Ocean racing’s visual history comes to the capital

An exhibit of historical photos from the Volvo Ocean Race's 40-year history is on display at Manarat Al Saadiyat until December 10.

Norwegian skipper Knut Frostad is treated by crew member Alby Pratt in 1997. This photo is part of an exhibition on the history of the Volvo Ocean Race. Delores Johnson / The National
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ABU DHABI // It was 1997 and sailor Knut Frostad’s first time racing as skipper when a boat antenna whipped back, hitting him straight across the eye.

The moment when his Australian crew mate Alby Pratt treated Mr Frostad's wounded eye was captured on camera and is now one of 24 images on display in Abu Dhabi documenting the Volvo Ocean Race's 40-year history.

An ophthalmologist told Mr Frostad that had the effect been a mere millimetre away, the Norwegian skipper — who is now 47 and chief executive of the race — would have lost his eye.

The picture, titled Eyedrops, is part of an exhibit at Manarat Al Saadiyat documenting races since 1973, formerly named the Whitbread Round the World Race.

Mr Frostad hopes that the exhibit helps acquaint Abu Dhabi residents with the history of the race, which will stop over in the capital for the second time from December 12 to January 3.

“Obviously, a lot of people in the UAE who come to the stopover who don’t have the history of the event, they will see what it is now, but they don’t realise how many have taken part in this in the past and how challenging and difficult it was,” said Mr Frostad.

People have died in the race and “a lot of crazy things happened”, he said.

“These pictures were selected because each one tells a story,” said Mr Frostad, who has competed in four races and has been sailing for 30 years.

Another one of those stories comes from Mr Frostad’s favourite picture, a portrait of the late Dutch skipper Conny van Rietschoten taken during the 1981-1982 race. Mr van Rietschoten, the only skipper to have won the race twice, was a role model to a 10-year-old Mr Frostad.

“He was the first skipper who was really tough,” said Mr Frostad.

The story goes that Mr van Rietschoten had a heart attack in the middle of the second race.

“Apparently, he insisted on keeping it a secret because he didn’t want the competitors to know that his team was weakened,” he said.

“Then he also made a deal with the team that if he died, they would just throw him overboard but not tell anyone.”

The Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team, led by skipper Ian Walker with trimsman and helmsman Adil Khalid, an Emirati, also on board, is considered a strong contender in the nine-month race.

The biggest change in the stressful, high-pressure race’s history is that they are able to communicate the story from the boats, which now have satellite communication and on-board reporters.

“We actually communicate the story from the boats every minute, every hour,” said Mr Frostad.

“If you go back to the early races ... those pictures, first of all, they were not taken with digital cameras, they were taken with film.”

The photographers had to wait to bring the film back to land to develop it.

“No one knew what had happened. They’d been out there for a month and no one knew,” said Mr Frostad.

Teams are also more professional now than in the race’s early days, when sailors were “more Corinthian”, he said.

Mohamed Al Zaabi of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority’s events bureau called the exhibit a “remarkable photographic record”.

“The denim jeans and shirt have been replaced by high-tech survival gear. The boats are now made of sleek carbon fibre,” he said.

“But the men and women who take part in the race still face the same dangers as ever, every time they leave the shore.”

The exhibit runs until December 10, and is open daily from 9am to 8pm

lcarroll@thenational.ae