Doca de Lamau].”

    Marine pollution is a growing problem, and it’s not just the vast amounts of plastic and other rubbish visible on the ocean’s surface or plastic washing up on beaches that’s a concern. Last month, a study by environmental campaign group Greenpeace found Hong Kong waters are choking on microplastics which are polluting the environment and entering the food chain.

    Volunteers collect plastic bottles that washed up on Tung Ping Chau, an uninhabited island in Hong Kong’s northeastern waters. Photo: Facebook
    Volunteers collect plastic bottles that washed up on Tung Ping Chau, an uninhabited island in Hong Kong’s northeastern waters.

    The report found that, compared to similar research carried out in 2016, the microplastic concentration in Hong Kong waters had increased 11-fold.

    Microplastics are small particles, less than 5mm in diameter, of degraded plastic from discarded single-use cutlery items, straws, condiment bags, cups and bottles, according to the researchers.

    In 2018, a study by the Education University of Hong Kong conducted at the Aberdeen Wholesale Fish Market – Hong Kong’s largest, handling between 50 and 80 tonnes of fish a day – found that 60 per cent of flathead grey mullet, popular in local dishes, contained microplastics. On average, 4.3 fragments were found in each fish; one had ingested 80 pieces.

    “We’re using a tremendous amount of single-use plastic on a daily basis, [on] food [and] non-food products. It is common to see food, such as broccoli and apples, unnecessarily wrapped in multiple layers of plastic. The plastic waste generated from ridiculous overpackaging not only increases our household waste, but may end up in the ocean if not properly treated,” says Greenpeace campaigner Chan Hall-sion.

    Another type of microplastic is microbeads, plastic orbs (less than 1mm diameter) found in beauty products such as exfoliating scrubs, shower gels and toothpaste, and commonly listed as polythene on a product’s ingredient list.

    In 2018, University of Hong Kong (HKU) researchers found that more than 60 per cent of seawater samples taken around the city contained microbeads. Scientists at the university’s department of earth sciences and the Swire Institute of Marine Science at HKU examined more than 100 water samples from seven sites. Siu says it’s studies like these, and the amount of rubbish spotted while kitesurfing, that motivated her to organise the awareness-raising group sail.

    “The distance – between 50km and 55km – I’d say is long enough to call it a good challenge, but not too long to be considered silly or a distance that could put people in danger,” Siu says.

    She says the government entities she is trying to bring on board in Hong Kong and Macau include the Environmental Protection Department, Marine Department, Leisure and Cultural Services Department, and Macau Sports Bureau. She has also approached the Hong Kong Sailing Federation and the Instituto Cultural de Macau.

    It’s hard not to get swept up by Siu’s passion, not just for the environment but for water sports. In her teens she hung out at the windsurfing centre on the island of Cheung Chau, 10km southwest of Hong Kong Island, where she was motivated by her mentor, “Uncle Lai”, real name Lai Gun – known as Hong Kong’s “godfather of windsurfing” – who set up the centre in 1975 with his wife, Irene.

    Lai has strong connections to the sport: his son Duncan Lai (known by his artist name Duncan Chow) was a Hong Kong windsurfing team member and won the 1998 Asian Windsurfing Championships before he made his name as an actor. Lai’s niece is windsurfer Lee Lai-shan, known as San San, who at the 1996 Atlanta Games became Hong Kong’s first Olympic gold medallist.

    “Uncle Lai really took me under his wing,” says Siu. “He has a bit of attitude, and everyone was a little bit afraid of him, but when he tells you to do something it was like a mission … I had to do it. He would throw me in the ocean and say, ‘don’t come back until you can come back by yourself’.

    “Sometimes it would get dark, and I could see a light on at the windsurfing centre in the distance and think: ‘Maybe I should wait until the light’s out and uncle Lai has gone, and paddle in later’. I’d rather be alone in the sea in the dark than go in and see him disappointed. Seeing his disappointed face was the worst thing.”

    There’s no doubt the combination of fear and love drove Siu to do her best. “Uncle Lai has played a big part in my life,” Siu says.

    While studying in the southern Australian city of Melbourne, she caught the kitesurfing bug. “I was hooked,” she says, while adding that windsurfing will always be in her blood.

    She was backpacking in Mongolia in her 20s when she found out that her brother had suffered brain damage in a motorbike accident. At that point the meaning of kitesurfing changed.

    “When I was young, being on the water was all about fun and the adrenaline. But after my brother’s accident, kitesurfing was … something I needed for my mental health. It really has helped me through moments of depression,” she says.

    For now, Siu is devoting her energies to November’s waste-free mass sail, working with environmental groups such as Hong Kong’s A Plastic Ocean Foundation and consulting the Ocean Recovery Alliance and sustainability expert Brittany Tse from San Francisco.

    “We’re so committed to run an environmentally friendly event that even the floating platforms will be made out of recycled plastic bottles. We’re also asking boat owners and environmentally friendly companies to join hands and support the project. I’m really excited.

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