DUBAI // They had anxiously studied the weather forecasts, lovingly waxed their handbuilt boats and pored over maps. In the end though, it was strategy that won the day in the second heat of this year's Dubai Traditional 43ft Dhow Sailing Championships.
True to its billing as the most popular sport in the country, almost 900 young Emiratis took part in the race yesterday.
Shortly after 3.30pm, 82 dhows, each carrying a crew of between 10 and 12 sailors, hoisted their sails in unison and set off from the Palm Deira, and the winner reached the Burj al Arab a little over an hour later.
Sid Bensalam, the general manager at Dubai International Marine Club, the organisation behind the race since its start 20 years ago, said: "It's more popular than any other sport here, even football.
"The government has supported it, because it considers it as part of the heritage. But it's a thriving sport and very athletic. The younger generation's participation is the only way to connect the past, present and the future."
The sport typically attracts about 12,000 participants over the course of the year, Mr Bensalam said.
The season sees competition in three categories, 20ft, 43ft and 60ft dhows, each of which has three or four heats spread out over several months during the winter period. The first heat of the 43ft competition was in December and another heat will be held in March.
Only Emiratis can take part, with many members of the royal family among the owners of the vessels.
Sultan Hareb said he built the dhow he skippered in yesterday's race by hand at a cost of about Dh300,000. His vessel, Shamardel, is owned by Sheikh Majid bin Mohammed.
"Nobody teaches you how to build them," said Mr Hareb, 31. "There's a standard layout, you can change that based on your ideas."
Mr Hareb has a family history with links to the sea. His grandfather was the skipper of a pearl-diving dhow and his father is managing director of Dubai International Marine Club.
"We want to try to continue what our family did before," he said. "It's a message that we want to pass it on to the next generation."
The dhows do not have a weighted keel, making them sometimes unsteady. It is the duty of the crew, who are dressed in an incongruous mix of a traditional keffiyeh and Bermuda shorts, to clamber from side to side of the ship in order to balance the weight and stop them capsizing.
The wind speed yesterday was considered perfect for the race, a rate of about 13 knots.
Under those conditions, when the dhow can reach speeds of up to 19 knots, it moves as though "kissing the water", Mr Bensalam said.
On display were a wide variety of tactics employed by skippers, with some hugging the coastline and having to make regular changes to avoid man-made islands. Others travelled in a wide arc, only cutting in at the last minute. Mohammed Rashid bin Shaheen, skipper of the vessel Al Zeer, brought his wealth of sailing experience to bear to win the race.
Mr bin Shaheen has won more than 20 races and is described by marine club staff as famous for his strategic thinking.
"The most important thing in the race is tactics," he said, after hoisting a giant silver cup to the cheers of his crewmates. "Everyone knows that I am a man of tactics. I saw the weather and I knew what we needed to do in these conditions in order to come first. We got off to a good start, and I knew in my heart that we would win."