Paddle for the Mentawais- The Journey

By Russell Yule

On Thursday morning, Harold Shim and myself attempted the first ever SUP circumnavigation of Abu Dhabi. (SUP stands for stand up paddleboard. Kind of a long surfboard powered by a 7ft long paddle). Here is the story lifted from the blog I have been doing about our Paddle for the Mentawais to raise funds for SurfAid. You could check out the blog for details on donating to help me achieve the ultimate goal of raising enough funds to purchase 1000 building kits for survivors of the tsunami on October 25.

Total Distance: 65km

Total Time: 13hrs 6mins 11.58secs  (the 58 100ths could be important for record claims!) And we claim the WORLD RECORD for a circumnavigation of Abu Dhabi…

Injuries: 11 blisters, lost feeling in finger tips of left hand, (slowly returning, and hopefully not a stroke beckoning) and general soreness all over. (What a surprise!)

Every other time we have been to Le Meridian, we have had little trouble in finding a park. You would expect at 1.45 in the morning this would be even easier. But no, it was packed and we had to park quite the walk away. It felt a bit strange to walk past a ‘pumping’ nightclub full of revellers while we were on our way out into the night…

We set off at about quarter past 2 yesterday morning. At that point the (quarter) moon was only just beginning to rise, although there was plenty light from the surrounding areas for us to see reasonably well. The first obstacle was a bridge between reclaimed land to the Reem Island development. The last time I was at the hotel, it was a wide open waterway. While the bridge itself wasn’t an obstacle, a floating trash barrier certainly was. The first one had a gap we could push through with a bit of effort, while the second required a dismount into waist deep water and sinking ankle deep into silty mud.

It was a bit a bit breezy, so we stuck to paddling in the lee of the shore as much as possible on the first stretch up to the Saadiyat Island Bridge. Once we turned out to go under the bridge we felt the wind in our faces for the first, but definitely not the last, time. The tide was slack, (like a student I once knew!), and we made reasonably good time until we hit the more open part as the channel mouth opens past the new Louvre. It was a bit lumpy, bumpy and disorganised, (like a teacher I once knew…)

The water conditions in themselves probably weren’t all that bad, however the fact the lumps and bumps were coming out of the pitch black meant you could not see them before you felt them. We had a short break in the lee of the outside breakwall to prepare for the real open water. We headed off around the corner sitting on the boards and using kayak paddles. There is a part of me that wanted to be ‘traditional’ about the trip, but sometimes you just have to be practical. As I tell my students, “sometimes tradition is a way of explaining things that really don’t make sense”. And it is still a paddle, it’s not like we strapped on 150hp outboard motor is it?

It was a slog. Wind over the right shoulder, waves coming from the right at a 45 degree angle and then bouncing back off the breakwall and hitting us from the left. I suspect the tide was also pushing against us too. It certainly didn’t help much if it was with us. I was fighting trying to keep my board heading away from the breakwall because of the luggage box I had strapped to the front. It is about the size of a milk crate and covered in mesh, which acted like a mini sail pushing the nose towards the breakwater. While my troubles were countered by a stronger left hand paddle stroke, Harold was dealing with other issues.

He was paddling my board which has some different characteristics. It doesn’t track so well, meaning that it is tricky to keep  going in a straight line in normal conditions. In these conditions it was skating around all over the place. The other factor is that the nose is wide and blunt. This means that on-coming waves that hit it literally stop it making forward progress. This was pretty much the only time on the whole trip he was behind me.

In the dark, the only thing we could see on the water was our navigation lights. I’d paddle until I couldn’t hear his paddle hitting the water, then slow up, check for his light, wait for a bit and offer words of encouragement (“Hah, you call that paddling”). I didn’t actually say that. Now, it seems the sort of amusing thing that you could say to relieve the stress. At the time it could have resulted in being hit over the head with a paddle…

We made a left turn  around the western end of the breakwall heading towards Lulu Island. To our great joy we were able to get some run with the waves without the backwash and zipped across the channel in short order. The view of the city from this angle at night is amazing. The buildings are dressed up for National Day. For those who don’t live here, almost every building along the Corniche is draped in lights making the UAE flag, sparkling like diamonds and just generally looking, well, amazing. If anyone is interested in a leisurely night paddle while the lights are up, let me know!

