I can't even remember the first time I learned how to swim. My parents like to joke that they tossed me into a pool and hoped for the best, but what I do know is this: I grew up directly across from the beach (on Sharjah's Corniche Road, to be exact); I was taught how to swim by a stern-with-a-heart-of-gold Finnish woman called Mrs. Turner (I was so young I never knew her first name), a former Olympian who was almost into retirement age lest for the fact that she'd never quit; and from the first moment I stepped foot into a pool, I loved it. We had our lessons at the Marbella Club, one of the most happening places in old-school Sharjah in the original UAE expat days, where I'd do lap after lap, learning every possible technique and stroke that I could until I could flit around without even thinking about it, and if I flailed, Mrs. Turner was always there to catch me. When we finished our lessons, if I did well, my reward was to head over to the Caesar's Palace next door, where I'd order a Garbatella pizza (topped with fresh mozzarella, ham, black olives, and veggies) that had been fired up in their outdoor brick oven, where I'd wait to grab each hot slice with eager hands (what can I say, swimming makes you hungry) and chomp it down in their beautiful garden terrace, surrounded by Roman statues. By the time I was in middle school, I was on the swim team, and now as an adult, years after discovering the joys of stand up paddling and then surfing, I still often feel more at home in the water than I do on land. I once hated my "swimmer's shoulders" because I thought they made me look masculine, but through the years I've learned to not only love but be proud of them, because they not only make me a better swimmer and surfer, but they've lent themselves well to other sports I love, such as boxing. But this is a post about gadgets, not about my shoulders.
When you spend as much time in or near the water as I do, it can be a little frustrating seeing all sorts of great new technology crop up when as much as you'd like to get the gizmo, it just feels like an unnecessary or even pointless investment if you won't be able to use it that often anyway because your favourite sports will lead it all to certain death. Which is why when you do find gadgets that are not only water-friendly but in some cases even salt water friendly, it feels like a major win. I'm always on the lookout for great new ones, so if you have suggestions please do share - but here are a few that are either my tried-and-tested favourites, or on my wish list.
1. Sony NW-WS410 Series Waterproof and Dustproof Walkman Headphones
These headphones are probably among the best circa. AED330 I've ever spent. Simple and surprisingly comfy for on-air headphones, while many gym-friendly headphones exist (the Jabra Sport Coach Wireless, for instance, is awesome for an on-land set), it's hard finding some that are waterproof, let alone salt-water proof. But when you love the ocean as much as I do, it's a necessity. I not only use these when I go swimming in my pool in my apartment building - racing through 50-100 laps because a lot easier and a lot more fun if you've got good tunes to keep you going, not to mention it helps you estimate how much time you've been there based on the music as well, but you're more likely to go down to the pool if you know you'll have the motivation of music even in the water - but also when I go paddleboarding or for sea swims. Of course, you can use them on land too - I find them awesome for runs because since you pre-load the music onto their internal storage, you don't have to worry about linking them up to your phone or other device, thus you don't have to carry something else if you don't want to, or won't have to worry about it draining that battery. These are my go-tos whether I'm going for a solo SUP, a pool swim, or a 10K run, and are were my absolute saviors during the somewhat grueling (mentally and physically!) 30km Around The World Charity Paddle (a 30-35k stand up paddle around the World Islands organized by the Surf House Dubai to raise money for charity) each year. I have the 4GB storage version, though there is an 8GB version, and I find it more than enough. They're waterproof (and yes, salt water proof) of up to 2 meters, can handle temperatures from -5-45 degrees Celsius, and the battery lasts for ages - it can go up to 12 hours, and truly does - and they're light (32g), fitting surprisingly comfortably compared to most other in-ear headphones I've tried. I'm obsessed.
2. Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Speaker
This adorable egg-shaped speaker is everything I want in a portable audio device: It's easy to use, links up to your phone in seconds, and looks good without taking up too much space. It charges via USB cable, which you can plug into a wall outlet or your computer, and not only does it charge pretty quickly, but one battery charge lasts for a considerably large time (10 hours of play, though it always feels like more) - take it from someone who is extremely lazy about charging devices other than her iPhone. And when I say it's easy to use, it really is - the Bluetooth connection is as easy as 1-2-3 and the giant buttons on it arrange for power and volume control that is so simple nobody could mess this up, and best of all, it's got great sound. It may be tiny, but don't underestimate the size - the speaker is pretty powerful and I hardly ever play it at full volume at home. I once played this during a tropical rainstorm when I was on my room terrace in the Maldives, and still heard crisp and clear sound that made for a pretty epic storm experience (I like having a soundtrack to my life). You can even link up to a second one if you have another, but one is certainly enough for me. It's waterproof, dirt proof, and clumsy-proof (I've dropped it a fair few times and it doesn't even have a nick on it), which means you can chuck it into the swimming pool while you faff around on a unicorn floatie with music by your side. (Wonder) boom.
3. Surf Ears Earplugs
So I've not actually tried these yet, but boy am I dying to, and have heard rave reviews from those who have. Whether you surf a lot or just swim a lot, if you've ever experienced an ear infection or the curse that is "swimmer's ear" (which I have, and it sucks) - or the even more horrible "surfer's ear," which I have thankfully not yet experienced and hope I never do - you'll understand that it can be a real pain the neck (or ear, to be specific) to have your ear throb with pain time and time again when you've spent too long in the water, especially salt water. And despite the fact that this won't stop you from doing what you love, it is extremely uncomfortable. That's where these babies come in: They protect your ears while you're in the water (and yes, salt water of course), but they do so without affecting your hearing - which is pretty important when you're out there, and a huge advantage over other earplugs, which is why we usually end up not wearing earplugs even if our doctors told us to (*ahem*, case in point). These are other brands that do this, but this is said to be among the best, and several respected pro surfers are fans. These offer zero acoustic loss, a really good snug fit without being uncomfortable or so you don't have to worry about them falling out, and they're not as expensive as you might think ($59.95). They're on my wishlist for sure.
