As the Dubai Fitness Challenge nears its end for this year and participants across the city gear up for a final weekend of fun and fitness covering thousands of classes and events across the emirate, there is one curious sport that is beginning to make waves in a big way in the UAE.
While underwater hockey (UWH) — played by two opposing teams on the bottom of a swimming pool, trying to score goals with a puck while holding their breath — has been around since 1954, it has only recently taken hold in the UAE.
UWH was started in the United Kingdom by Alan Blake in the 1950s and quickly spread to South Africa, Canada and Australia and by the mid-1970s it had a truly global status as it became popular in the Philippines. As the game moved into the 21st century, there were substantial changes in equipment, rules and squad sizes and the game was internationally recognised by official sporting bodies — with as many as 68 teams from 19 countries competing at the World Championship in 2013 in Hungary.
Now, thanks to Phil Bedford, founding member and chairman of the Cleopatra Underwater Hockey Team — affectionately known as the Pirates — the sport is beginning to grow in popularity right here in the UAE. Based in Dubai, the Pirates began small but soon found a foothold and the sport has continued to grow to this day, with female members joining in and a new team formed in Abu Dhabi.
“We have had the sport here since 2017 and our goal is to take UHW international — to have the UAE represented on the global scene, where it needs to be,” Bedford told Gulf News. “While we have grown in size, we are still looking for children, men and women to join us and help put the UAE on the map and follow the vision of our leaders.”
One of the Pirates’ players, Mohammad Faraj, shares Bedford’s vision and expressed his passion for the addictive sport, as he explained on the sidelines of a training session at Springdales School in Dubai. “I have been playing UWH for three years now and I fell in love with it the second I got in the water. It is amazing, and all about teamwork. Since I got started I always wanted to take it to another level and take it to the schools and really get the kids involved for the next generation to embrace.”
Lewis Cocks, who is part of the new Abu Dhabi team, exemplifies the international flavour that has taken hold of the sport. “I was playing UWH back in the UK and got involved with Phil and the guys when I heard they were playing here,” he said. “I decided I had to take the game into Abu Dhabi. So fast-forward a few months and I created the Abu Dhabi Ducks, our team over there. We started small with small numbers and a lot of restrictions due to Covid, but now we have grown to over 30 members. Now we have the Pirates and the Ducks, we can play competitively (there was a ‘derby’ as recently as November 5) and in the future form a UAE team and play internationally.”
It is not just a sport for the men either, as Pirate Charlene Aitchison explained. “It is an amazing sport to get into, especially for young girls, as I started myself while at school,” the South African Cleopatra female captain said. “The swimming pool levels the playing field and it is amazing as I have seen little girls take on grown men and thrive. It is all about skill and not brute force. We play mixed teams at the moment but ideally we would like to get a women’s team together outright and play against Abu Dhabi.”
Given the interest and growth of UWH in the UAE in only a few short years, and the plans to take it forward thanks to Bedford and Co, it is sure to make a bigger splash in the future.
What is underwater hockey?
Underwater hockey Underwater hockey is an internationally recognised limited-contact sport in which two teams compete to manoeuvre a flat round puck across the bottom of a swimming pool into the opposing team’s goal by propelling it with a small hand-held stick. Players are not permitted to use breathing apparatus such as scuba tanks and use snorkels while holding their breath and flippers to help them manoeuvre.