I’d like to say I impressed Harold with my navigation skills in hitting the edge of the wall in pitch black. The actual event took place like this. “There should be a breakwall here somewhere. Oh, there it is!” Best of all we didn’t have to paddle any further than we had to. Straight lines are best when paddling and with my ‘skills’ we hit went straight to the exact right spot. Ta dah!

By this stage, 2hrs into the trip, I had been hit by 3 garfish and Harold had one flapping on his deck. That’s about enough for a decent breakfast! The trick is, in not squealing like a girl when a fishy missile comes out of the dark and hits you. One of the Piscean terrorists made a valiant attempt to swim up board shorts resulting in the most of those afore-mentioned girly squeals.

Folding the kayak paddles away, we took advantage of being out of the wind and zipped up to the Marina Mall end of the island for a short break at about 5am. Then it was in and around the giant flagpole and under the causeway. The bridge has a pipe across the water which we only just scraped through and I mean scraped. My backpack was touching as I lay on my belly. We hugged the shoreline out to the right and then went across, thankfully comparatively mild, openwater in front of Emirates Palace to the Musaffah Channel. I was a bit disappointed they had turned off the laser light show. It would make a pretty spectacular sight from the water I suspect.

As we turned in to the channel, I was cutting the corner and the front half of the board got caught in an eddy, and pulled to the left, while the back half was in the current and kept going straight and to the right. So it was a less than dignified entrance to the next phase of the journey as I flapped about trying to stay on top of the board rather than swimming. At this point we were hitting waypoints right on my predicted timings. With the wind at our backs, the tide pushing us and feeling fresh we were flying along at about 9km an hour. It was also at this point I got a bit scared. It was about here that I asked Harold about paddling the Molokai Channel in a dragonboat and found out he was also a member of the Canadian Dragonboat team…

Here I am with half a brain and a hare-brained scheme, thinking it would be nice to have someone with “some paddling experience” come along. I’d would have an excuse to slow down and cruise along a bit. Now I find out I am on the water with a paddle monster! I thought I would be able to give him a few tips on technique and cruise along. At this point, I had a good look at his style. Smooth, minimal, fluid and powerful. The dude has skills and I ended up adjusting my technique….

We made it down to 19th St Beach for another break to be met by the Martin-Parkinson family and a distinct lack of the promised sandwiches, water and wife. The support crew was caught by every traffic light on the way, which was OK as we had a little bit longer off our boards. You have no idea how encouraging it was to have people meet us at these breaks. We also had our first and only touch of the hysteria surrounding the journey when a French couple asked for a photo with us. Move over Paris, Lindsay and Britney!

Off again and by now the wind had turned offshore, which as we all know is great for surfers. But not so good for paddlers heading inshore. The tide was still helping and we made it down to the Officers Club and turned into the channel to head around under the 3 bridges. Here, the water was pushing against us, although the wind had dropped so it was smooth, albeit slow, paddling. A bigger crew was there to meet us under the Maqta Bridge. Big thanks to the Turner boys and Dad, Kristina and Alan, Tania and Kira (Harold’s family), Fiona, and of course, Super Lucy and my boys. It was very humbling to have so many people take time out of their day to encourage and support us. Even if we were not really capable of carrying out a decent conversation. (We are much better in more formal social situations and before we have paddled for 9 hours).

