DUBAI // Yousef Latej has no problem pinning a label on himself proclaiming that he is the UAE's top sailor. It is no idle boast as he proved last weekend by guiding the home yacht Sea Dubai to victoryin two of the 10 fleet races at the RC44s Gold Cup meeting off Dubai Marina.
Latej, 29, is proud of what he has achieved on home and international waters since stepping on to a racing boat for the first time as a young college student who by his own admission did not have a clue what he was doing. The English-born Emirati has established himself in an elite international gathering of RC 44 sailors and has graduated to the helm of Sea Dubai for the fleet racing part of the regatta in two years since successfully undergoing a trial for the local team.
"It was a nice feeling to get my first wins on home waters," said Latej, who enjoyed his maiden victory at the Lake Geneva meeting in this year's six event series. That success in Switzerland proved a bitter-sweet experience for Latej. "We had some tremendous results at that regatta - four second places to go with the first - and we were on course for a really good points total until I wiped them all out with one single mishap," he said/
That was in the key event of the meeting the DHL long-distance race which carries double the points of all the other races. "I bumped into somebody. It was a nightmare, I just couldn't avoid it," said Latej. "We were going downwind and we were approaching the bottom mark. I saw a gap but all of a sudden the gap had closed and I had nowhere to go. I tried my best to prevent the collision. Initially I was heading to hit them straight in the middle but I managed to hit them in the rear eventually.
"I got back to shore and thought to myself, "What have I done?' That was the most gutting feeling I have had on the water. My colleagues realised the mistake and told me it wasn't entirely my fault but that didn't do much good. It's a matter of personal pride and I was inconsolable." Latej has a vivid recollection of Russell Coutts, renowned as one of the world's most accomplished sailors and the man who devised the RC44s series, approaching him and saying, 'Don't worry mate, these things happen'.
"That meant a lot to me at the time considering the reputation he has in the sport." said Latej That embarrassing bump into rival RC44 Team Artemis just outstrips Latej's other low point in a sport where he has flourished. Having qualified for last year's Olympics in Beijing he was unable to take part because of a back injury. "That was upsetting to say the least," he said. "It takes a lot to get back on a boat after something like that happens, but here I am. You get over it in the end."
The Olympic dream has, sadly, passed for Latej. "You have to dedicate five years of your life to an Olympic campaign," he said. "Obviously there is no time to do that for London 2012 and by the time the 2016 Games come round [in Rio de Janeiro] I'll be 36 and be past it at that level." He still has what he recalls realistic ambitions. At least one more season on the RC44s is one of them and he also wants to figure prominently in the Laser SP3 series which is to be reintroduced in Dubai.
But Latej feels he has most to offer as a role model for up-and-coming sailors in the UAE. "Most of the youngsters here know me and I have trained a lot of them," he said. "I hope the young kids look up to me and see what I'm doing and I give them a bit of hope for what they can do if they apply themselves properly." Latej regards yacht racing as a national sport of the UAE, even though it is a comparatively new one. "We have been around for a good decade now as a sailing nation," he said. "We have achieved quite a lot in that short period of time when you consider other countries have had sailing programmes in place for over 40 years.
"When I first started there was always this separation between expats and locals which was a bit of a hindrance. If you manage to integrate the two groups then it will be easier to move forward. It involves a bit of give and take from both sides. I don't like using the term 'expats' but everybody knows what we mean when we say it. "Sailing here can only get better because the facilities here are excellent and the weather is perfect. We have a lot of backing."