Windsurfing in Lebanon!
By Peter Bonello
We were on our 5th day exploring Lebanon. As we drove north along the coast, I was getting more excited by what lay ahead. Having never set foot in the Middle East before, and influenced by the media, Lebanese expatriates and others around me in the U.S., I would be lying if I did not admit to having some apprehension about this trip. But it had been a long time coming. Moni, who lured me over there, is a friend I made three decades ago while we were both going through Engineering School at the University of Texas at Austin. We had another thing in common: love for windsurfing.
Taking a detour from my business trip to the Balkans, I embarked on a whirlwind tour of this Switzerland of the Middle East accompanied by my wife and teenage daughter. Moni, tour guide, translator and driver extraordinaire, took care of the essentials as we visited historical, religious and natural sites that rivaled the best we had seen in other countries. The difference being that here they are hardly visited.
Heading to Batroun, an ancient coastal town about three hours north of Beirut, the cloud cover was a welcome respite from the heat, but the south-westerly thermal breeze that typically prevails in June was not happening. We barely crossed the checkpoint guarding the coast road heading up to the northern part of Lebanon where over a million Syrians sought refuge over recent years, when Moni pulled over, jumped out of the car calling out for us to join him and strode over to several fellas with high fives and fist bumps all around… windsurfers! We drove on for a couple more kilometers and into a labyrinth of narrow streets. Stopping in the middle of one, he peered across to a group of revelers clearly enjoying the remnants of a fish cook-out washed down with arak. They greeted him with shouts and urged him to join them. More windsurfers! Introductions were made as arak was thrust into our hands.
It was clear: windless days do not break spirits. We did not stay long, but it was enough to get tipsy. There was a cedar forest to explore before the sun set, and talk of wind coming tomorrow.
Sure enough, not only did the wind come, but it blew from the north and with it came a crisper atmosphere that sharpened the view out to sea and accentuated the proximity of the lush mountain backdrop behind the historic town. Arrangements were made. Gear was being brought to the beach by Jad, a U.N. analyst by windless days and an awesome freestyler, wave rider and all-around windsurfer on other days – a great guy and a husband and father to boot. Muscular Malek dropped in at Moni’s centuries old townhouse where we were beginning this new day, looking like he strolled up from Muscle Beach, USA, in his sleeveless top and Quiksilver shorts. We joined Malek for breakfast at a local enterprise where he fueled up for what he declared would be four hours of windsurfing later that day, apparently a typical break from running Batroun Watersports whenever the wind was up.
There was no shortage of well-intended wisecracks and insults between the local windsurfers. Now it was time to go however. Down a narrow street, just a few hundred yards from Moni’s, a widening allowed the parking of several cars. Windsurfers in some, windsurfers on others. Welcome to Colonel Reef! With heart rate climbing, I followed Moni down a narrow alleyway. Boards were mounted on racks along the old wall – wave boards, free ride boards, even a recent model racing longboard. The local windsurfing club! The alley led through the back of an ancient stone sea wall which opened up to a small sandy cove flanked on the left by a cabana style timber-roofed bar, with wooden tables and chairs scattered about a raised deck that extended between the bar and the sand. To the right the strip of sand extended for about 100 meters, narrowing as it ran along the base of the sea wall and ending at a rocky promontory that jutted out into the sea, continuing as a reef for a distance, breaking the sea swells and offering the cove adequate protection. A newly built wooden dock extended from the middle of the cove straight out into the water for about 40 meters.
Jad occupied one of the reclining chairs pounding away at his laptop whilst friends sat nearby enjoying their drinks. He stopped to greet us and get the gear from his car which he hoped would be to my liking. It was a 7 or 8 square meter something and a 70 or 80 cm wide something else. It was great! Not what I normally sail (formula) but I was grateful for this opportunity to get into the eastern Mediterranean in this steady breeze which was blowing sideshore at about 16 – 18 knots and stiffening.
I stepped off the end of the dock, onto the board with sail in hand, and sailed off, doggedly missing a few threatening rocks before I could bear off, hook in, lean out and plane away, perhaps preserving some measure of dignity, aware of a few pairs of eyes no doubt curious to see how this old-timer would manage.
Aaah, the Mediterranean… It felt like home. 1,208 miles to the west was the spot in Malta where I first stepped on a windsurfer 40 years before. I was sailing towards it at a pretty nice clip. Counting down the miles in my head, at mile 1,206, I decided it was probably far enough. I gybed and took in the sight of that awesome mountain range that rose up and beckoned me back in. Did I mention how lush it was? As I skipped along the deep blue water sprinkled with white caps heading back towards that majestic greenery with a fringe of yellow/brown of the ancient town and its not so ancient environs, as beach chalets spring up along this magnificent coast, I believed I found a slice of heaven.
If you’re a student of the Olympic Games, you’ll be familiar with the name Peter Bonello: Peter represented Malta at the first-ever Olympics for windsurfing in 1984 and finished in 9th place. His accomplishments on the international scene earned him boardsailor and sportsman of the year awards in his beloved Malta, and the Maltese Olympic Committee even recognized Peter in 1996 with its Centennial Award. He lives in Los Angeles now (the site of those 1984 Games!) and continues to be active in the sport, as a competitor, organizer (he organized the 2013 US Nationals at Cabrillo) and regional director for US Windsurfing.