Surfing Sandcastles: Sunset Beach by Sandra Tinari

Sandra Tinari is a photo journalist who has written off-and-on for us over the years as she travels the world surfing, taking photos, and talking to people. Most recently, she travelled to Dubai, where she discovered the local surf organization Surf Dubai. We know you can surf anywhere there are waves, but it’s still amazing to us that surf culture is spreading through the United Arab Emirates. So we asked her to give us some more details about what the surf world looks like over there. Apparently, the community has been around since the 90s, and it looks like it’s just getting started.

Surfing Sandcastles – Sunset Beach

By Sandra Tinari

In the mid 1970s, Dogtown’s Z-boys introduced surf-style skating to California’s streets. More than 20 years later, and a world away, that tide was turned; skateboarders returned to the sea, and surfing found the Middle East.

“We became surf crazy,” says Scott Chambers, remembering his transition from skating the streets to gliding on waves. The Brazilian/English expat had brought surfboards back to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates after visiting family in Brazil. “In the 1990s, surfing was a very underground thing in Dubai. At first it was just me and my brother; people couldn’t figure out what these new kids were doing. It eventually grew to a core crew of about 15 of us who were really into it,” he says. “Then, by 2005, when Dubai basically went on steroids, surfing took off as more and more people traveled here.”

But, seriously… waves in the Middle East? Yes, seriously. Since arriving in the Arabian Gulf, I’ve had plenty of surf from loggable fun to head-high peaks. When it’s on, the punchy, wind-dependent conditions remind me of my home break, Scarborough, in West Oz.

Surfing here is all about the science of forecasting and the desert winds. The city’s few hundred surfers monitor the charts religiously. With a short surf season from October to April, you’ve got to be on it when waves arrive. When the northwest winds blow down from Kuwait 1000 km away, or Qatar at halfway, Dubai’s surfers emerge from the golden, glistening skyscrapers of this cosmopolitan metropolis… waiting and watching. The anticipation is palpable.

“Perhaps it’s a little bit like Florida in the Gulf of Mexico; we’re talking wind waves. We don’t get waves everyday but because it’s such a small gulf, if the winds start blowing consistently from Kuwait, we’ll have waves,” Chambers says. “We’ve really got it down to a science. If it blows above 12 knots for more than 12 hours past Qatar, we’ll get something.”

Nowadays, Chambers combines his two loves. Sitting on the terrace of Sunset Beach’s Surf House, he’s surrounded by retro skateboards and surfboards. He talks of neighbouring Al Ain’s Wadi Adventure wave pool, exploring Oman’s isolated coasts and how he founded Surf Dubai, the Gulf’s first surf club, shop and school. After gaining a Bachelor of Surf Science at university in the UK, he returned to Dubai. Shunning a career in the city’s booming finance sector, he started giving surf lessons to tourists off the back of his old Jeep in 2005.

The club has now grown to its present beach-front location, occupying an old ramshackle compound amid Dubai’s sandcastle mansions and seven-star hotels. The Surf House is at the heart of the local surf community. With a population of circa two million people, only around 17 percent of Dubai’s residents are UAE nationals. The rest are expats. As such, many surfers here are Australians, South Africans and English, who are working in the Gulf. The Surf House is where they come to meet like-minded nomads, and on any given day it is a hive of activity, with young and old, sunburnt and surfed out, just hanging around.

Surrounded by Dubai’s glamour, it almost seems like the Surf House is the last bastion for surfers in a city where beach-front locations are hard to come by, thanks to fast-paced luxury developments (some of which, including The World Islands, ruined local surf spots). But, as the popularity of surfing among visitors and residents grows, there’s hope that tourism will continue to see it thrive in the Gulf… and that the Surf House will remain the home of surfing on Sunset Beach.

For more from Sandra Tinari:

Surfing the Slow Life

Portugal’s Surf Essence

Artist Interview