Despite the growth of the sport during the past two years here, many people still seem surprised to hear references to surfing in Dubai. Granted, the Umm Suqeim Open Beach, aka Sunset Beach, doesn't have the waves to rival Australia's Gold Coast, but it is the perfect spot for beginners, such as myself, to learn the basics - and in lovely warm water that doesn't require a wet suit. Last weekend I took to some fairly decent swell under the tutelage of Carl De Villiers, of Surf School UAE.
De Villiers set up the school in 2009 as an extension of services offered at the Surf Shop Dubai, and he and his team of qualified instructors offer private lessons throughout the year as well as bi-monthly free taster lessons, held on Friday mornings in small groups, which provide a no-strings introduction to the sport. On Wednesday morning I awoke to a message from De Villiers, that read: "Surf is pumping. See you in a bit."
Nerves forced back into my stomach, I quickly got dressed into shorts and a vest and headed down to the beach where around 15 surfers were squeezing in a quick session before work. De Villiers, who has been surfing since he was a child, is already in the water enjoying the first swell in weeks. Summer in the UAE is not the most reliable time for surf, though it does arrive sporadically - you just have to know where to go.
The lesson begins on the sand, where we sit looking towards the ocean so that he can talk me through lesson protocol and assess the conditions. His first concern is to make sure I'm wearing sunblock and he also encourages students to bring water. "You will feel yourself sweating out there despite being in the water", he explains. "We'll surf at the far end where the waves are smaller and we'll be away from the other surfers," he says, because the waves are a little choppier than he'd like for a beginners' session.
We begin with a warm-up, to guard against pulling any muscles when we get in the water. This involves a gentle run down to the other end of the beach - where we'll be surfing - followed by a series of stretches for our back, legs and arms. Warmed-up, De Villiers asks me to draw a surfboard in the sand and a line down its centre, which he then uses to show me where I should be positioned while paddling, how to ensure I'm properly balanced, and then how to "pop up" on to my feet. He demonstrates the perfect beginner position - knees bent, feet and body both facing to the side with arms stretched out either side of the body - and then asks me to practice it a few times.
Drills complete and perspiration now well under way, De Villiers runs through some basic water safety points before we head into the sea - namely how to analyse the waves in order to know where the rip tide is, how to protect your head as you emerge from the water and fall safely, how to signal if you are in trouble and where to keep your board as you head out to prevent it hitting you. The aim is to walk out with the board to my side, until the water is at waist level, and then get on to the board, paddle out, and De Villiers will help me catch a few waves.
It sounds simple, but it is a little more difficult and a lot more exhausting when you first start. I manage to stand a few times, which left me grinning, but it wasn't as easy as it looks on the television. I spent half of the lesson battling the oncoming white foam with the bright yellow foam board at my side, trying to make distance as soon as there was a lull in wave sets by paddling, but spending most of my time trying to wade out.
De Villiers did not leave my side the whole time, helping me safely escape menacing waves, giving me a push into good waves that came my way and shouting out helpful advice to improve my success, including not holding my nose when I fall off the board, apparently both uncool and dangerous. By the end of the hour (we cut the lesson short because the waves became increasingly unpredictable) I was grinning widely, excited and exhausted.
Anyone under the illusion that surfing is not an incredible workout should be quiet until they've tried it. I'm off on holiday to South Wales this week and intend to have another lesson while I'm there, though I suspect a wetsuit, unfortunately, will be mandatory. For more information: visit www.surfschooluae.com ; e-mail email@example.com or call 04 399 0989