Grand Rower Su Tar-zen
Kayaking the Globe
Retirement is not an end, but the beginning of the pursuit of dreams. Former National Taiwan Ocean University professor Su Tar-zen is helping young, old, and wheelchair-bound people to pursue grand ocean dreams via kayak.
Kayaking the GlobeBy Yi-huan Du
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 581 )
Just off shore from the Qingshui Cliffs near Hualien, a group of kayaks moves slowly against the vast backdrop of the Pacific Ocean. They follow the movement of the choppy sea, seemingly coming close to capsizing a few times, yet always managing to right themselves and keep going.
Having rowed for hours, their hands begin to shake ever so slightly as they grip the oars. Their bodies are soaked in sweat under the relentless sun, but one deeply tanned figure among them keeps singing indigenous Taiwanese songs, exhorting the oarsmen and giving them the energy to keep going.
When they finally make it ashore, everyone gathers around Su Tar-zen (蘇達貞), the man they affectionately call "Professor Flip Flops."
Viewed from a distance, the 62-year-old Su's tanned, weathered face, broad shoulders, and stocky physique grab one's attention.
Easily mistaken for a laconic fisherman at first glance, he is a retired professor from National Taiwan Ocean University who acquired the nickname for the style of footwear he preferred to wear to class.
Retirement Gift to Himself
Su's retired life is vastly different from most people's idea of "retirement." Most people just want to take it easy following retirement. But when Professor Su stopped standing in front of a class he only ended his career, not his activity, establishing the Jonathan Su Foundation (蘇帆海洋文化藝術基金會) to promote maritime education. The foundation has held dozens of events since he retired from teaching.
On the eve of retirement from National Taiwan Ocean University in 2009, at a point when others occupy themselves with visions of an easy life, he was thinking about giving himself a spectacular "graduation" gift.
With a chuckle, Su recalls, "Cycling around the island was all the rage at the time, but that wasn't too relevant to Ocean University. So I decided to kayak around Taiwan instead."
He decided to row around Taiwan by kayak with a group of students, starting from Keelung. Despite the considerable doubts of observers, they kept rowing for two months until Typhoon Morakot forced them to end their journey. And immediately upon putting down his oars, Professor Flip Flops grabbed a shovel and took part in the rescue and rebuilding efforts.
It may sound simple, but it was far from it, involving considerable setbacks and friction. "The biggest stress on me came from my parents, because everyone thought it would be dangerous," Su says with a chuckle. "They insinuated that I was being selfish."
Taiwanese have a deep-seated fear of the sea as a result of the educational system. A former Ocean University professor and strong maritime law advocate, legislator Chiu Wen-yen recalls how back during the martial law period Taiwanese were forbidden from approaching the sea. Even today, owning a boat is next to useless, as without a license one is not permitted to venture out to sea.
"Risk and safety are relative; there is no such thing as absolute danger or security," says Su, speaking from the heart. "If you are close to the sea, this kind of event is quite safe. But it seems the entire nation has gone overboard from sea phobia indoctrination."
"Mongolians ride horses on a daily basis. You don't hear them talking about how scary horses are," he says. By the same token, "Taiwanese live on an island, surrounded by the sea. How can they not get to know the sea?"
Driven by this conviction, Professor Su took his entire NT$3 million retirement pension and donated his seaside hideaway near Hualien to set up the Jonathan Su Foundation for promoting maritime culture.
This idea gave Su's old friends a good fright. "They said I was basically giving away everything I had, and that I should just start an association instead of putting money into setting up a foundation," Su recalls, making sure to take a shot at Zheng Shi-yao (鄭世曜), a foundation board member sitting within earshot, before quickly adding, "Actually, I was a little worried myself."
Seeing how other associations had been tainted by tensions over interests, in order to keep outside influences from eroding his convictions, Professor Su decided to go the foundation route. "That way I could be the CEO for life," he says with a hearty laugh. "After all, associations select a new board every two years," he quips.
Since its founding, the association has never charged more than the costs for any of its events. All of their coaches are volunteers, and they have never applied for government subsidies. Along those lines, Su's most famous quote is, "You can't get anything done without money, but where there is money there is trouble."
More than They Bargained for
If a group of elderly men could get together to form the GrandRiders and circle the entire island of Taiwan on motorcycles, there was no stopping a group of 'GrandRowers' from kayaking around Taiwan.
"I always thought cycling was so dangerous," explains Su, due to all the dangerous situations that can come up at any time on the road. But if you're on the sea, as long as you stay on top of your environs, accidents can usually be avoided.
In August of 2013, under Su's leadership, eight older folks whose combined age exceeded five centuries completed a tour of the entire 11.83-kilometer length of the Qingshui Cliffs. The youngest member of this GrandRowers collective was 55 years old.
"I sort of tricked those eight people into joining me," Su recalls cheekily. The ingrained fear of the sea present in the Taiwanese psyche made it difficult to find participants, forcing him to pull out all the stops to recruit participants.
Xie He-shu (謝和樹), known as Brother Shu, is a charter member of the first GrandRowers collective. With an embarrassed laugh, he recalls how foundation volunteer Wang Mei (王梅) asked him to join, coming right out and challenging him by saying: "You're always going around encouraging older people to go out and learn, grow, and validate themselves. So are you ready to put your money where your mouth is, step outside your comfort zone, and do something a bit risky?"
Branded in such an unflattering manner, Xie had no choice but to harden up and join, unexpectedly becoming the GrandRowers' ideal spokesman. And after they had been featured in the news, they attracted 80 registrants the following year.
Following a remark Su made that "people with no legs should row boats, not ride bikes," the Undaunted – Grace Kayaking Team was formed with five disabled youths and three volunteers, joining forces to hold rowing challenges. After Su offered another quotable saying, "The hardest thing for people in wheelchairs isn't rowing, but getting into the boat," he acquired 20 industrial modular boards to make a portable jetty. With the help of it, wheelchair-bound people could proudly make it to the boat under their own power.
At present, Su is working on his Searching for Paradise At Sea plan. "There are still a hundred deserted beaches inaccessible by land on Taiwan's east coast," Su relates. Using the mobility of kayaks, floating tranquilly on the sea without putting a burden on the maritime environment, he looks to explore these beaches.
"I'd like to stay healthy in my old age, and go completely to pot just before I die," exclaims Su, quoting a Finnish saying about lying down in bed only on the last day of your life. The stereotype of older people living lives of decline should not proliferate throughout society, he feels.
Life is not really about what you do, but what you have not yet done, to keep the motivation to live alive. It has nothing to do with age or physical condition.
Around the World in 60 Years
"Dreams are only dreams when they're not realized," states Su. "Dreams that are achieved bring a sense of loss, so you have to keep coming up with new dreams to find more success," he says.
The new documentary Dream Ocean, which comes out soon, tells the story of Su's quest to sail around the world on a sailboat he built himself. However, Professor Su has already found a new dream.
"I'd originally planned to circle the globe in three years, but now I plan to take 60 years," he says with a chuckle. "Taiwan alone has over 100 deserted beaches. How many deserted islands are there in the Pacific Ocean?"
The answer to that question is more than 3,000, and Su's latest dream is to see some of the world's most beautiful sights by kayak in 60 years. Impossible, you say? Well, Su has already demonstrated that even the most seemingly impossible things can be made possible through action.
If the day ever comes that he visits every one of those sights, he will surely come up with even more new dreams.
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman