Thousands welcome the Volvo race fleet

Five boats sprinted from Sharjah to Abu Dhabi, the third port of the Volvo Ocean Race, with cheers, applause and a fireworks display greeting the yachts.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Jan 4 2012, Volvo Ocean Race , Abu Dhabi-  Team Telefonica completes leg two, Cape Town South Africa to Abu Dhabi.   Mike Young / The National?
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ABU DHABI // Nearly 2,000 years ago, the first lateen-rigged dhows plied the waters of the Gulf from the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, beginning a cherished maritime heritage.

Yesterday that heritage came thrillingly up to date. Thousands of spectators thronged the capital's breakwater to welcome five of the world's most advanced racing yachts after they sprinted from Sharjah in 20-knot winds in the second stage of the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race.

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's entry, Azzam, sailed into port under a stunning fireworks display. The crew were greeted with loud cheers and applause, and spectators who lined the purpose-built Destination Village waved flags that read: "Go Azzam".

"It's great to be part of the arrival. There has been such a big build-up, which started on New Year's Eve with Coldplay," said Josephine Mikaelan, 27, a sailing fan who works as a marketing executive in Abu Dhabi.

"This is such an important day for Abu Dhabi. We are out here in the open air, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the weather."

Olivia Petko and her Etihad Airways colleague Victoria Sadler were also enjoying the atmosphere. "We came down to have a sneaky peek," said Ms Petko, 23, from Australia.

"We heard a lot about it and we only live across the road, and as Etihad are one of the main sponsors we learnt about it through work."

Ms Sadler, 28, said initially she hadn't known much about sailing, but was now a convert.

"I came down a few days ago with friends who sail and they explained everything to us. Now I've got into it and really want to learn how to sail."

Denise Morgan, 47, was more familiar with the event, and has followed previous races from her home country of New Zealand.

"There are a lot of people here who don't know much about it and never experienced the Volvo Ocean Race before," said Ms Morgan, an Abu Dhabi resident.

She said the publicity surrounding Azzam and the team had raised interest, but she was still supporting Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand.

Cameron Harris, 11, of Abu Dhabi, has been following the race on television. "It's my first time at something like this and I'm really enjoying it."

Throughout the day in the village there were stilt walkers, albatross mascots and music to entertain spectators, who also got to watch the second day of the Etihad Abu Dhabi Junior Sailing Festival.

David Nelson, 49, said he was gaining an interest after his second visit to the village.

"I've watched a few America's Cups but I'm a desert rat," said Mr Nelson, a teacher from Arizona. "It's my wife who got me down here and I am really getting into it.

"The music and the atmosphere is really helping. It reminds me of my winters at home without the water. I'm definitely going to follow the race until the end."

The first yacht to dock yesterday was the race leader, Telefonica. "A big effort from Abu Dhabi, having a stopover, having a boat, that's a really big effort," said the skipper, Iker Martinez.

The fleet reached Abu Dhabi with Azzam in fifth place. The sixth boat is in Madagascar, after suffering rigging problems.

The capital is the third of 10 host ports in the race that started in Alicante, Spain, in November and will end in Galway, Ireland, in July.

The teams were greeted yesterday by Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon, chairman of Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, and Mubarak Al Muhairi, the authority's director general.

Sheikh Sultan said it was a historic day for the emirate. "For centuries, Arabian Gulf winds have filled the sails of traditional dhows and driven our rich maritime heritage. Today, the Volvo Ocean Race fleet has felt their force, riding the powerful gusts into the calm sanctuary of the Corniche waters to help us write a new, exciting chapter in the annals of Abu Dhabi's sailing history."

Mr Al Muhairi said events yesterday went according to plan, with more than 6,500 fans making the trip to the Destination Village.

"The sight of this fabulous fleet reaching the Destination Village in front of thousands of spectators and sailing enthusiasts is exactly what we envisioned when we decided to bring the event to the emirate," he said.

On Saturday, there will be a 60ft dhow race along the Corniche, and other activities such as games and fan competitions will continue daily until January 14.