A splendid marina, with a Club pool open to the public, and many restaurants; all well maintained, plush even, and dozens upon dozens of power boats. But where are all the yachts? Proper yachts I mean – ones with sails.
In Beirut at the Solidere Beirut Marina there were very few of them – four to be exact. Just four sailing yachts in a marina of more than two hundred power boats! What could be going on?
I was visiting Lebanon for a family wedding in Byblos, a beautiful old town (dating back some 8,000 years). The town is just 30 minutes North of Beirut – in all we spent 4 days in Byblos and 2 in Beirut. I have always been intrigued by Lebanon; often deemed the “Switzerland of the Middle East” and Beirut described as the “Paris of Middle East”. Of course these names came out of Lebanon’s period as the super trendy holiday destination of the stars back in the 1950s and 60s. However, since the end of the fifteen year Civil War in 1990, prosperity has quickly come back to Lebanon – as is clearly visible both in the Marina and in the city centre which has been well restored and added to with numerous new developments.
A replica Phoenician ship near Gibraltar in 2010
It is surprising that sailing is not more prevalent in Lebanon. The Country is situated at the East end of the Mediterranean and benefits from splendid coastal scenery and weather to match. The ancient population of Lebanon, the Phoenicians, were also legendary sailors, they built their boats from Cedar wood (Lebanon Cedar trees are the National emblem of Lebanon) and their fleet conquered much of the Mediterranean coast including Cyprus and Sicily, Carthage, the North of Morocco, the South of Spain, and much of Sardinia and Corsica. Like the British Empire thousands of years later, this was very much a naval Empire. The Phoenicians are even believed to have sailed as far as ancient France and Britain, as well as much of West Africa to trade.
The Phoenician Empire approx. 1,000 BC
I wanted to talk to someone to find out why the lack of sailing. Of course the Civil War and the current troubles in Syria would have had something to do with it but there is clearly no lack of money in Lebanon, as the numerous powerboats contest, as they also do to the local population’s general interest in having fun on the water. We wondered around and I noticed one of the four sailing boats, a 30 something foot cruiser had crew on board – enjoying a beer. I asked at the Marina security if they would allow me to go and say hello but they would not.
Sunbathing and a shisha! Popular with the young and wealthy; but Beirut’s central Marina has few sailors
Disappointed, I wondered into Water Nation Sports Center where I talked to the local team there. Water Nation Sports Center it seems, is one of just a few places in Lebanon where people can learn to sail, although the water skiing, jet skis and scuba diving sessions they also run I suspect are much more lucrative.
They focus on dinghy courses for kids although they can accommodate adults as well. The cost of a twelve-session dinghy course is US$ 550, that’s about US$ 46 per lesson. The lessons are one hour each in length. That’s fairly costly even by Western standards. When one puts this cost into perspective, it becomes clear that even dinghy sailing is a sport only for Lebanon’s rich.
Upon further investigation I have learned that prior to the civil war, around 80% of the population were deemed middle or upper class in terms of income (middle class earning being US$ 15,000 – 27,000 annually). However despite the appearances of Central Beirut, the wealth gap has changed significantly and now only 5-10% are in this category with 70% earning less than US$ 10,000 per annum and 15% in abject poverty. Lebanon’s recovery from civil war has clearly been very unequal. Source: Lebanon Daily Star
Apparently, according to Henri who works at Water Nation, there are a couple of other sailing clubs in Lebanon although again, the sailing is limited to small groups of enthusiasts. For instance the Lebanese Yacht Club, which is situated, up the coast from Byblos in Batroun. I had actually emailed the LYC before arriving, but to no avail, and with fighting taking place in Tripoli in North Lebanon, just 25 Km from Byblos, it seemed sensible to opt out of a visit on this occasion. The LYC does however appear to have a couple of yachts (a 30 foot something and one around 50 foot) and runs courses. From the photos on the website the Club seems fairly active although I saw no updates since 2010. The Facebook page was however full of recent photos with laser sailing appearing to be the leading class of boat. Interested to know if anyone has experiences of sailing at LYC.
Laser sailing at LYC
Just as I was about to say good-bye to the friendly team at Water Nation, I mentioned to them that I had tried and failed to get an introduction to the guys on the cruiser. Henri immediately offered to help and took me straight to the boat. After a quick introduction he then left Christina and I to talk about sailing in Lebanon with the owner and his friends. The owner kindly offered us a glass of Rose (Lebanese people are very friendly and Lebanon produces some very good wines – the perfect combination one might say), and we chatted for about an hour with him about sailing in Lebanon. “It’s difficult he said”, “the cost of mooring a boat in Lebanon is very high – several thousand US$ annually…and getting in and out of the marina is difficult”.
It seems the security situation in Lebanon is such that the clearance process, even to go for a short sail is arduous and can take 30 minutes. Understandable and not a huge length of time, but irritating if you are hoping just to head out for a quick sail. Boats are also required to keep their radios on at all times. Ignoring or not hearing a radio call could result in your boat being boarded by the navy and having it turned inside out whilst they look for illegal shipments or laundering.
Lebanon’s coastline is also not ideal for day cruising. Aside from various Bays up the coast, there are no islands the entire coast of the Country. Therefore stopping to explore a deserted or semi deserted island, bay or beach is not possible. Having said this, the wind is consistent and strong and would be perfect for racing if there were any. And cruising to Cyprus is “sensational” and can be done in less than 24 hours (the distance is about 200 Km).
Sailing in Lebanon may not always have been, but is now truly a young sport. It competes unsuccessfully with the powerboat fraternity but it does exist in pockets and has great potential. From what I can see, Lebanon needs three key things. Number one of course, is long-term peace and stability. Number two continued growth in dinghy sailing, affordable dinghy sailing if possible, so that the future adults of Lebanon move onto bigger boats whilst having their own kids take up dinghy sailing. And finally, a true sponsor, a Government official or local businessman who really sees the value in sailing and is willing to support and grow it in Lebanon.
The legendary St George Hotel is fighting local developer Solidere, who also owns the Marina