Calm before the storm

Calm before the storm

For Roger Kwan, the worse the weather the better it is


Typhoon chaser_L
Photos: Roger Kwan
When the Hong Kong Observatory hoists the Typhoon Signal No 8, most residents secretly leap for joy at being able to sleep in and stay dry. This unexpected day off thrills Roger Kwan, too. But instead of staying home, he immediately packs his things and goes out to Hung Hom Pier.

Kwan, 34, is a storm-chaser. He feels compelled to experience the power of unrelenting winds, torrential rain and roaring seas if a strong typhoon hits.

His first typhoon encounter was 1991's Signal-8 Typhoon Brendan. Despite his father's repeated warnings, Kwan, only 11 at the time, headed to Hung Hom Ferry Pier with a friend. "There wasn't a drop of rain, but it was so blustery I couldn't stand still and it hurt when the flying sand hit my bare legs - I was wearing shorts," he says.

Despite the potential dangers of storm-chasing, Kwan didn't give up. He bought safety equipment, such as a helmet, waterproof clothing and ropes, to make sure the next time he went out in bad weather, he was safe and his family wouldn't worry. Sometimes his typhoon-loving brother tags along.

Now, if he hears of a typhoon approaching Hong Kong, he checks the websites of the observatory and Weather Underground of Hong Kong to find out when the storm will be closest and where to experience the strongest winds. He tries to arrive before the cyclone hits, takes shelter and leaves after the storm subsides.

Kwan is cautious about picking the best spot to storm-chase - and balances his passion with his safety. A Hong Kong typhoon is usually caused by easterly winds, so Hung Hom Ferry Pier, Shau Kei Wan and Shek O are the best places to go.

He says it's safer if people stay in the city during typhoons. "If the weather worsens, you can easily take shelter. If you're injured, help is near," he says. "If you're in the countryside, or in an exposed area, it will take time to seek help."

Roger Kwan chases another typhoon in the city

During his 23-year career chasing storms, his most memorable experience was in July last year, when the Signal-10 Typhoon Vicente caused chaos in Hong Kong. It left 138 people injured and stranded thousands at Chek Lap Kok airport, while commuters slept in MTR stations.

"The wind and rain were so violent I couldn't breathe," says Kwan, who stayed at his usual vantage spot for two hours. "At one stage, the wind speed reached the highest level on the Beaufort scale [meaning the wind exceeded 119 kilometres per hour, the sea was very choppy, and there was poor visibility and flying debris].

"It's taxing to chase typhoons because you always have to battle with the winds just to stand still. After every excursion, I feel exhausted and hungry."

When he's in a storm, he always stands sideways, with his back bent forward. To prepare himself, he tries to build up his fitness by regularly swimming and running marathons.

He is still waiting to achieve his dream of seeing the eye of the typhoon, where the wind will drop and the skies clear for a moment. "For the past 20 years, none of the eyes of the typhoons have passed over our city," he says.

The strongest typhoon to hit Hong Kong was 1962's Typhoon Wanda. (It battered the city from August 27 to September 1, as winds gusted at up to 261km/h, and left 434 people dead and 72,000 others homeless.)

He hopes to join tornado-chasing tours in Texas and Oklahoma, in the US. "I want to learn their skills and technical know-how so I can build a storm-chasing van in Hong Kong."

Kwan recommends teenagers do not copy his potentially dangerous storm-chasing activities if they don't know how to interpret the weather, or are not properly equipped.

A storm-chaser's checklist:

- A motorcycle helmet: With visor and ventilation. It protects his head from flying debris.

- Waterproof clothes: For the obvious reason.

- Thermal underwear: No matter how good his waterproofs are, he says he's bound to get soaked. An extra layer inside keeps him warm.

- Slip-resistant shoes and boots: With high waves smashing the pier, he has to take extra care walking.

- Roller-skating elbow and knee pads: He learned the lesson after he lost his footing in a strong gust, fell and badly bruised his elbows.

- Safety ropes: If he knows the winds are going to be severe, he will wear a safety harness attached by rope to a fixed point - such as a pillar or fence at Hung Hom Ferry Pier. It's similar to harnesses worn by mountaineers and construction workers. His knot-tying skills also keep him safe.

- Weather trackers: he carries up to four electronic devices to ensure he obtains the most accurate measurements.

- Food and first-aid kit: Just in case he's stranded.

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- Mainland and Hong Kong scientists are exploring the bottom of the South China Sea to uncover its strange life forms



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