As NRS International Customer Service rep, Sophia Theodossiou, paddled along Qatar’s coastline, she found her NRS SUP was not only an excellent exploration vehicle and a great cultural ice breaker but, also, a ticket into overbooked paddling tours.
“You are going swimming? In the winter? You will freeze!”
The woman’s black abaya and the hijab covering her hair made sweat bead at my brow. I glanced over at my dad, who shrugged and reassured her that we were accustomed to much colder climates. She hurried off, muttering in Arabic. We began inflating the boards. Ten minutes later, I was drenched in sweat and already feeling sunburned. In Qatar, the typical winter forecast is 85 and sunny, and today was no exception. The woman’s genuine concern for our warmth and safety made me chuckle.
We launched from the Costa Malaz Marina and paddled out just far enough to take in the panoramic views of Doha’s West Bay, an impressive array of skyscrapers and luxury hotels, all erected within the last 15 years. Even though the sea was bathwater-warm, the salty breeze and the scenery took my mind off the desert heat. The mellow waves made for a fun ride on my Czar 6. About 25 yards away, my dad was already standing comfortably on his Baron 6, despite it being his first time on a SUP. Another group of stand-up paddlers approached us, led by a young woman who was recounting the history of the city in a thick Australian accent. I’ve never been a fan of organized tours, but sightseeing-by-SUP sounded pretty sweet. I researched the company later that afternoon and called in hopes of joining a trip. It turned out they were booked for the next three weeks. Damn. Who would’ve thought? After a few minutes of pleading, Brandi (the nice Australian woman) agreed to let me into a group the following day, but only because I had my own board and paddle.
The next morning our pod of fifteen paddlers set off under another cloudless sky. Doha is a spectacular place to SUP. Built on the eastern coast of the Qatar peninsula, most of the city overlooks the azure beauty of the Arabian Gulf. Venetian-inspired canals snake through many of the residential areas. Just 25 years ago, the city barely existed, but the West’s demand for the oil and natural gas buried in the desert rocketed Qatar’s economy into one of the richest in the world. Unlike Dubai and Abu Dhabi, it’s equally wealthy neighbors, Qatar has mostly refrained from building islands and indoor ski hills, instead choosing to invest their money in the construction of colleges, hospitals, and a global trade center on par with any developed US or European hub. Almost two million people, most of them foreigners, call this tiny country home. On that particular tour, my fellow paddlers hailed from Australia, Canada, Sri Lanka, the United States, and Qatar. The majority of us were visiting family members whose careers had brought them to this desert oasis.
In preparation for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, much of the city is suffering from construction-fever. Paddling around Doha’s West Bay is like watching a time-lapse video. In a span of hours, buildings will have gained a few floors or changed color. I hadn’t realized how limited my view of the city was from a car or on foot. Metal fencing has been erected everywhere to protect pedestrians from the work zones, but the trade-off is that the city’s unique beauty can only be appreciated from a distance. On a SUP I was able to watch Qatar’s traditional “dhow” boats bob up and down while fishermen cleaned their nets; I took in the spectacular coastal mosques and listened to the imam’s melodic call to noon prayer without the noises of traffic. I jumped into the warm waters in which generations of pearl divers practiced their dangerous trade, until cultured pearls from Japan rendered their occupation obsolete. I certainly wasn’t getting the “local” experience, given that SUP trips have been available in Qatar for less than three years, but paddling through this unfamiliar territory gave me a perspective that I’m sure I would have missed from the top of a tour bus. Given the opportunity to see more cities from the deck of a paddleboard, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second.
The popularity of stand-up paddling has exploded in the last decade. What was once a niche sport enjoyed by a handful of Hawaiians, has spread to almost every body of water on the planet. It’s hard to find an outfitter, resort, or even a ma-and-pop hotel without a SUP-stocked gear closet. But SUP shacks aren’t just springing up in the tropics along warm, sandy beaches. You can now SUP the Arctic, the Nile, the Dead Sea, and in northern Mongolia, to name but a few off-the-beaten-path paddling spots. As I found out firsthand in November 2014, the places that you wouldn’t necessarily think of as tourist destinations have some of the largest, most die-hard SUP fan bases around.
As the Middle East vies for a larger portion of the global tourism market, countries on the Arabian Peninsula are tapping into the region’s impressive natural environment in an effort to jumpstart the adventure-travel industry. While the desert has been a favorite destination for eclectic off-roaders and campers for years, the largely undeveloped coastline has, until recently, remained an untapped natural resource. Qatar’s Pearl Beach now boasts a monthly SUP race that regularly draws over 200 paddlers. Oman and (believe it or not) Yemen, two countries that share the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, have luxury hotels offering overnight SUP trips spanning the coastline. And Dubai has enough SUP options to give southern California a run for its money: races, classes, yoga, tours, and even week-long SUP-centered detox retreats.
So why has SUP caught on in so many remote destinations? I first scratched my head over this phenomenon during my obligatory pre-trip search of Qatar’s best offerings on Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor, and Instagram. A few clicks on some surreal pictures of the desert coast led me to the profiles of travelers who pack their inflatable board and breakdown paddle and haul their favorite sport to the ends of the earth. Some purists had also snapped photos of the 250 dollar luggage fees they paid to bring their wooden boards along on their intercontinental journeys. What struck me the most during my photographic tour of adventure SUP, though, was that the vast majority of paddlers ended up with pictures of themselves alongside their new local friends enjoying a SUP board together. A few “days” into their trip albums I would inevitably come across an image of them falling off their board with the three other people they tried to load onto it, or laughing at the ridiculousness of someone else putting on a drysuit for the first time, or hanging out around a campfire with the board drying off in the distance. Stand-up paddling has a unique way of bringing strangers together.
I’ve since concluded that there are many levels to the appeal of SUP. Perhaps it’s the somewhat comical aspect of standing on the water with an over-sized paddle that breaks the ice, even when one finds themselves in a new place amidst a new culture. My half-siblings, aged three and six, wouldn’t let me come near them until they saw me fall off my board and belly-flop onto a shallow sandbar; something about the splash and my pink, painful torso convinced them to warm up to their weird older sister. They even joined me for some long paddles along the beach, although they quickly discovered that jumping up and down resulted in the board flipping over, a most entertaining outcome. When I was alone on the water, visitors and Qataris alike would glide by and say hello. A few beach goers asked to take my Czar for a spin, and those who had never been on a SUP before came back excited to try it again. I made quite a few new acquaintances in my nine days in Doha, and continue to be in touch with a couple of them today. I’ve even gotten offers to couch-surf in New Zealand, Phuket, and San Diego. Provided I bring an inflatable SUP or two to share.