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For love of the deep blue seas

WATER BOYS: (above) Co-founders Dan Van Dooren and Scott Chambers
WATER BOYS: Co-founders Dan Van Dooren and Scott Chambers

The founders of Surf House Dubai trace the burgeoning watersport community's roots over the years to a time when the sport was considered 'dangerous' and no one imagined a desert country could be home to surfing enthusiasts



By Aman Behl

Published: Fri 4 Oct 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 18 Oct 2019, 9:52 AM

Want to start surfing at the age of six? No problem. The average age of learning at Surf House Dubai is 8-9 years old, says Dan Van Dooren, co-founder of Dubai's first surfing school with fellow surf enthusiast Scott Chambers. Growing up on the city's shores in the early 90s, never did the young surfers imagine that one of them would, one day, represent the UAE in the Paddleboard World Championships in Hawaii. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
"Back in the 90s, there were no surf shops. We had to wait for the holidays or for friends and family to travel and get surf boards and accessories. Luckily, my father was a pilot for Emirates, so whenever he flew to a destination with surf, he would bring back the goods," says Dan, who proudly notes his first surf board was from Australia.
The duo lived in the gated community called Chicago Beach Village (which was pulled down to make way for what is now Madinat Jumeirah) - and recall how it was once 'the place to be'. "It was right on the beach and had everything you could want: swimming pool, skate ramps, tennis courts, squash courts, gym, you name it. It was paradise," says Dan.
Most of all, the boys loved to surf. "We would do so before and after school," he recalls. Such was their love for the sport that Scott even went on to graduate with a degree in surf science and technology from Plymouth University in the UK (one of the only places in the world offering a Bachelor of Science in surfing), thanks to a fortuitous flyer he received just weeks before he was due to pursue a degree in business administration. Talk about a classic case of serendipity!
After Scott's return in 2005, the pair began to teach people to surf through their venture, Surf House Dubai. It was a phase in their journey that Dan describes as "fantastic", seeing as there was "no one else doing it at the time". With nothing more than a freelance licence, a few learner boards and the power of word-of-mouth, they soon found their hands full with people eager to learn. The moment of truth came in 2008, when he and Scott finally decided this was what they wanted to do full-time and pursue as a career. Making the decision to give it their all and follow their passion, the decision marked a tipping point in both their lives, as they transformed their surf school into a "legitimate business". They even opened a surf shop with the goal of supplying the community with the "best surf products available in the global market".
The water on the beaches of Dubai is warm for the most part of the year and the surfing season tends to get underway from October to June. The waves may not be "world-class", ranging from about waist- to chest-high - but they are super easy and a lot of fun to surf, according to Dan. In other words, perfect for beginners. "A lot of people never knew you could surf in the UAE," says the entrepreneur. "Our goal, ever since we started the company, was to put Dubai on the map as a perfect place to learn to surf. The waves here never get so big that they become dangerous."
Although they certainly enjoyed a degree of monopoly when they began, the road to success was no smooth wave. The biggest hurdle they faced came in 2012, when local authorities banned surfing, a sport they viewed as 'dangerous and a threat to beachgoers and swimmers'. "In fact, the beaches are a safer place with surfers in the water, as we would often rescue swimmers who were drowning or struggling in the water," Dan explains, noting how there were no official life guards on the public beaches in those days. "Surfers tend to be strong swimmers and aware of rips, currents and tidal changes. On top of this, they can use their surfboards as flotation devices to help swimmers in distress. Unfortunately, within weeks of banning surfers from entering the water, the rate of swimmers in distress spiked." Leaving no stone unturned, with a lot of persistence and discussions with authorities, the surf lovers did overcome the ban - to the great joy of the surfing community.
Commenting on the increasing development of Dubai's shorelines, Dan acknowledges they are now left with two beaches to surf: Sunset Beach, right next to Burj Al Arab, and Nikki Beach on Pearl Jumeirah. "This has caused overcrowding of waves," he says, "but it has also led to people exploring further down the coastlines in other emirates such as Sharjah, Umm Al Quwain and Ras Al Khaimah."
Over the years, they also introduced standup paddleboarding to their range of offerings, and in a historic first for the community, recently represented the UAE at the Molokai to Oahu Paddleboard World Championships in July. The 55km race, which involves about 4-6 hours of paddling, is the ultimate test of endurance for paddlers - and Scott, who spent 30 formative years in Dubai, called it an "honour" to carry the UAE flag past the finish line across the treacherous Molokai Channel (also known as the Channel of Bones), together with fellow surfer Dean Cockle. "It was the closest to breaking I've ever been," recalls Scott. "But the entire journey was an immense learning process, and my biggest takeaway has been a whale-sized wad of gratitude."
What started with 15-20 surfing enthusiasts over a decade ago has swelled into a sporting community that boasts over 3,000 members who "love the ocean" - not to mention a 15,500-strong following on Instagram alone. Today, surfers from all over the world are coming to Dubai to surf and Scott's most recent feat has definitely put the city on the world map - just like the co-founders envisioned all those years ago.
karen@khaleejtimes.com


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