I’ve been obsessed with Oman for years—dreamt of endless logging waves peeling for minutes along a unique coastline rich in culture. It’s just so different than all of the other surf experiences I’ve had, and that’s something I find very appealing. But I’ve also done enough research to know that the good days there are few and far between—that the Omani surf experience is more relentless winds and difficult logistics than perfect peelers. So Oman has always stayed on the backburner—a place that I’d love to surf, but that I’ll probably never actually get around to visiting.
But then, a few weeks ago, I somehow got connected with James Harvey, a British surfer who grew up in Dubai. James has been doing surf trips to Oman for 15 years, and the stories he’s been telling me have piqued my interest once again. With the wind currently raging and the pandemic still limiting travel, I probably won’t be doing a trip to Oman this month—but it’s definitely back on my radar. In the meantime, I sat down for a chat with James to learn more about his unique upbringing and the experiences he’s had surfing the Arabian Sea.
Spot guide: Oman
You grew up in the UAE and began surfing Oman when you were a teenager, right? Tell us a bit about those early trips.
I started surfing when I was 14-years-old, living in Dubai. There are enough waves in Dubai to keep your brain ticking through the winter, but then the summer hits and the water turns into a soupy mill pond. So during the summer I’d go to Oman, hitching rides on weekends and jumping on swells that looked worth the 16-to-18 hour round trip.
After I turned 18 and got my driver’s license, I was finally able to drive myself and my friends to surf the empty points and beachbreaks during the biggest summer swells. It didn’t matter what the conditions were, we’d just go for it. It was a hell of a lot better than being stuck in Dubai, where it was flat, 40-50 degrees, and 80-100 per cent humidity. We didn’t have sim cards or Wi-Fi—nothing but surf, wind, fresh fish and lobsters to grill, and a bunch of our best buddies to share it with.
You guys must have been doing a lot of exploration and pioneering in those days. Who were your main surf buddies? And were there many other surfers in the area in the early 2000s?
When I was a teenager, ‘The Surf Camel’ started a ‘surfers of Dubai’ blog/forum where people could talk about surfing in the UAE. This became a meeting point for fellow surfers organising trips from the UAE to Oman. In the early 2000s, my buddy Clint and I hitched a couple of times. Then Daniel Van Dooren and I did a bunch of crazy trips between 2008 and 2012. In the last five or six years I've been doing most of my strike missions with Mohammed Sultan, Ross Hunt, and Tomas Fox.
I’m so thankful to all the people who drove me down there as a grom. I was just this frothing teenager, surfing all day, eating, napping, and farting in the backs of peoples' cars. I realise now how messed up that drive is. There were only a few surfers from the UAE venturing to Oman to surf back then. Eventually an expat community developed in Muscat and some surfers from there started going too.
You must have had some pretty crazy experiences exploring the desert coastline and chasing cyclones?
That first trip with Clint, we hitched a ride with Khalid, Santiago, and Mubarak when I was 15 or 16. We camped at Joe's Point, surfed non-stop, and took shelter under random wooden shacks on the beach. There were no accommodations of any type near the surf, so we ended up camping for around a week.
We saw so much craziness on that trip—half-eaten tuna heads the size of my torso floating up onto the beach, fast-moving snakes, and small, deadly, yellow scorpions. We'd surf all day, buy fish from the locals on the beach, catch crabs off the reef, and sleep under the stars. That trip was eye-opening for me in so many ways.
Daniel and I have definitely had some super sketchy moments. We decided to chase Cyclone Gono in 2007, and the small coastal towns really took a hit. There were boats stranded 2-3km inland on football pitches, and roads were completely gone. There was standing water all over the place, and we ended up hydroplaning on a big puddle that we thought was a desert mirage and almost took us out.
There have been numerous trips where the wind was so strong that we couldn’t camp. We’ve slept in mosques, half-built hotels—anything to get us out of the wind. Once the wind starts, the season is pretty much blown, so these days we try to chase early season or late season swells, when the wind is light. But sometimes you get unlucky and just have to deal with the elements.
One of our heaviest trips was in 2017, with Mo and Clint. We were exploring the coastline looking for new waves, and Mo’s truck got stuck on the beach between some rocks. Meanwhile, the tide was coming up and there was no one around. I ended up running up the coast to a nearby hotel, where I found a German friend from Muscat who happened to be there. He and I went and found a group of Omani and Bangladeshi men and tried to explain the situation, which took a while! I think our panicked faces communicated far better than anything we said. One of the locals finally understood what had happened, and convinced a neighbor to let us use his tractor. We raced back to the beach where Mo’s truck was now buried up to the doors in sand—a big group of Omani men and me in a Land Cruiser. Then, 15 minutes later, the tractor showed up and pulled the truck out. It was hectic!
