Dingy sailors rounding one of the local marker buoys at Umm Al Nar channel. Courtesy Amer Hamze and Abu Dhabi Saling Club
Dingy sailors rounding one of the local marker buoys at Umm Al Nar channel. Courtesy Amer Hamze and Abu Dhabi Saling Club

From saddle to steerage skills: 50 years of sailing in Abu Dhabi

It’s a little-known fact that in the late 1960s, western expatriates in the small fishing village of Abu Dhabi used to entertain themselves by riding police horses.

“We did that for a while,” says Frauke Heard-Bey, a German who followed her husband David Heard to Abu Dhabi in 1967. “My husband was given a horse once, which kept trotting along the railings all the time. Then we discovered it couldn’t see in one eye, so no wonder it did that.”

Then six Kestrel boats were donated to the residents by Abu Dhabi Petroleum Company in 1967. Mrs Heard-Bey says it was a great relief to find a new hobby.

For those who did not know how to sail it was an incentive to learn, and the Abu Dhabi Sailing Club was born.

“David and I decided to learn sailing,” Mrs Heard-Bey says. “After that, we stopped riding the police horses.”

She says that in other parts of the Middle East at the time, the international oil companies were building “very well-appointed compounds with shops, central air conditioning and facilities of all kinds”.

“But in Abu Dhabi they just built 36 houses. The oil company donated these sailing boats to compensate for this lack of care for the social side of things, in a town where there weren’t yet any streets.”

From those small beginnings the sailing club, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this week, now has 75 modern sailing dinghies in its fleet.

These days, the craft are sailed from Mina Zayed in relatively calm waters, as the sea is buffered by Al Maryah and Al Reem islands on the other side of the lagoon. But in the 1960s and ’70s, sharp sailing skills were needed to negotiate strong tides.

Western expats worked six-day weeks, with a half-day on Thursdays. Races took place on Thursday afternoons.

Racers sailed around two larger, stationary vessels they used as landmarks – Orianda, which belonged to Abu Dhabi’s medical chief Phillip Hornico, and Sujar, a yacht from Monaco that had belonged to Sheikh Shakhbut, which was moored permanently.

One sweltering evening in May 1970, Scottish desalination expert Iain McGregor stepped off a plane at Abu Dhabi Airport and walked over to the terminal building – a rusty Nissen hut lit by two 60-watt bulbs.

“All the luggage was stacked high in one big pile and you had to go drag it out yourself, there was no Customs,” says Mr McGregor.

He returned five years later, this time to a new, more luxurious terminal building, to start a job for the Government as a water production superintendent, with wife Christine and daughters Karen, 8, and Mandy, 5.

The sailing club’s history is entirely entertwined with that of The Club, launched five years prior, in 1962. It had two-year waiting list when they arrived in 1975, and membership was a privilege not to be taken lightly.

“You had to attend a cocktail party to check if you were a suitable candidate for membership,” says Mrs McGregor, who passed the test. “The Club was very formal in those days. In the dining room after 7.30pm, the rule was long dresses and dinner suits.”

Mr McGregor, became a commodore, retired and moved back to Scotland with his wife in 2002. But on Wednesday evening, he is returning to The Club to share his memories of sailing in Abu Dhabi during those early years.

“Sailing gave me a sense of freedom. You could get away and explore a different world,” he says. “One of the joys was that on a holiday weekend, you could get off to the islands to camp overnight near natural mangroves, and escape the noise of the city.

“On Saadiyat there were areas with camel shelters, so you had shade from the sun.”

Mr McGregor and fellow sailors had to avoid the main shipping routes. “You didn’t want to collide with a 20,000-tonne oil tanker, that would be a bit of an embarrassment.”

The sailing club invested in bigger boats in the 1970s, and sailors could take them further afield, past dolphins and turtles to exotic-sounding locations such as Colonel’s Rock, Rusty Tug Island and the nearby Jones Island, as they were then known.

Gurab Island, which is now home to several palaces, used to be a popular camping spot, if you did not mind the crabs.

“What was scary about that place was that you’d get a lot of crabs, so you had to go inland,” says Amer Hamze, a Lebanese sailor who came to Abu Dhabi in 1975 and was taught to sail by Mr McGregor.

The sailing club started to regularly compete in local races against rowing boats and sailing dhows, patronised by Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father.

Prize money paid for new boats, and by the mid-’80s The Club claimed it had the largest fleet of Kestrels in the world – 27.

“We were still the only sailing club in Abu Dhabi and we competed against clubs from Oman and Qatar,” Mr McGregor says.

A few sailors of international calibre passed through the club at that time, including Roger Williams and David Sommerville, who reached top three in the prestigious Laser World Championships.

But there were also members who preferred to venture on to the water in their own motorboats.

Lynne Haboubi, a Briton who lives in Sharjah, was a member in the 1980s as was her Iraqi husband Saleem Haboubi, then a mechanical engineer for Adnoc. The family often spent weekends on their ski boat with friends.

“Every Friday we would launch our boat from the Bateen slipway and meet other boat owners on what we called The Cut, on an island not far off the coast,” Mrs Haboubi says. “Everyone learnt to waterski and friends who tagged along had to give it a try.”

Lynne’s son David Haboubi, an energy strategist living in Abu Dhabi, bought his own motorboat three years ago, and continues the family tradition with his two young children.

In 2010, The Club built its own academy to develop the sport among its growing number of junior members.

“In the old days, The Club used to be known as the old members’ club, because most members were middle aged, and if they had kids they were at boarding school,” says Mr Hamze, who is now the academy’s principal.

“That’s all changed. We’ve got about 1,270 junior members now – one third of the membership. The Club is advertising itself as a family destination.”

Mr Hamze, the only remaining member who remembers Abu Dhabi in the 1970s and ’80s laments that so many who were in the oil industry have left Abu Dhabi in recent years.

“In the last two years The Club has lost almost 680 members,” he says. “Whereas it used to be made up almost exclusively of oil workers, now there are more teachers and doctors joining us.”

The nautical landscape of Abu Dhabi has also changed but Mr Hamze says he still gets the same joy from sailing as he did when he started 27 years ago.

“Even though you get tired from concentrating, afterwards, because of the combination of the sun, the water and the sounds of the sea, you go home feeling so serenely peaceful and you just want to go to sleep.”

Iain McGregor’s presentation is on Wednesday night at 7pm in The Club’s Waterfront Suite. The Club’s 50th anniversary ball takes place on Thursday from 7.30pm at its main beach. Tickets are Dh350.


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