Sun, sea and surf-ski

Long, streamlined and exceptionally speedy, the surf-ski kayak is the discerning Ocean Warrior’s vessel of choice

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Remember Mel Gibson’s road warrior? The leather-bound Mad Max scoured the apocalyptic wastelands of Australia terrorising road-punks with his trusty mutt and shotgun. The scenario may not seem so unfamiliar to anyone who has braved the barren frontiers around Dubailand lately.

But if Mel Gibson is the road warrior, then what, pray tell, is an Ocean Warrior? The answer arrives in the shape of Damien Pennefather.

Eschewing leathers and shotgun for a baseball cap and lifejacket (although he does have a small terrier), the garrulous South African is the man responsible for the Ocean Warriors Surf-Ski Club. He founded the club just three years ago, not long after his own interest in the sport began, but membership has since swelled to around 40 members.

Surf-ski is essentially a form of kayaking, but as far removed from its primitive cousin as you can get: it’s a bit like comparing a 4x4 and a sports car. The sleek surf-ski kayaks are longer, narrower and infinitely more finicky than the average kayak. The paddler (when not falling out) sits atop an exposed cockpit, steering the boat with a foot-operated rudder.

The crafts are thin, fast and lend themselves well to endurance racing, which is where the Ocean Warriors come in. In 2009, the Warriors competed in the Shamaal, the world’s richest international surf-ski competition, which took place on National Day in Dubai, and managed to hold their own against stiff international competition, taking spots in the 70s (out of hundreds).

Having arrived at the Marine Sports Club opposite Abu Dhabi’s Marina Mall, Time Out meets Damien and we lug the surf-ski down to the water’s edge.

The double-bladed paddles are highly contoured and you have to twist them when digging into the water, as you would a motorbike throttle. ‘You should paddle with your body, not your arms,’ advises Damien, ‘although I know you won’t.’ The man clearly knows us well. He also explains what to do ‘when’, rather than ‘if’, we fall in. ‘You have to get your bottom back in first,’ he advises, ‘twisting as you lift yourself in.’ It sounds awfully complicated.

Despite their seeming instability, surf-skis were originally designed for rescue, meaning they’re reasonably easy to handle. As we attempt to paddle in time with Damien, we cut through the gentle bob of the water with ease. The kayaks are designed to ride with the ocean’s swell, says Damien. ‘Experienced paddlers can clock up to 30kmph; I’ve only ever done 22kmph in Abu Dhabi.’

The vast breakwaters mean there is little swell in this part of the Gulf, just an impotent, static bob caused by the wind. Nevertheless, Damien finds a bit of a lift and advises us to dig in. After 20 minutes, we’ve sped through the two kilometres needed to reach our destination of Lulu Island.

‘Right, in you go,’ says Damien. ‘Eh?’ comes our response. Having been praised for our balance, it seems we’re doomed to experience a dip in the drink after all. But, as is always the case with these things, falling out is easy; getting back in again is a nightmare. Our first attempt even dethrones a grinning Damien from his perch. Ha! Revenge. We bellyflop onto the boat like a clumsy hammour a few times before the butt-twist finally comes. Bottom scraping over the edge, we slide into our seat with all the grace of a fat man mounting a hammock. ‘Splay your feet either side,’ yells a sodden Damien, ‘It helps you steady.’ Dripping wet, with a grin spread across our face and the sun beating down on our drenched hat, it dawns on us that there are few places we’d rather be.
Surf-ski lessons take place at ADIMCS, opposite Abu Dhabi Marina Mall, and cost Dhs350 for three lessons if you have your own gear, or Dhs450 including equipment hire. Dubai Paddling School offers an introductory session for Dhs175 on Saturdays. For information on how to book a lesson, go to www.dubaipaddlingschool.com.

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