Riding the waves in Morocco's surf capital

By Sylvia Smith
Essaouira, Morocco


As Abdul Nasser Ouahad walks out of the water and up a sandy Moroccan beach the thing that stands out most on his white surf board is the word "Moor".

Morocco may not be the first place that springs to mind when one thinks of a surfing paradise.

But Mr Ouahad, in his 30s, is one of a new breed of sports entrepreneurs in the North African kingdom.

He is combining his love of the waves with the benefits that come from having a monarch who is a fan of water sports.

Image caption,
Abdul Nasser Ouahad learnt how to surf by joining a royal sports club

"I began surfing when I was young," says Mr Ouahad, who runs Explora - one of the most popular surfing shops in the Moroccan coastal town of Essaouira.

"I joined one of the royal sports clubs here.

"In those days it was the only way of learning how to surf and being able to borrow a board."

Nowadays there are companies all along the bay of Essaouira offering tourists the chance to buy or rent all the kit needed to surf, kitesurf or windsurf at a low price.

First discovered by Europeans for its year-round waves and wind which favour different types of surfing depending on the season, the beach in Essaouira stretches the entire length of the town.

No Beach Boys

Although it has more than a mile of golden-yellow sand because of the constant wind blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean, it is not a place to lie and sunbathe for hours at a time.

The hip crowd sit in the beach-front cafes and sip soft drinks.

And the music they listen to is more likely to be Gnawa, a deep soulful sound derived from sub-Saharan Africa, than the Beach Boys.

For the last few years, the town has been cashing in on the world's surfing fraternity as the waves can vary from half a metre in summer - safe for beginners - rising to three metres in the winter.

Image caption,
Essaouira's winds gust from two directions, so the waves vary in size

Hassan Quessan, who is the Moroccan co-ordinator of Union of Open Air Sports Centres, feels that warm weather and the safety offered by the bay has helped win Essaouira the title of "Morocco's windsurfing capital".

"We offer training for would-be kitesurfers from Europe," he says.

"But we don't only get beginners. The conditions appeal to those at an intermediary level and those with experience.

"We bring groups over from France on package holidays."

Some of the profits from the water-sport tourists are channelled into getting local Moroccan children interested in the water.

Primary school groups and youngsters from orphanages are encouraged to get their first taste of the sea under the watchful eyes of trained Moroccan monitors.

They learn to swim and are taught about the marine environment as well as initiated into ecological awareness and safety.

The best way to start mastering wind and waves is to learn kitesurfing - the most popular branch of water sports with beginners of all ages.

Kitesurf fans like Fred Peyre from Paris fly regularly to Essaouira for lessons.

"With kitesurfing you need helpful monitors to hoist your kite aloft," he says.

"You get more help here than elsewhere because the residents of Essaouira are so friendly."

He is joined by a well-heeled couple from Casablanca, about 300km (190 miles) further up the coast, who have driven down for the weekend with their boards on the top of their van.


But some less well-off Moroccans, like Tareq Chaabi, are also joining in the trend.

"I surf for five months a year," he says as he carries his rather worn board into the old town.

"You can get a second-hand board at a reasonable price," he says.

"Lots of boys and girls here are taking up surfing."

And, he adds, lots of people are inspired by images of their jet-skiing king, 46-year-old Mohammed VI.

Image caption,
The surfing school attracts clients all year round

Ismail El Gaz, a qualified water sports monitor in Essaouira, even travelled to Egypt last year to teach surfing for a month.

In comparison, he says, Essaouira is very cosmopolitan.

"You find Australians, American, British and Italians coming down here because you can enjoy the water throughout the year in different ways - and it is cheap."

And if any more proof was needed that Essaouira was firmly on the surfing map, the bay this week hosts the first heat of the Kiteboarding World Cup.

But for Mr Ouahad the best bonus comes from the large number of Moroccans now taking to the waves.

"Over the last few years we've seen how the policy of introducing young children to the water pays off," he grins.

"I would say that Moroccans now outnumber foreigners when it comes to sea sports."

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