Sounds intense! For a while, the surf scene in Oman was just visiting surfers from UAE and other countries, right? Is there a local surf community now?
Yeah, it was only surfers from the UAE from the late 1990s til the mid-2000s. Now there's a surf scene in Muscat, and people from there will venture to the better-known points if there’s a swell worth chasing. But it's mostly weekend warriors, so there’s never more than 15 people out at the best-known spots. If you chase a swell during the week or go exploring to lesser-known waves, it’s just you and your buddies.
The Omani surf scene is still in its infancy. Only in the past 10 years have the local people started surfing. In 2016, my buddy Mohammed Sultan gave a lesson and some boards to a local friend, Bu Fahad, who is a spearfisherman from Sur. Sur has good access to a lot of breaks, including a small point that's perfect for learning and occasionally turns on when the conditions align, so the local boys have been hitting it quite a bit. I've seen two swells worth chasing this year, but wasn't able to go down due to COVID-19. The Omani kids have had it all to themselves!
What about surf tourism? Is this even a factor in the local economy, or is the surf scene there so small that it doesn't really register?
The surf scene is growing, but surf tourism doesn’t really exist. There are a handful of very good waves, but they only work a couple of times per year. I think that if those spots were consistent, it would be a different story. Oman is known for its vast landscapes, diving, fishing, deserts and wadi tours, but there's not enough surf during the year to support surf tourism. But there is a small surf school in Muscat that offers lessons and takes people down to some of the points for surf coaching.
I'd guess that most people reading this don't have any concept of what the waves in Oman are like. Can you tell us a bit about the waves and the surf season?
You are guaranteed to get waves between June and September, but it's going to be windy. You'll have the odd morning where it calms down a bit, but generally that south wind never stops in the summer. Kite surfers and windsurfers love it down there, but it’s not great for surfing. The points get all chopped up into sections due to the south wind. They're still surfable, but it’s not epic. The wind also creates a lot of current, which is another reason why I stopped going in summer.
In the winter months, you'll have the odd swell with longer period and way less wind, and those are the ones we’ve been chasing the past few years. The pointbreaks can get so good! It really pays off if you score, but it also really sucks if you get skunked. The drive home is brutal.
A lot of people hear "Middle East" and immediately think that it's an unsafe area, but Oman is actually quite safe and politically stable, right? Have you ever had any issues in the country?
Oman is one of the safest places I've ever been. Everyone is super warm and welcoming, and I've never had an issue in all of my travels down there. There's still a language barrier there for me, which you don't experience living in Dubai, so it's a good opportunity to learn and adapt to their culture. The main thing is just to respect their culture and they'll respect you back.
The local culture and natural beauty are the two things I hear about from everyone.
The landscapes are incredible. From Muscat to Salalah you have such a diversity in nature, from the driest, harshest empty quarter to the crystal-clear, turquoise waters, and even waterfalls, mountains and wadi trails. It’s raw nature at its best.
The fishing is incredible, and the locals love to share and celebrate their home-grown produce. The amount of amazing food they feed you is mind-blowing. We've had feasts on the beach, whole lambs slow-cooked underground with rice and salad, lobster freshly caught and cooked right there, and of course the fish—it's all so good! Plus tea, fruits, and dates for dessert—a perfect boost of energy for another surf or dive!
And what about the local people? What is their everyday life like?
Most of the locals that surf live in either Ras Al Hadd or Sur. Ras Al Hadd is a unique little fishing town on the furthest eastern peninsula of Oman. It's famous for the turtle hatching reserve, and the locals do their best to protect the area. I met a guy who saves thousands of baby turtles every night with his friends in the hatching season.
The Omani people just love the ocean. Growing up fishing and being exposed to it all, they have no fear. Most of them spearfish, so they have this natural confidence in the water
Unfortunately, with the city growing and being lit up at night, most of the newborn turtles crawl towards the town instead of the water. So the locals collect them in massive plastic crates, load them onto a truck, and drop them on the south side of the beach where there isn't any light pollution, allowing them to reach the sea.
The Omani people just love the ocean. Growing up fishing and being exposed to it all, they have no fear. Most of them spearfish, so they have this natural confidence in the water. I've been surfing when it's solid overhead and even the guys that are complete beginners will be out there giving it a shot! Every time I go back down there, more and more of them are obsessed with surfing.
It sounds like you have a lot of love for Oman.
The waves might not be world class all of the time, but southern Oman has its gems if you really dig deep. And at the end of the day, it's the adventure that counts. Thanks to Oman, I've surfed some of the longest waves of my life without a soul around, aside from a few close friends that I grew up with. It’s this rad little cluster of humanity, all brought together by a mutual joy and respect for the ocean.
All pics from James Harvey