ABU DHABI // Organisers have cut short the Abu Dhabi leg of the round-the-world yacht race to counter the threat of piracy.
The seven 21-metre yachts will still sail into the capital on New Year's Eve to complete the second stage of the Volvo Ocean Race - but not from Cape Town, as planned.
Instead they will have been loaded on to a ship at a secret location on the east African coast and transported to an undisclosed port in the UAE, from where they will race to Abu Dhabi.
The plan avoids racing in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, where there have been 178 reported incidents of piracy this year.
Jon Bramley, a spokesman for Volvo Ocean Race, said a decision had not yet been made on where they would continue the third stage of the race, from Abu Dhabi to Sanya, the southernmost city in China.
"I know they have consulted some really top people in maritime safety and also many experts, and in the end the advice was overwhelming. Once they gave us the advice that we would have been really irresponsible to run through certain waters, then we had no option," Mr Bramley said.
Maritime experts said the organisers had made a prudent decision.
"If they want to cut across the Indian Ocean, they'll be going into high-risk areas," said Cyrus Mody, a manager with the UK-based International Maritime Bureau. He said the time of year when the race took place was ripe for piracy because of calm seas, which could allow for pirate attacks further out into the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden.
"Currently, we have the southwest monsoons in place, which makes the coastline at Somalia dangerous for pirate activity," Mr Mody said. "Once that is finished in the middle of October, we expect a lot of pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden, which is a high-risk area. They will avoid the high-risk area."
Dr Theodore Karasik, director of research and development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said the main motive for pirates would be kidnapping for ransom.
"The organisers don't want the spectacle, and that's what they are avoiding," Dr Karasik said. "You don't want an event like that occurring, and it's best to skip it.
"The armada you'd need to protect it is not cost-effective. I don't think the counterpiracy forces in the region are structured and trained to monitor a race."
Mr Mody said the area was too vast for navies in the region to protect.
"There is a considerable naval presence in the Gulf of Aden region, and quite a few in the Arabian Gulf region, but the size and openness of the water is far too great, and they are already stretched," he said. "Dedicating more to the race would not be possible."
The race itself has been thrown into uncharted waters. It has yet to be decided how organisers will conduct the race or the scoring once the boats are put back in the water for their run to Abu Dhabi.
"That's something that the chief executive Knut Frostad and particularly the race director Jack Lloyd are looking at," said Mr Bramley.
The 39,270 nautical mile race across five oceans starts in Alicante, Spain, in October, stopping off in Cape Town before making its way to the Gulf. It ends in Galway, Ireland, next July,
Abu Dhabi's team in the race, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, is the first Arab entry in the event's 40 years. Skippered by the British Olympian Ian Walker, the 11-man crew will include the UAE national Adil Khalid, who represented his country in sailing at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Their yacht Azzam won the Volvo 70 class in the Fastnet Race in England and Ireland at the weekend, and broke the monohull record with a time of 1 day 18hrs 39mins.
An ADOR team spokesman said: "We have full confidence in the Volvo Ocean Race's ability to safeguard the safety of the competing crews, which is paramount to all other considerations."
The Abu Dhabi stage will be the focus of two weeks of entertainment with concerts, a welcoming ceremony, in-port races, amateur-professional contests, city receptions and top-class evening events throughout the city.
From December 30, the Destination Village on the breakwater next to Marina Mall — the size of eight football pitches — is expected to welcome 100,000 visitors. On January 14, the yachts will depart on the next leg of the race to Sanya.