Lebanon - sailing takes the heat out of neighbour Syria's problems

Welcome to Lebanon - there’s plenty of sailing happening
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So you thought that the refugees fleeing Syria, the bombings and the desperate plight of those left behind would be mind-gripping for the nearby countries? Who could even dream about something as hedonistic as sailing? Apparently Lebanon can, and is.

Lebanon sailing - and hedonism galore
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The coastline of Lebanon, which stretches along 225 km of coastline and neighbours troubled Syria, is spread with sailing boats and their owners, who are, according to the local 'Daily Star', enjoying 'cool salt-air breezes, warm sun and a rainbow of Mediterranean blues.'

The Lebanese Yacht Club and Sailing School (www.lebaneseyachtclub.org), which sits on a pebble beach just south of Batroun, is for people who are not content to let someone else captain the boat. There aren’t luxury boats, tennis courts or even a marina, but the club is perhaps the best and most beautiful place to learn to sail in Lebanon.

Experienced instructors teach students, from children to seniors, the basics of sailing, from knots to water safety. Students jet across aquamarine and navy water aboard dinghies, including the Laser, the Optimist (for kids), the Hobie Catamaran and the Laser 2000. Instruction is one-on-one and seven-hour courses run at $350. Dinghies are also available for rent on an hourly basis and windsurfing courses are offered too.

Aside from the rescue boat, none of the crafts is motorized, which provides a bit of respite from the constant noise of jet skies and yachts at other beaches and marinas. Since the crafts are powered only by the breeze, instructors must wait for Goldilocks conditions with winds neither too strong nor too weak.

The winds start being really good in June and into July, according to Ryan Assaf, who’s been teaching at the club for four years. But waiting for the right winds has its own perks: 'If there isn’t wind, you can swim or lay on the beach,' says Assaf, pointing to the grass umbrellas and lounge chairs.

In late summer, the yacht club, which has roughly 100 members from across Lebanon (membership is $100 annually), hosts the Laser Sailing Championship, an exciting competition for participants and spectators alike.

Lebanon - laser sailing
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Wind is not as big a concern down the coast at the marina of the Automobile et Touring Club du Liban (www.atcl.org). The club was born in 1919 though the modern marina came much later. It now boasts roughly 11,000 members – most of whom hold more than one nationality – and offers much more than a place to a park a boat.

The club sits on the edge of Jounieh, wedged against a naval base, and has views of the bay as well as the steep, emerald hills of Harissa. Well-heeled members, including leaders in politics, diplomacy and business, can take advantage of tennis courts, an Olympic-size pool and an expansive lawn, as well as five restaurants. But the marina is at the heart of the club.

There are motorized yachts and yachts with tall masts. Some look like pirate ships with old-fashioned wooden wheels, while others seem right out of a hip-hop music video.

'Including small, medium and very huge, there are around 450 boats,' says Naaman Khoury, the marina manager. The largest of the 'very huge' is 35 meters, he adds.

Naaman says yacht owners often travel south down the coast, stopping near Raouche or Beirut Marina.

While there’s no beach to speak of, part of the marina has umbrellas and lounge chairs and an area of the water is cordoned off for those wanting to take a dip.

If the goal is boating that comes with a beach, there’s Jiyeh Marina (www.jiyehmarina.com), which sits between Beirut and Sidon. The marina, which opened in 2006, doubles as a full-scale resort and touts itself as family-friendly, both in its pricing structure and activities.

The offshore marina is accessed by a bridge and can accommodate over 100 boats. Back on dry land, there is a spa, restaurants and pools, and the soft sand that the south of the country is known for.

Back up in the north, there’s La Marina Joseph Khoury in Dbayyeh (www.lamarinajk.com), which opened in 1998. The club associated with the marina, Club La Marina, offers numerous activities, from ping-pong to Zumba, but the marina is serious about boats.

Some of the boat owners are Lebanese but many are from elsewhere in the Middle East and preparations at the full-service marina are under way for the boating season, which kicks off in earnest this week. The marina currently holds around 440 boats and can accommodate yachts up to 54 meters long.

But the height of luxury is found at Beirut Marina, which opened 10 years ago. Seventy-five percent of the mooring area accommodates boats of more than 25 meters, according to a spokesperson.

There are altogether around 200 spots which can accommodate yachts from 4.5 meters to 65 meters and only four are currently vacant.

The cost of mooring depends on the size of the boat, but for those looking for a place to park their 65-meter-vessel, money is not likely to be a concern. Owners include Lebanese as well as expats from the Middle East and further afield. Many boats are owned by companies registered abroad.

Beirut Marina does not currently offer rentals or sailing lessons but makes the most of its urban surroundings and there is plenty to do ashore. Zaitunay Bay, the commercial area surrounding the marina, launched last year and construction is under way for a yacht club building which will feature about 40 apartments for sale in addition to around 10 serviced apartments reserved for members and their guests.

Perhaps the greatest attraction of Beirut Marina is that even if yacht-ownership is out of reach, the views of the yachts are free.