Increasing numbers of Emiratis are helping to revive the country's strong sailing tradition. Lizette van Hecke speaks to several devotees, who say time spent on the water can be great fun while fostering important life skills. Photographs by Andrew Henderson Adil Khalid is just 21 but already something of a sailing veteran."I've been sailing since I was 13 and I'm so glad the sport is picking up speed here so I can show other sailors what I know," he says. "Well, I don't teach the basics. I get them when they're advanced." This might sound cocky for a 21-year-old, but Khaled is one of the UAE's most prominent and promising sailing talents, the first and only Arab sailor to compete at the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008. After entering competitive racing in 2001 in the laser category (small dinghy), he won the European Championship in 2003 then gold at the Pan-Arab Games in Egypt in 2007, guaranteeing his place in Beijing.
"The Olympics was such a rush, you cannot imagine," he says. "Everyone dreams of going to the Olympics and there I was representing my country. Wow." His achievement reflects the UAE's success in building a solid foundation for a national sailing community. "The standard of sailing in the UAE is becoming higher and higher. I now have to work hard to stay at the top." Khalid's captain and the UAE sailing team coach is Omar Bazara, a passionate man with a slender build and bright eyes, who on most days can be found around the Emirates Sailing School, based at Al Raha beach. "I believe sailing is a lifetime sport," he says. "The beautiful thing is that it is accessible to anyone: male, female, of any ability. The good thing about sailing is you don't need to be the best to enjoy it."
Born and raised in Abu Dhabi, Bazara has spent most of his life on the water. He has fond memories of Abu Dhabi's sailing clubs, where his father used to take him. "Sailing is very competitive and very social. It's a great family sport that attracts people of all ages. As a father and son you can get involved together, yet follow your own separate track. "It's also nice that it's an Olympic sport, so you can 'go somewhere' if you're passionate and good at it. There's room for progression. It's a great vessel for character-building. A lot of kids have people who drive them, cook for them and pick up after them. With sailing, they need to hold their own. It teaches them to work as a team and gets them into shape physically and mentally. My team, for instance, is not allowed to drink any soda or eat fast food while they're at the club and they need to leave the boat exactly the way they found it: clean and pristine."
His students must be doing a good job, because the boats at the Emirates Sailing School are in good condition despite the salt water and extensive use. The school is relatively young, receiving its official name and location in 2000, though it had been established four years earlier when Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and president of the Emirates Heritage Club, had bought a topper, the easy-to-handle thermoplastic sailboat.
In the UAE there are two types of sailing: traditional and modern. There is not a big difference in sailing techniques, but modern boats are generally made of fibreglass and also come in smaller sizes and lighter weights, which makes them easy for even a child to handle. As such, sailing is becoming an increasingly popular pastime for youngsters. During the week, the school concentrates on tutoring pupils from local schools, while at the weekends, Bazara trains the first team, preparing it for the Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, in November, and for the 2012 Olympics in London.
Abdullah al Obaidli, the school general manager and general secretary of the UAE Sailing Federation, said the team taking part in the Asian Games would include sailors from his school and the Emirates Heritage Club, which also trains youngsters in boat handling. "We are very keen to take part in the Olympics in 2012 but at the moment it is likely that we will only have one athlete who will be up to the standard and that is Adil.
"It takes 10 to 15 years to prepare and train an athlete to the Olympic standard and so it will take time until we can compete with the other countries, which have been training their sportsmen for many years and have much larger budgets. "We anticipate that we will qualify for the 2012 Games but probably have to wait until 2016 to see more than just Adil representing the UAE in sailing at the Olympics."
He said that the 2011 Arab Games in Doha would provide valuable exposure to international competition for the UAE's next generation of sailors, with up to seven Emiratis expected to take part. The UAE scooped two gold and one silver medal at the last competition in 2007 and hoped to increase their trophy haul next year. "Sometimes it's hard to keep all the good people, though," al Obaidli says. "Athletes can multitask; they've got a certain physical intelligence that other coaches are looking for - football, for example. They learn fast, so to keep them is a competition for us. One of the members of the first team gets a call every month from a certain professional league football club."
Together with al Obaidli, Bazara is dedicated to expanding the joys of sailing to the region. In 2009, the UAE Sailing and Rowing Federation, under the presidency of Sheikh Khaled bin Zayed, was founded with this vision: to reach out to the next generation of would-be champions throughout the country. "By teaching young Emiratis to sail, they will learn to know the value of the sport," al Obaidli says. "It will then be in the blood and they will be interested to take care of keeping the tradition in every form."
