There's plenty to keep the children occupied at the Volvo Ocean Race Destination Village, writes Katie Boucher
Should you be approached by a giant red octopus over the next few days, my advice would normally be to run, or swim, as fast as your legs can carry you; unless, that is, you're down at the Volvo Ocean Race Destination Village in Abu Dhabi, where Marmo, Puma's tentacled team mascot and the face of the company's youth conservation programme, is bouncing around the compound offering tips on how to save the ocean.
"As soon as he comes out the kids dart for him," Brandon Nelson, a young brand ambassador for Puma tells me. "I don't know whether it's the colour or all his hands, but they love him." A squishy red mollusc sounds like an unlikely child-magnet, but as I watch Marmo and his assistant stroll around the village inviting people to come and take part in story time, children are indeed streaming towards him from all directions.
It is 1pm, one of two daily rounds the octopus makes to gather up people to listen to Marmo Saves Our Seas on the decked roof of the Puma chalet. The octopus's shape mirrors the tentacles adorning Mar Mostro (meaning "master of the sea" in Spanish), the Puma-sponsored Volvo Open 70 yacht that is participating in this year's Volvo Ocean Race. Currently pausing for breath in Abu Dhabi, the round-the-world sailing race will depart, along with Marmo, on Saturday.
We settle into a sea of red beanbags. The view from up high, across the water, is lovely. There can barely be a nicer spot in Abu Dhabi, I think, as the breeze wafts across the gathered group of children and parents, all wearing jaunty pirate hats. Now it is tattoo time. Each child gets one of Marmo plastered across their hand. And then a bright-eyed girl with a microphone starts to read us the story - of Marmo and his attempts to rid the seas of rubbish and fishing nets; to halt global warming and prevent overfishing. Marmo himself stands to the side, occasionally flapping his tentacles (his suit is so hot, I am informed, that he can only wear it for short periods).
It seems a nice way to enhance the youth aspect of the race, and to get children involved. "We have a big focus on sustainability and conservation," says Nelson. "We're involved in sailing, and we can't do that without the oceans."
While Marmo and his sea-saving escapades will appeal to younger children, over on the other side of the village Mark Paaluhi, the director and manager of the Puma/Laird SUP (stand-up paddle) Experience, has the older lot queuing round the block for a go on his carbon fibre paddle boards.
"We've had constant demand since we opened," says the Hawaiian, whose job is to take the SUP experience to all of the Volvo Ocean Race stopovers. He has already been to Alicante and Cape Town, and from Abu Dhabi will go to China, New Zealand, Brazil, the US, Portugal, France and Ireland.
"For kids it's a fun way to introduce them to the ocean," he says. "Some kids are afraid of the water. This is a great way to get them to feel secure with the water, broaden their horizons and build their confidence."
He assures me that the Dh30,000 boards, upon which you stand and paddle, are difficult to capsize. "It's really easy," he says. "Anyone, even those who are not athletic, can do it."
In fact, having originated in the South Pacific, the sport has seen a surge in popularity in recent years and, thanks to its excellent workout credentials, now counts Jennifer Aniston and Cindy Crawford among its fans. "It's a great way to exercise," says Paaluhi, "because you're working on your small twitch - what we call the small muscles in your legs and your core - which is probably the most important part of a workout."
More importantly, though, it looks fun. Children are swooshing along beside their parents. Two women in abayas are happily chatting as they paddle together.
Respect for the ocean, Paaluhi adds, stems from enjoyment. "I grew up on the beach and I respect it, so I make sure I pick up the trash. If we can get these kids to go out in the water and have respect for it and have the joy of it, we can get them to start paying attention."
The conditions in Abu Dhabi, he says, are perfect. "Calm water, slight breeze, a little current that takes some people, but as soon as we notice we just paddle out and grab 'em."
Marmo Saves Our Seas will be read every day until Saturday at 1pm and 5pm in the Puma chalet at the Volvo Ocean Race Destination Village. The Puma/Laird SUP Experience is free and open to everyone. Visit www.volvooceanrace.com