The Mediterranean’s unlikely surf destination: Lebanon


(CNN)Off the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon lies a seaside town that locals call the “7-kilometer playground.”

Known for its sandy beaches, the ancient beach town Jiyeh is a rarity along the country’s long, rocky coastline.
There, you’ll find a tight-knit surfing community.
    While Lebanon may not be an obvious choice as a surfing destination, its popularity is growing. Its waves are modest, but the community’s passion is strong.

    From there, and after more practice, he began to regularly craft more and more surfboards and eventually created his own business — P.A. Surfboards — for the growing Lebanese surfing community.
    “The boards got better especially as I started to learn about the physics of surfing — what makes them work on certain types of waves, and I started adjusting my designs,” he says.
    Since 2010 he’s made over 100 boards from his family’s home. And while he still works full-time as a technician for a TV organization, he says thanks to Lebanon’s surfing boom his creative passion for surfboard shaping may soon become his primary job.
    “The number of surfers is really growing fast now and that’s one of the reasons why my production is increasing.
    “When I started I never would have believed that I could (make a living out of it) — it wasn’t my goal … But I was lucky to start it when I did because the market (to sell surfboards) is almost full.”
    25-year-old Sonia Lynn Gabriel is one of them. She says while Lebanon’s surf can be unpredictable, Jiyeh is her favorite spot — since it provides the most consistent waves. The beach is 4-miles long, consisting of clear water and shallow reefs — which generate attractive wave setups.
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    The country has other popular spots, such as Batroun, Tyre and Byblos. But it’s northern Lebanon that produces one wave that locals are especially fond of — called “Chekka.” It only surfaces a few times a year and provides a right-hand wave over a sandy bottom which bounces off a jetty during large swells.
    “The way (Lebanon’s) swell comes is really random,” Gabriel says, adding that sometimes surfers can experience weeks of flat surf.

    Change in Lebanese culture

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    Gabriel says she’s seen a change in the way Lebanese people interact with their coastline. “We love that Lebanese people are getting closer to the water. We’re noticing that in not only surfing, but in a lot of other watersports,” she says.
    She adds that, despite Lebanon having a rich coastline, watersports weren’t previously a popular part of their culture.
    “Lebanese people go to the beach, but they would eat on the beach or smoke Argileh (hooka). They aren’t really people who are outdoorsy and would go and do stuff.”
    Gabriel says many Lebanese are unaware it’s even possible to surf in Lebanon.
    “People are just shocked when we tell them we surf here and that in winter we go surfing,” she explains. “They see it as something tropical and very exotic.”

    ‘It’s a sport that really unites people”

    Gabriel says unlike other surfing destinations, Lebanon’s surfing community is close-knit.
    “It’s not like in Australia or in Bali (where) there’s so many surfers,” she says. “If there’s a new guy or a new girl we would know because we hadn’t seen them in the water before so we would talk to them and welcome them to the community.”
    “It’s a sport that really unites people,” she adds. “It’s a really chilled community and the ambiance is really peaceful.”

    Syrian refugee’s determination to become a surfer

    Before he got too far out, he was called back in by surfers who then lectured him on the dangers of surfing without the right equipment.
    Kassem told CNN that nobody was going to stop him from surfing.
    “At first I was afraid and nervous, but at the same time I was excited because I (had) developed a love for surfing without even trying it.
    “I really wanted to surf.”
    He says surfing has changed his life. “I’m free to be myself in the water … Surfing is my meditation.”
    In 2014 the International Surfing Association (ISA) formally recognized Lebanon for its surfing. And while no one from the country has yet competed in any international competitions, Kassem hopes to change that by becoming not only Lebanon’s first professional surfer, but also the first to come from Syria.

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