Surfing’s Final Frontier
From the Esquire ME archive: December 2010
The locals must have been wondering what was happening. Parked outside the backcountry biryani house, shining under the moonlight, were four brand new Land Rover Discoveries. The crews of these vehicles had cleared a space among the dirty dishes and coffee cups and were staring into laptops, the monitors throwing artificial light across their outlandish countenances. Their fellow diners looked up from time to time but were careful not to make too much eye contact. Was Oman the first beachhead in some alien invasion, they might well have asked?
Actually the prey these strange visitors were tracking across their screens was not little green spacemen, but waves. There was Pablo Gutiérrez, the Spanish big wave surf-hero with his shaved head glowing blue in the monitor’s gleam. Sitting next to him was longhaired Frenchman, Damien Castera, running his fingers through his beard as he studied the hieroglyphics of whorls and arrows on the screen. Behind them stood the blonde, blue-eyed Australian-English pro surfer, Raine Jackson, stretching her legs after hours on the road. And trailing their fingers over a map on another table were broad-shouldered all-American surfer-athletes, Brett Barley and Jess Hines.
This crack team had flown into Oman to surf what were originally expected to be traditionally humble Middle Eastern waters. But the monitors were showing seriously big waves ripping off the spinning tail of cyclone Phet; so talk had turned to bigger, faster boards and the anticipation of tough, strength-sapping paddle-outs. Surfing is a potentially life-and-death business and these hardcore professionals knew the computer imagery offered vital clues to what they could expect in the days ahead. In recent years the humble “surfari” has evolved from old-school combi roadtrips into a veritable science. Every surfer worth his salt knows as much about sea charts and shipping forecasts as the most experienced of ocean-going skippers.
I had first travelled in Oman four years earlier. But I had been doing magazine stories on the beautiful Hajar Mountains and had succumbed to the myth that there are no surfable waves in Oman. The sheltered, north-east facing coast I visited back then seemed to support this belief and it was only after I left that I began to think about Oman’s wide-open stretch of Indian Ocean coastline. While Masirah Island, off the country’s southern shores, had become a paradise for kite-surfers and windsurfers, few surfers had explored the mainland. I realised that this was uncharted territory for what has become one of the world’s fastest growing sports.
Friends at the Muscat Diving & Adventure Centre agreed to help with the logistics of our expedition. Wisely, I also enlisted the help of two specialist surf journalists (photographer Sergio Villalba and writer Drew Lewis) who could impart much more knowledge to the analysis of buoy reports and weather charts than I could. And thus we began to assemble a team of wave-riders equal to the responsibility of being Oman’s first true surfing pioneers.
Long before we arrived in Oman, Sergio and Drew had completed in-depth virtual explorations of every bay, headland and beach-break via Google Earth. Getting access to what might be perfect waves at the end of those remote headlands would be our main problem…until Land Rover agreed to sponsor us with a fleet of four Discoveries. Equipped with expedition roof racks and state-of-the-art off-road driving systems we would have no trouble transporting our cargo of twelve crew and eighteen boards. This was no gung-ho, wing-and-a-prayer trip. We had everything planned in detail. What could go wrong?
Then at 7:00 a.m. on the day before our planned departure, a text message set my phone vibrating on the bedside table in what had become our expedition headquarters at Muscat’s Grand Hyatt. It was from Sid “the surfer” Ward; so-called because he was the only regular surfer in Oman that we knew of. He was sending us a rather startling wake-up call: “Have you seen the tropical storm brewing off Masirah Island?”
By the time our surfers were unloading their boards at Muscat’s Seeb airport, the sky was already intimidatingly dark and the dhows in the harbour were weaving a web of mooring ropes against what would be a fearsome night. A couple of hundred miles south, the entire coastline was being evacuated amid reports of nine metre waves crashing over the fishing villages.
Within hours, the wadis along the coastal plains would be raging torrents and might remain that way for days. This required a complete change to the game-plan we had been focussing on for almost six months. We loaded up at double-speed and, turning our backs on the coast, headed up into the Hajar highlands to try to get as many wadis behind us as possible. In the course of twenty-four hours we would cover almost two-thousand miles of dune-driving and desert tarmac to arrive way down south, somewhere in the Empty Quarter triangle where the borders of Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen converge. Having slipped through the closing net we would rejoin the coast in the region of Salalah and turn north again. Beyond reach of the tempestuous winds we would be free to head up the coast chasing the waves that were spinning off the tail of the storm.
And this is how our little convoy ends up invading a local eatery, scouring the airwaves and cyberspace channels for news on how the storm is developing. We study the forecasts and swell-patterns on the monitors and, for the umpteenth time, try to predict where the storm will be in two, three, four days from now. Still dazed by the spellbinding desolation of the Empty Quarter we feel more like seafarers than motorists. After dinner we moor our vehicles in the lee of a little archipelago of dunes and sleep curled up in our boardbags for added shelter from the sand-laden wind.
It’s still early when we wake to boost the fire against a surprisingly chilled dawn. We drive on, stopping mid-morning to refuel and buy a few stacks of precious firewood since there will be little driftwood to salvage on the naked, rocky coast we are heading towards. Turning onto the drifting sand of the beach we switch the Land Rovers’ onboard computers to sand-mode, inflating their suspensions to give us maximum clearance. Off on the horizon a pod of dolphins leap, hunting the great schools of sardines that traditionally cause such a feeding frenzy among both marine and human inhabitants of this area at this time of year. But for a few lonely fishermen prowling the beach in battered 4x4s that are liberally coated with old engine oil as protection from the salt, there are few signs of human life on this remote coast.
By midday the wind is whipping the waves into a great mush of whitewater. We continue up the coast, finding a spot where the great soaring foothills of the Dhofar Mountains offer some shelter. As we park, a perfect set of smoothly-peeling righthand waves roll in to wrap around the iron-red rock of the headland. These are by far the best-looking breaks we’ve seen. In fact they are better than we had ever imagined, and within minutes the surfers have their boards waxed and are paddling out. Damien Castera is the first to drop down the face of a neatly-tubing face, stylishly trimming his longboard up in a perfect nose-ride far across the face. Already we have scored what is very likely the best wave ever ridden in Oman and, as the first surfer ever to ride here, the Frenchman has the honour of naming what becomes “Baguette Point”. The ever energetic Pablo Gutiérrez is also slipping into tube after tube and, on the wave of the day, American Brett Barley gets himself so deep in the barrel that not even the nose of his board is visible.
Over the course of the next week, we surf our way up the coast, camping on the beaches. At “Turtle Point” a single aged local pops his head up into the lineout to see what is going on and at “Shark Right” a far more ominous visitor breaches the surface just a few metres from where Raine Jackson sits on her board. At night we gather around our campfire and watch the eyes of desert foxes glinting as they scavenge for our scraps. Conversation flickers between plans for the next day’s hunt to recollections of mutually familiar waves and places in distant corners of the world.
Between us we have probably surfed most countries that boast rideable waves and the question of whether Oman itself has world-class waves has long ago been settled in all our minds. There is no doubt that Oman has finally come of age as a new frontier for surfing.
By Mark Eveleigh