ABU DHABI // While 718 swimmers took to the sea yesterday for the emirate's first swimming festival, the waters were being closely watched by the Critical National Infrastructure Authority (CNIA).
Two security crews and two teams of rescue divers, as well as three patrol jet skis, surrounded the area to ensure the event ran safely, keeping reckless jet-skiers or day trippers on boats from harming the competitors or halting their progress.
Hours before the first participants arrived at 6am, the waters were already being closely patrolled, following weeks of preparation with all the local agencies, from the coastguard to the crew of lifeguards on the beach.
"Forget the salary, I do this job because I love it," said Abdulkabir al Meer, one of the rescue divers.
"It needs strong people with a lot of commitment. With this job comes a lot of responsibility," he said.
Usually, the security teams patrol the coastal waters for the likes of illegal imports, much like sea-borne customs officers. But yesterday, their job was to prevent unwelcome vessels from the sea interfering with swimmers around the Corniche, Marina Mall and the Breakwater.
"The most important thing at an event like this is quick access to the swimmers and to have a clear view so we can respond immediately," Mr al Meer said.
Swimmers were briefed at the start of each of the races, including the opening Waha Capital Abu Dhabi Mile, not to swim too closely together and to raise their hand twice if they came into trouble such as a strong undercurrent.
In spite of a publicity campaign involving advertisements in the local press telling sea-goers of the closure of the waters, two leisure boats were stopped from passing, although there was no need for the rescue divers' services.
There was only one minor problem with a competitor who cramped up 200 metres into the final race of the day, the 700m Splash Dash, and was brought to shore by lifeguards.
Jamal al Qaradi, a member of the security team, said: "The swimmers are confident swimmers when they sign up for this kind of event".
The CNIA recently launched a campaign called Bihar, Arabic for ocean, to raise awareness of sea safety around the emirate's shores.
According to Mr al Meer, there are two areas where sea-goers come into trouble, by the Hilton beach, where a sharp drop leads suddenly to deep water, and at Al Bateen, where the water quickly ends and many jet-skiers have been thrown over the handlebar as their vehicles, often at high speed, come aground.
Sheikha al Nuaimi, head of public affairs at the CNIA, said that the festival was a perfect opportunity to raise public awareness about sea safety and engage with the community.
"It's one of the best opportunities to reach people, kids, adults, all of them sea-goers, here for the swimming festival.
"Public engagement is one of the challenges we're facing so this kind of event helps us reach out to a large section of the community, as well as the other events we are planning such as school visits."
She said fishermen and teenage jet-skiers are a key demographic for the campaign.
Visits to the Higher Colleges of Technology and the use of social networking sites Facebook and Twitter, have helped reach out to the local teenage and young adult population, she said.
The opening race, the Maqta Mile, had 240 competitors Serbian Velimir Stjepanovic, 17, and South African Megan Mileham took the titles.
Jeanette Green, 59, was the eldest female participant in the event.
"Swimming is my favourite hobby and it keeps you young," said the English volunteer, who works with low-income youths.
"I had no chance of winning, I knew that, but one of the reasons I entered was to get one of my talented students from Kenya to enter, and he did," she beamed proudly.
Other participants included the under-11 team from Al Jazira FC and children from the Future School for special needs who all took part in the relay event.
The event was expected to raise more than Dh18,000 for the Special Care Centre in Abu Dhabi.