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Paddle Kings: DBIS teachers tackle round-Lantau challenge

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DBIS teachers Jonny Haines and Tim Tait talk the talk and paddle the paddle to raise awareness of Hong Kong’s ongoing battle with excess plastic – and win hearts and minds. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

It’s after Discovery Bay International School (DBIS) hours, when I meet Jonny Haines and Tim Tait at a DB coffee house. They’re a couple of self-deprecating lads joking about and having a good time, and here’s the kicker: They look like DB knock-offs of Chris Evans and Stone Cold Steven Austin, in both cases just a smidge shorter. If these two can’t clean up the water around Lantau, no one can.

They may sound like a comedy duo but Jonny and Tim are dead serious. Wading into the water around Hong Kong lately has felt more like a re-creation of the trash compactor scene (minus the dianoga) from Star Wars than a leisurely swim. Jonny, 34, and Tim, 37, are on a mission to make sure everyone knows that, to help Plastic Free Seas educate more kids about marine pollution, and to change attitudes.

They’re even working on a catch phrase they can plant in young minds, something along the lines of ‘That’s not cool!’ when turning down a plastic straw. This writer’s plastic shopping bag under the chair elicits a cheerful ‘That’s not cool!’ So does a throwaway story about a Snickers bar.

Making a stand

Lantau Island Paddle Greenpeace

Last summer, while paddle boarding around some o f DB’s more tucked away bays, Jonny was inspired to act after repeatedly finding pockets of garbage clogging the coves. “I took the GoPro out and did a little video without real intention and chucked in on Facebook. Greenpeace actually got in touch, and they shared it and got 300,000 views,” he recalls. “That’s when you start to realise there’s an audience. That’s where it all grew from.”

‘It,’ in this case, is Jonny and Tim’s upcoming Lantau Island Paddle Challenge, in which they will paddle the full 75-kilometre distance around Lantau, over five consecutive days, starting February 2. Jonny has been paddle-boarding for a year; Tim was a total novice when he agreed to get involved.

The duo aim to cover 15 kilometres a day, and they are in no doubt about the extent of the challenge. “We had a real dicey session a few weeks ago – headwinds, swells, ferry wakes,” recalls Tim. “It was hard to get anywhere, and we felt like we were on a tightrope the whole time. That’s when reality kicks in.”

Keeping it local

Lantau Island Paddle

The pair took up the ecological cause because it’s the right thing to do, and because they hope to preserve what drew each of them to Hong Kong to begin with.

A native of coastal Newquay in the UK, Jonny landed in the SAR six years ago with his now-wife Michelle (who is also the event’s land manager) to become Primary English Coordinator and Year 5 teacher at DBIS.

“I had a friend who worked at the school already, and I was envious of his incredible holiday snaps. And I thought, ‘I want a slice of that,’” he says with a laugh. “It’s been the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Tim’s story is similar. Raised on Golden Bay on New Zealand’s South Island, the self-proclaimed country boy – “When I say I’m from the country, it’s a proper small, isolated town” – was restless after studying Physical Education at university and teaching in the Bay of Plenty. Like Jonny, he’d always wanted to get overseas. “Teaching in New Zealand doesn’t allow for you to save enough money to be travelling,” he says. “The opportunity was here.”

Five fellow alumni were already in Hong Kong, so Tim burnt through his savings for a year, eventually landing a teaching position at DBIS in the Physical Education department. That was eight years, partner Hannah and a family ago.

Jonny and Tim both settled in DB largely because it reminded them of home, and friends had already briefed them on the pros and cons. For some, the village vibe can be a bit much but for Tim, growing up in New Zealand, everything’s about the community. “No matter where you were, everyone knew everyone, and everyone knew everyone’s business,” he says. “It’s the same here. There’s just more people.”

Jonny is more succinct. “I grew up on a farm, so the thought of that,” he says, pointing at Hong Kong Island in the distance, “scared the life out of me. The anxiety level I get just getting on the ferry blows my mind. Like I said, I had friends here, so I had a little insight on what Discovery Bay was like. With nature and the sea on your doorstep, I always knew we were going to live here. This is enough for me.”

Inspiring the kids

Diversity, easy travel, a community of like-minded people and a chance to jump in the water any time are pros, but, as Tim admits, there are a lot of negatives as well, which is part of the reason for the challenge.

Aside from raising (hopefully) HK$100,000 for Plastic Free Seas, Jonny and Tim hope to change attitudes – they believe action is more valuable than cash. The paddle is getting help from the University of Hong Kong, which will be taking water samples along the way, and crucially, it’s already proving a great educational tool for DBIS students.

“This is one of the best opportunities for live learning for our kids… for them to see something real,” says Tim. “They can follow our route, and they can be interactive and engaged with what’s going on. They’ll learn a lot more than they would by just doing a lesson on habitats.”

Jonny agrees, and he’s not wrong about DB being the perfect spot for a pilot programme for wholesale change. “We are blessed to have a captive audience. That’s what’s special about DB,” he argues. “If we were trying to do this [on Hong Kong Island], the message would be so diluted, it wouldn’t hit home.”

Jonny and Tim will put about five hours each day into the challenge, which admittedly is the easy part: logistics, support, and rougher seas on the south side, where there are fewer calm bays, more ferry wakes and higher winds, are each a unique hurdle. But it will be worth it, if they can prove just how successful grassroots activism can be.

Make no mistake. Neither Jonny nor Tim are anti-plastic zealots. They’d just like to see less needless plastic contaminating the water. And the key is indeed the next generation. “We all have [environmental] values but we don’t act on them,” Tim finishes. “The kids are the ones we can change.” That’s cool.

To make a donation, head to https://www.simplygiving.com/the-lantau-island-paddle. To stay up to date with the pair’s progress, visit lantaupaddle.wixsite.com/lantaupaddle or www.arounddb.com.

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