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Water Boys

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Jonny Haines and Tim Tait sit down with Elizabeth Kerr to discuss Lantau Island Paddle’s latest adventure (and reveal that everyone can join in). Photo by Baljit Gidwani

Summer is exerting itself. The heat and humidity are rising and the waters around Lantau are beginning to beckon. Discovery Bay’s own Lantau Island Paddle founders, Jonny Haines and Tim Tait, are relaxing on the terrace of Hemingway’s after a hard day paddleboarding. Their muscles have been barrelling towards atrophy of late, and they admit to
feeling exhausted. Recalling the long months of lockdown, they joke about their virus weight (join the club) and the inevitability of staycations for 2020.

After months of helping students with their online learning, Jonny and Tim (both teachers) headed back to school at the end of May, only to break for the summer holidays a month later. “Lockdown was a test of resilience for parents and teachers but particularly for the students,” opens Jonny, in between sips from a frosty pint. He’s proud of the strength of character everyone’s shown, and admits that the tech innovations hoisted upon us have been eye-opening. “However, from a wellbeing point-of-view, there is no substitute for the school environment and the value of social interaction,” he says. “It’s been good to have the students back.”

Tim, Jonny’s partner in paddling, agrees but admits, “I struggled. Now I go to Kowloon Tong for work but the majority of it is as director of sport activities. I’d plan things and they would get cancelled, and it got to a point where I stopped planning. Being back at school was still a bit odd. You don’t realise how much you communicate with your face.” Surgical masks do get in the way of that.

Regardless, the duo is in high spirits, much like the last time they were in the news in February 2018. Back then, they were drumming up support for the inaugural Lantau Island Paddle, which saw them paddleboard 75 kilometres around the island across five consecutive days. Their mission was to raise funds for Plastic Free Seas and environmental action in general, and they beat their target raking in an impressive HK$125,000.

Two years ago, 36-year-old Discovery Bay International School (DBIS) teacher Jonny wasn’t a father – which he is now, to two-year-old Jacob – and 39-year-old Tim wasn’t commuting to the Australian International School Hong Kong, though he’s holding steady with three kids between three and 12. Needless to say, protests, pandemics, children – life– curtailed their paddleboarding, but now they’re raring to go again, having dreamt up the Lantau Island Paddle Community Adventure Series (lantaupaddle.wixsite.com/

Sharing the love
Starting July 1, Jonny and Tim are intent on getting water enthusiasts (of all ages and abilities) onto the water, free of charge, to have fun and connect with the environment. Launching from three of DB’s beaches, across the six weeks of summer, the Lantau Island Paddle Community Adventure Series features 22 different routes open to all types of watercraft (including paddleboards, kayaks, small boats and swimmers). “We are not instructors but we are happy to lead the tours,” Tim explains. “We’ve split the 22 routes into 10 ‘virtual challenges’ that people can take part in. The distances that we cover will equate to iconic water-based distances in the real world, such as crossing Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong (1 kilometre) or the Cook Straight in New Zealand (22 kilometres).

The idea for the Community Adventure Series was born in late April from a casual get-together among some fellow paddleboard enthusiasts, keen to take advantage of the warmer weather and loosened social distancing restrictions. “We decided to get the team back together – the band,” Jonny explains. “We pinged some other keen paddlers and all of a sudden we had seven interested [in a continuous paddle around the bays, beaches and islands of Discovery Bay and Mui Wo]. Just like that we ended up in the water for nine hours.”

The paddleboarders set off from Tai Pak Wan on May 2 in perfect conditions but beyond the shelter of Hei Ling Chau, they were hit by severe winds. Tim recalls cramping up half way through, sure he was done, but ultimately of course, there was no way he was going to retire and let Jonny get one up on him. Despite the heat and the skill range, the seven-strong band finished the gruelling 35 kilometres – a virtual English Channel paddle – eager for more.

“We sat there shellshocked thinking how the seven of us had just had an amazing time, an amazing experience, and we thought about what an opportunity that might be for spreading awareness again,” Jonny says. “I said to Tim, ‘What can we do next?’ Lantau Island Paddle still has legs; people are still talking about it. More and more paddleboarders are getting into it.” Tim and Jonny’s mission with the resulting Community Adventure Series is twofold. First, they are dedicated to sharing their love of watersports. Second, they’recontinuing their commitment to environmental awareness.

Tim notes, “People have heard the environmental message but they want to experience it too… It’s amazing what you see when you’re on the water. There’s plenty of opportunity to explore and hopefully to appreciate the environment.Anyone can give money but it’s not changing anything. The idea is that you take action. There’s no entry fee or anything, but we hope new paddlers will find something they want to do – small or big – for the environment.”

Jonny and Tim couldn’t have got the Community Adventure Series off the ground without help from old supporters and community partners, like Plastic Free Seas and Gary Stokes at Hemingway’s– who stops by to boast about the success of his vegan menu. They also owe a debt of gratitude to the ‘English Channel’ paddlers: Discovery College teacher Lawrence Wilkinson, soon-to-be Malvern instructor Charlie Ko and her husband Bryan, paddle “legend” Ron Schwartz, and DBIS deputy Ben “Captain Honey Badger” Loran.

Inspiring change
COVID-19 is without a doubt an unmitigated public health crisis but its side effects include cleaner air that’s a result of fewer planes in the skies. Sadly, another side effect is the garbage that protection (disposable surgical masks) from the virus creates and the uptick in toxic chemistry to keep it at bay. As Tim sees it, we’re all just going to have to double down on the good behaviours and habits that were making inroads in Hong Kong pre-COVID. Getting people on the water where our bad habits show most glaringly should help. “You can’t take your own coffee mug to shops anymore. The masks washing up on shore are noticeable because they weren’t there before. There’s more takeaway packaging. It’s frustrating but I think it’s a good time for people who are aware of this to make a point of making sure they go back to those habits,” Tim says. “Besides, I kind of wish there were more people sitting in coffee shops, because that’s what coffee shops were about.”

Another COVID side effect is simply the reach it’s affording: it’s rare to see so many residents in DB over the summer ready to take advantage of the environment they often cite as a reason for living here. Hence the Community Adventure Series. “We’ve a chance to get a lot of people out on the water, and we’d be crazy not to take advantage of that. If people use an environment, they then care more for it,” says Jonny. “If we get twice as many people on the water and twice as many people seeing the damage, there’s no better way to raise awareness and inspire change. A visual picture, like when you see plastic bags in the water that fish have bitten into, has an impact,” states Tim, recalling the 2015 footage, in which marine biologist Christine Figgener filmed her team removing a plastic straw stuck in a sea turtle’s nose.

Jonny is unperturbed by the Community Adventure Series coinciding with prime typhoon season. “Absolutely! That’s where the adrenaline is!” he jokes, before trying to persuade this writer to get out on the water. Unfortunately, I have no sense of balance. But Jonny laughs this off with a robust, “Neither did we, at least until we got out there.” There’s a pause from the other side of the table as Tim puts his pint down. “I still don’t.” Looks like it may be a fun summer after all.

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