As the tide was rushing through the wrong way, we had a long break of about an hour. As it turned out this was the last break on land until we got back to the hotel. When we did head off we were fighting the tide and wind. At least the tide turned as we got out past the desalination plant. But the long run up to the turn back to the port was wind directly in our faces the whole way. The geography teacher part of my brain theorised that the wind was caused by the hot air raising over the land and the cool air being sucked over the water making it as hard as possible. The paddling part of my brain was just cursing it. Over and over and over…

Last week when I practice paddled this stretch, it didn’t seem far at all. I suspect it doubled in length in 5 days. We turned once more into the wind. How you can make a 70 degree left turn and still have the wind in your face is beyond me. We paddled up a short-cut channel past a nice little house. Looked like someone had a nice holiday at the Bora-Bora Resort (Tahiti?) and decided to make an exact copy for themselves. Of the whole resort. I’m not kidding, it was impressive. But not as much as the sleek, shark-like 150ft (it was probably bigger) motor cruiser. Now I know rationally that the chance of what I am about to describe are slim, this is where my mind was at the time. When I looked at the boat, the windows, from a distance seemed to spell “BEER BEER”. I swear this is true. I didn’t want to ask Harold, just in case it wasn’t true.

Once we got into the main channel between the port and Yas Island the tide was helping us when we got into the deeper water. Interestingly, but probably only for geography nerds, the water on the windward side of the channel was quiet smooth because the water in the middle was moving faster and trapping the chop. On the other hand the smooth water was slow paddling because it was shallow and friction slows it down. So it was out in the bumpy chop because when you are heading down the back straight of a paddle around an island the best way is the fastest way.

The bridge to Saadiyat Island seemed a long way away. Then we could make out trucks going across. And not long after cars. The highrises in the city got bigger and before we knew it we were cutting back into the channel we started from. About 1.5km to go. Tidal flow was making for some tricky cross-currents, if it wasn’t directly against us. The final hurdles to face were the trash barriers and the aggressive tide pushing through the narrow gap under the bridge to Reem Island. Dismount, up and over, struggle through the on-coming water to the next barrier and then the final stretch back to the Le Meridian hotel. That bit was easy!

That might have been a result of the welcoming committee yelling support. Thank goodness sound travels over water. Thanks to the McKeoghs, Carneys, Wendy Fullerton (all the way from Australia, nice effort!), Kristina, Allan and Fiona (again), and our families. The extra distance was worth it to have access to a couple of cool beverages in short order. There is a photo which I do believe shows the first genuine smile after we finished. Any smiles previous to that were of relief.

I can’t say enough about the help and support we received along the way or to Harold for joining the expedition. He pushed me to keep going and made the trip much more endurable and entertaining. To do that on as little specific training as he had was incredible. I enjoyed the conversations we had as well as the “companionable silence”. I liked that we could put our heads down and paddle to our own rhythm while keeping an eye on each other as well. A real team effort all the way around!

Some quotes from the day.

“Eeeeek!” (2 hour mark) as a fish tried to swim up my shorts

“Does it hurt?” “Only when you put the paddle in the water”  (6 hour mark)

“How can I help?” “Convince him to stop now” (10 hour mark)

“Is my back meant to make crunchy noises?” (10 hour mark)

“Is it just me or we have had the wind in our faces most of the way?” “Yeah mate, but anyone could do it the ‘easy’ way” (13 hour mark)

About Russell Yule

Indogus is the alter ego of Russell Yule. He has retired more times than actually played games, although is completely retired now in order to live vicariously through his children's sporting proclivities. Given any available space in a conversation, he will regale you with boring stories about his exploits with the Bali Geckos or Abu Dhabi Falcons, of which he is extremely proud.


  1. Pamela Sherpa says

    Great travel adventure Russell. Enjoyed reading this. It must have been an eerie- ‘so near and yet so far’ feeling out there in the dark looking back into the lights on land

  2. Not really. It’s like the centre of a large city being placed precariously on the edge of the water. All the buildings were decorated in hanging lights of various colours and unbelievably spectacular. I felt it was a real treat to get the view as not that many people get to see it with distant perspective.

    The Corniche is the centrepiece of the National Day Celebrations (hence the lights). More than half the population of Abu Dhabi would have passed along the road at some stage of the day I would say, but everybody is up close and personal. Harold and I were far enough away to take it all in.

    And we were being assaulted by kamikazi attack garfish!

    There are photos on the blog

    Ta for your comment. :)

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