Al Obaidli's grandfather was a pearl diver, his father a skipper, and he is teaching his three sons and daughter both the traditional and modern ways of sailing. "Traditional dhow sailing is part of our culture. We've always used them for work and for racing," he says, pointing at black-and-white photos of dhows on the wall of his office. "The rules are very strict on a dhow; it wouldn't be popular in other places, but we have a history with it. In other climates you couldn't even sail the dhow because it doesn't tack well."
He sees a bright future for sailing in the Gulf region. "Our country not only has great weather throughout the year, but we also have the longest coastline. From Silah to here is 360km and then it goes all the way up to Fujairah. And there are over 500 beautiful islands surrounding Abu Dhabi alone. Sailing is an industry that's set to flourish here." While it is difficult to estimate the number of people in the country who sail, mainly because of the transient nature of the expat community, al Obaidli is sure it is expanding. "Competition is what develops a sailor - we need to put serious efforts in getting together and racing against each other," he says.
The Abu Dhabi government has also acknowledged the emirate's potential as a sailing location and has made tackling the sailing community's main requirement: more marinas and mooring spaces. "Last year's forum at the yacht show was all about creating more spaces for people to harbour their boats and enjoy the natural splendour of this country," says Erika Lessman, the two-time women's world champion in the Penguin class, a wooden boat that was popular before the Laser and other fiberglass boats. "Boat construction is also taking off big time."
Brazilian-born Erika has 25 years' yachting experience and 90,000 nautical miles under her belt, but in her mind there is no better place to sail than the UAE. "You have access to great sailing right off the Corniche. In minutes you're out at sea and because it's shallow water, the waves are short," she says. "There's always some wind, except around midday, and there's always sunshine. What else could you want?"
Events such as the GCC regatta, held in Abu Dhabi earlier this year, are an indication that Gulf countries are taking sailing more seriously. Sailing events company OC Events has recently launched a new premier racing circuit, "Tour of Arabia", a five-leg tour that covers 1,700 nautical miles (3,150km), linking Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE and Oman. Earlier this month, the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority announced the capital would be a stopover in the Volvo Ocean Race in January 2012. The round-the-world event, staged 10 times since its inception in 1973, will bring the cream of the world's sailors to the Emirates Palace hotel for two weeks. Among the dozen or so yachts docking will be one built in the capital racing under the name Team Abu Dhabi. It is intended that crew and support staff will come from the UAE.
OC Events chief executive Mark Turner says that while there is a strong history of sailing, in more recent times it has culturally become more alien among the general public to sail. "We've been working together with the Omani government to teach 30,000 Omanis to sail within five years," he says. "Our aim is not to organise an event for people from the West to go sailing, but to reconnect the region with its past by transforming a former trading vessel into an industry."
Sheikh Khaled bin Zayed is another passionate voice in the sport. He spends as much time as he can in marinas, sailing clubs and out on the water, despite his busy schedule as founder of the Bin Zayed Group, the chairman of Dubai Economic Council and real estate developer Tamweel, and his many other positions that require attention. He did not discover the joys of sailing until his mid 30s but has been hooked ever since.
"It was a life-changing experience. Being totally under the mercy of the forces of nature, without an engine breaking its way through the waves and water- it was an overwhelming experience that put me immediately in love with sailing. It helps me clear my thoughts and feel more energetic getting through my heavy daily calendar. I wouldn't miss the joy of it for anything else in the world." Sheikh Khaled agreed to lead the federation because he, too, believes that sailing is a sport that will enrich the lives of youngsters. As such, he always makes time to hand out prizes to the junior competitors in national races.
"In water, children are totally on their own in the arms of the unpredictable Mother Nature," he says. "There is a great deal of uncertainty in the sport; likewise in life. Sailing allows them to deal with unexpected events and situations. Furthermore, in the bigger boats, co-ordination with other team members is essential to make your way through the water. This teaches them about teamwork and collaboration. Investing in youngsters in a sport like sailing will leave remarkable positive prints on their souls and spirits and the way they approach life."
Sheikh Khaled smiles as he looks out over the water. "Did you know there's a momma dolphin with her baby in the canal next to the sailing school? They always come to say hello when the first team is training in the weekends."