Michael Eu: Still catching the waves at 73

17 May 2019

By Justin Kor

Out on the azure blue waters off the idyllic coast of the Indonesian island of Nias, surfer Michael Eu bobs up and down on the surface as he straddles his 2.7-metre long surfboard. He is waiting for the perfect wave that will take him on an aquatic ride of pure exhilaration.

A large swell approaches. Over 4.5 metres tall – or the height of a two-storey building – the blue wall of terror looks like it is about to swallow both man and board alike. But Eu feels no fear. In fact, it is the one that he has been waiting for.

As the board catches the wave, he lies flat on his stomach and paddles furiously to build momentum. When he has achieved enough, he pops himself up to a standing position – left leg in front and right behind, arms outstretched to steady himself.

Balancing precariously on the board, the wave propels him towards shore. With the sound of the roaring sea at his back, ocean mist in his face, and unadulterated adrenaline surging through his body, this is what Eu lives for.

“I love it,” he simply says of surfing. “When you touch the surface of the wave, you become one with nature. It makes you forget everything, and it’s a beautiful feeling.”

Eu describes surfing with a childlike enthusiasm, although he is anything but young – he turns 73 this year.

But clad in a navy blue batik shirt with white floral patterns, donning surfing bracelets around his wrist, and sporting an even brown tan, this is a man who hardly looks his age.

It has also not stopped him from being in contention for Singapore’s surfing squad for the 2019 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, where the sport is to make its Games debut in the Philippines. Having pursued the hobby for over 50 years, he is largely regarded as one of the pioneers of surfing in Singapore.

“I’m usually the oldest on the beach, and those guys in their 20s and 30s can’t believe that I’m surfing. They’d ask for my age, and I always tell them I’m 50 – 22 years ago,” he says with a chuckle.

Out of the pool and into the ocean

Michael as a 18-year-old at the 1964 Olympic Games (left) and now a 73-year-old surfer (right)

It seems that Eu is made for the water – the veteran athlete is also a former Olympic swimmer who participated at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games in the 200m backstroke, where he finished 7th in his heats. To him, making the transition from the pool to the ocean only seemed natural.

He began his surfing journey at Bell’s Beach in Australia back in 1967, where he was training to be a pilot after calling time on his swimming career. Borrowing a fellow surfer’s board, he paddled out into the water, and in his own words, simply “got hooked”. He has not looked back since.

“It’s a thrill, because one wave is different from the next. If you get beaten, you just have to go back again. It suits my character, because I don’t give up,” he says.

His flying career allowed him to test the waters at famous surfing destinations like the North Shore in Hawaii and beaches along the likes of Australia, Thailand and the Philippines.

After plying the skies for over 30 years, Eu committed himself fully to the waves after retirement. Such is his love of surfing, that he uprooted himself from Singapore and bought a house in Nias – itself also internationally renowned as a surfing destination.

To shorten the travelling time to the Indonesia island, he even relocated to Penang. He visits Nias every alternate month, surfing for two to three weeks each time. It is a schedule he has not broken for the past 30 years.

Making waves in Singapore

Team Singapore surfers

Today, Eu is part of a young but growing scene of Singaporean surfers, some of whom have also followed his path and based themselves in countries such as the Maldives and Indonesia to pursue their hobby.

With over three decades of riding the waves, Nazir Salleh is another pioneer of the Singapore surf scene. While he estimates there were only five surfers in Singapore 30 years ago, this number has risen to around 200 today. Most head to Desaru Beach in Malaysia over the weekends, where there are suitable waves to surf – something that Singapore lacks.

“The number of Singaporeans who are driving up to Malaysia every weekend to surf is just growing, and the real surfers are moving out of Singapore. But they still want to help the country out,” he says.

Nazir Salleh surfing in a barrel

As coach of the training squad of the SEA Games, Salleh himself has contributed to the development of Singapore surfing. There are now 17 surfers in the team, but only eight will head to the Philippines after selections.

The squad now trains twice a week, engaging in mostly circuit training and swimming to build up their fitness. With no surfing spots in Singapore, they mostly train with skateboards, as the skillsets required are similar. They make a monthly trip up to Desaru to train in the sea.

Despite these challenges, Salleh thinks that there is a “60 to 70 per cent chance” of winning a medal at the SEA Games.  “Compared to the regional surfers, we’re not that far behind. I’m quite confident there should be at least one medal,” he says.

Old is gold

As the oldest in the 17-man squad, Eu knows that the odds are against him to make the cut. But he is undaunted by the prospect.

“Actually I’ve never thought that I’m too old for this. I’ve been training for so long that I don’t think about this,” he says.

His biggest aim? To take part in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, where surfing is set to make its debut. If successful, Eu’s Olympic journey will come full circle, 56 years after he competed there as a swimmer.

“If I get to Tokyo, it’d be terrific. I hope to make it, because it won’t be a dream – it’ll be a legacy sealed.”