The city is eerily quiet. Garhoud Bridge is free of rumblings, Creekside Park’s cablecars are at a standstill and, at this time of the morning, Dubai could be mistaken for a peaceful sort of place.
With the sun only just over the horizon, it could also be mistaken for somewhere with a hospitable climate at this time of year. Time Out met with Monty Khwaja on the banks of the Al Boom Tourist Village at his suggestion that these blazing days are high season for rowing in Dubai. As the heat sets in, and we’re relegated further and further into a void of air conditioned, sedentary living, any opportunity to get out and active needs to be taken by the oars, so to speak.
‘I’d go so far as to say that winter is the off season for this,’ remarks Monty, a Pakistani expat who has been in and out of Dubai’s rowing scene for the past 10 years, as he shoulders the hull of his two-man boat. ‘At this time of the morning, the water from the creek is cool, the air is cool. You can get to work out, outside, at the hottest time of the year.’
Monty honed his water-bound ambitions in the colonial-era relic of a rowing club in Karachi. Starting out on British army regattas, Monty eschewed the usual Indo-Pak fascination with cricket and concentrated on developing rowing as a sport in his home country, going on to win gold at the Asian Games in 1990, along with appearances at the famed Henley Regatta and several competitions around Europe.
Taking the back of the boat, we amble down to the water’s edge and Monty points out where we’ll be heading. ‘We’re going to go right under the Garhoud Bridge, about 200m up the creek and then back, all the way to the Floating Bridge. Sometimes our weekend groups head out from here right up to Ras Al Khor. We row far enough to see the flamingos. Far enough away, of course.’
After a slightly daunting wobble into the scull, we strap on the shoes fixed into the body of the boat and take up the oars. Monty jumps in behind and a couple of minor strokes send us cruising into the centre of the creek.
‘You’re looking to make a rectangle with the oars,’ explains Monty as he rests his paddles above the water, signalling me to take the reins. ‘Keep hold of them. It’s what’s keeping things upright. Let go and we’ll capsize.’ But despite a couple of initial shaky moments it’s surprisingly easy to find and keep a healthy rowing rhythm. Oblivious to the rising sun and temperature we swiftly progress (at his encouragingly gruff chants of ‘and flick, and flick’) from a staggering slapping paddle to something halfway to graceful. The one-on-one element complements rowing perfectly. A full-body movement, putting emphasis on the stomach muscles, forearms and back, Monty’s coaxing (and cox-like presence) is not unlike having your own un-punishing personal trainer. And, when he decides to pick up the oars himself and provide a bit of wingman propulsion, we catch quite a speed and a refreshing burst of cool air.
The sole boat on the water, we run a couple of merry circuits as Monty explains the attractions of rowing for the gym-shy. ‘For people who don’t like to go to the gym, who don’t like to run, don’t like to lift weights – this is a power workout. You’re building up lean muscle with a strong cardio basis to build on. And you’re learning a skill while you do it.’
Monty’s Thursday, Friday and Saturday sessions are getting consistent turnouts of between 15 and 20 people, with varying abilities across the group. With two sets of two-man, four-man and eight-man boats, all of these rowers are getting out on the water and he’s hopeful of bringing a number of teams together in the future. Back in 2005, when Monty was running lessons with the late Dubai Waterski Club, he organised a charity ‘rowathon’ with members of his group as crew.
It’s easy to sink sleepwalker-like into the rowing rhythm. Movements, flicks of the wrist and the steady loll of the boat provide a constant, stimulating and it’s only when you eventually drop the oars that you realise how much exertion it takes to keep you moving. As the city begins to wake up, and Monty offers a few basic pointers on directing the craft, we skim to a halt, arms, fingers and back buzzing with exertion. Monty leaps out and helps me off. I realise we haven’t spoken for about five minutes, so meditative is this down, push, lift, pull and repeat rhythm. And, as I hail a cab and head back into the Garhoud slipstream, it’s hard not to look at that murky creek in a whole new way.
Monty’s Rowing School. All ages and abilities welcome. Lesson Dhs120. Membership and Group discounts available. Group lessons are Thur, Fri and Sat with sunset and sunrise sessions. For details and times call Monty on 050 738 0910.