x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Dhow racing gives the world a taste of Emirati culture

Traditional dhows have plied the Gulf for centuries, laden with dates, fish and spices, but the focus in Dubai at the recent Louis Vuitton Trophy was on speed. However, racing the ancient Arab vessel still requires old-fashioned sailing skills.

Traditional dhows have plied the Gulf for centuries, laden with dates, fish and spices, but the focus in Dubai at the recent Louis Vuitton Trophy was on speed. (Matilde Gattoni / ArabianEye.com)
Traditional dhows have plied the Gulf for centuries, laden with dates, fish and spices, but the focus in Dubai at the recent Louis Vuitton Trophy was on speed. (Matilde Gattoni / ArabianEye.com)

The warm waters of the Arabian Gulf shimmered, the wooden dhows creaked gently and for a moment, it seemed they were suspended in time, barely moving on the surface of the sea.

Then, like synchronised swimmers, their white sails magically unfurled as one and they began gliding swiftly on the water; the race was on.

Their swan-like grace, viewed from luxury yachts at a safe distance, belied the frenzy of activity on board, as a combination of skill to hoist the mainsail to its 30-metre extension and sheer brute force kept the boats on course.

While dhow racing is an intrinsic part of the UAE's heritage, this was no ordinary competition. For the one-day race, held as part of this year's Louis Vuitton Trophy, was the first time foreign crews had been allowed to work the historical boats.

The traditional Arab sailing vessels are usually manned by Emiratis but on this occasion, six teams from the America's Cup, the premier international sailing regatta, were on board to steer the boats 15 nautical miles to the finishing line near the Burj al Arab in Dubai.

On each 18m dhow, 11 international crew members were joined by four Emirati sailors and the boat's owner.

Unlike sailing boats, dhows are built without a weighted keel, making them as unsteady as racing dinghies. A similar-sized yacht would typically have up to 2,500kg of lead or iron in its keel. Racing dhows balance by using sandbags on board and shifting the weight of crew members - who perch precariously on the sides for ballast - and the boats have been known to capsize.

Traditionally, dhows were used to trade commodities between the Middle East, India and East Africa, with crews on board singing sea shanties as they hauled on the ropes.

They plied their way along the Gulf with cargoes of dates, fish, timber and spices. In more recent times, centuries-old methods of boat-making have been replaced with modern conveniences such as engines and GPS systems.

While dhow racing relies on old-fashioned skill rather than modern techniques, the sport is taken seriously.

The Dubai International Marine Club (DIMC) began organising races in 1986. There has been a nod to modern times - the spar supporting the sail is now made of aluminium or carbon fibre, while cotton sails have been replaced with polyester - but as in ancient times, the hull, the mast and the bowsprit are still made of wood.

"A dhow can sail at 20km an hour, twice as fast as other sailing boats," says Saeed Harab, chief executive of DIMC.

"This was about giving the world a taste of our culture and history. There are now as many towers in Dubai as there were once masts on the sea.

"While we make our mark now on the land, we used to make it on the water. The international teams were keen to bring their experience to us.

"There was a wobbly start as they found it difficult to handle all the ropes but they had big smiles on their faces by the end."