4. Apple Watch Series 2
Whenever I go surfing at dawn or before work, I am in a constant mental battle between being anxious that I'll be late for work, or being so stoked that I lose all track of time. The latter usually wins out. Same goes for stand up paddle boarding, or even swimming in the pool in my apartment building. What can I say, I'm a water baby and I'm happiest when I'm in a place where I can switch off from the world and am removed from most electronics. However, this also means that I don't often know what time it is, and although many watches out there are waterproof, it can be hard to find a good salt water proof watch that's not going to get ruined in some way or another (you can buy specially designed salt water proof straps for it too). Enter the new generation Apple Watch: This thing is a game-changer, or was for me. I'm terrible at wearing watches (tragic for someone whose dad was an obsessive watch collector, I know - what can I say, I like my wrists bare and free), but the new Apple Watch has found its way onto my arm more and more frequently, and this is one of the key reasons. Aside from the fact that it helps me keep track of time no matter what body of water I'm in (and lasts for a pretty decent charge), it also keeps me in the loop of reminders and all that jazz, so I don't lose myself entirely but can switch off from being tethered to my phone just enough. It also has built-in GPS and WiFi capability, the waterproof capacity is for a depth of up to 50m, the battery lasts for up to 18 hours, it has a nifty touch screen and an ambient light sensor, and is easy to charge. Oh, and it tracks movement and activity too of course. Yas.
5. Lifeproof Phone Case by Fre
Let me first start by saying some friends I know have had terrible experiences with this phone case, so don't say I didn't warn you in that I know it's not perfect and has some issues. However, I had a horrible experience with the seemingly sturdier Mophie H2PRo waterproof case, and although that one seemed to be more sturdy and solid, it actually was so intensely so that it was impossible to take on and off (and I didn't want my phone in it 24/7) so I accidentally bent it out of shape, and my phone died a hideous and painful death that I would rather not remember. And I believe that's where the problem lies with the Lifeproof case as well - if you manhandle it too much during removal/application, it's quite soft and gentle and easy to bend out of shape (the opposite reason to the Mophie but the same tragic result) - and with any waterproof phone case that relies on sealing your phone utterly seamlessly, even a tiny bend in this iron-clad security means water could get in. And slowly poison your phone to death. Yes, you can try the bowl-of-rice trick, but that only works if it's fresh water - if it's salt water, that stuff will eat right through the motherboard like a swarm of locusts and your phone is a goner faster than you can say "Oh ****." Still, of the two options, I've had good times and better experiences with the Lifeproof case. Just remember, you still want to keep it out of the water as much as possible, and I wouldn't go dunking or submerging it in the ocean - it's just to protect it from rain or big splashes, if you want to stay on the safe side. And be very careful about removing and reattaching it - you need to make sure it's entirely leak-proof. If you're insure, use the piece of paper test first - stick a piece of paper in it, then chuck that in to a full sink or bowl of water before even thinking of putting your phone in it. If it stays dry after a while, then your case isn't faulty and you're good to go, as long as you put your phone into it equally as carefully and keep it tight. But know that these are always partially risky if your phone has a chance of full submersion, especially in the ocean, so if you intend to do underwater shots, you're better off with a GoPro.
6. GoPro Hero 5 Black
I love this thing so much I kind of want to marry it. Ok fine, a slight exaggeration, but this device is life-changing. I was already an avid user of the GoPro Hero 4, but the Hero 5 Black (just note that you're not getting the Session, which is a lot more expensive and not as necessary for the casual user in my opinion) is simply epic: It’s leaps and bounds from the Hero 3, even the Hero 4. Firstly you don’t need waterproof housing anymore, which means you avoid the extra screen layer from the casing so quality is automatically better, plus it’s way less bulky that way. It still doesn’t float, but the lack of need for the case in itself is mega. It's also salt water proof, making surfers, SUP-ers, and oceanaholics around the world rejoice. Image and video quality and resolution is way better, sharper, cleaner, crisper. You can link it up to the Capture app and it provides all sorts of amazing things from lightning-fast Bluetooth/WiFi connectivity to screengrabs and easy video conversions for mobile upload and so on. It's also voice command activated, should you choose to use that function. There’s so much more but those are the big ones. The removable side door is a little finicky (it's designed to come off, so that if you use it only on land and not in the water, then you don't need to remove the mount housing in order to charge it and can plug in directly to the port - but obviously you do need that side door on it for it to be waterproof. Due to its easy removeability, the design and construction/hinges also makes it easy to lose or break - I snapped mine, and I'm strong but no Hulk), but you can buy replacements. They can be hard to find but they do usually have stock at the Rip Curl store at Mall of the Emirates, or at Al Boom Marine HQ). It shoots in 4k, HD, has a touch screen display, is waterproof up to 33 feet, has great built-in video stabilization, and can be mounted about a million ways (that's what she said). I'd buy three more of these GoPros I could, can no longer live without mine, and it pretty much lives in my handbag at all times, be that for on-land or in-water use - quite simply, one of the best devices I've ever owned. Compared to other easy handheld cameras, for the price range, the quality, size and versatility is phenomenal.