x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Six hundred to race through the waves

Splashing around in the sea will be a bit more organised than usual on Saturday when swimmers converge on the Abu Dhabi Corniche for the country's first Swim Festival.

Contestants in the Women's Elite Class of the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon prepare to start the swimming course.
Contestants in the Women's Elite Class of the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon prepare to start the swimming course.

Plenty of us swim in the UAE. We simply chuck a towel in a bag, slap on some sun-cream and head for the beach on the weekend, where dips in the sea alternate with extended periods of lounging about on the sand, eating ice cream. But this is easy, recreational stuff. It is entirely different from the competitive type of swimming that you'll find this Saturday at Abu Dhabi's Corniche, the venue for the country's first Swimming Festival.

A sporting event that will feature 12 races for different levels of swimming strength and stamina, the festival has attracted more than 600 entrants. "The idea was to host a new open swimming water event, the first of its kind in the Emirates, which is more like a 10km community run than a specialist swim regatta, and open to everyone," says Jamie Cunningham, the chief executive of Professional Sports Group, which has organised the festival under the patronage of Abu Dhabi Beaches. "So there was scope for it and to celebrate the Corniche and the great beaches of Abu Dhabi."

The youngest swimmer involved is nine, the oldest 59. There are punishing individual races for men and women, and shorter, more family-friendly events for those wanting to take things a little easier. And it's for charity, with Dh5 from each entry going toward the Donate a Brick campaign for the rebuilding of the Abu Dhabi Special Needs Centre. "It doesn't matter if you're a professional swimmer, a recreational one or you just wanted to do it for the achievement, there are races to suit all abilities," says Cunningham. Those competing are not just UAE-based, either. There's one eager contestant coming from Germany, another from Ireland.

The safety element is clearly paramount too. The Coast Guard will be blocking off the entrance to the bay, thereby keeping jet-skis out and, in addition to the normal contingent of lifeguards patrolling the beaches, there will be 15 rescue staff keeping their eye on things from the water. "Everybody is motivated to make it a memorable swim and an ongoing event that will hopefully grow from strength to strength over the years to come," says Mike Ives, head lifeguard and manager of the Ocean Dive Centre.

The most challenging of all 12 races is the Waha Capital Abu Dhabi Mile. This is, unsurprisingly, a mile-long race (1.6km), which should take the best competitors 18 to 20 minutes. The hope is that in future years it will come to rival South Africa's Midmar Mile. Held every February at the Midmar Dam in KwaZulu-Natal, this race was officially labelled the world's largest open-water swimming event last year when it attracted a field of 14,000.

In Abu Dhabi, the field for this race will be split into men and women, with the winner in each snatching a prize of Dh5,000. In the male field, the man to beat is Saeed al Jasmi, a 27-year-old Emirati who first swam in the Gulf as a toddler when his father, a former pearl diver, chucked him into the sea. But although he is now a professional swimmer who has represented his country on the international stage, al Jasmi is more of a sprint-swimmer and recently told The National that he had been forced to alter his training schedule in the past few weeks.

"I have competed before in open waters in the UAE, but I never got a ranking. I found the distance too long, so I quickly went back to sprinting," he said, "But it doesn't affect my physical condition. It will be good for me to train for this competition because it will undoubtedly increase my stamina." It's not all professionals though. Simon Gilbert, a British insurance man by day, is another mile-competitor, albeit one who claims he is simply hoping not to come last in the race.

This modesty, however, ignores the fact that he's something of a human fish himself. A member of the Dubai Master Swimming Club, he most recently took part in a 13.5km race in Malta and is soon to race in Western Australia's 19.7km challenge from Perth to Rottnest Island. "The freedom, challenges and satisfaction of open-water swimming are rewarding, and not knowing what lurks beneath certainly incentivises you to finish a race," he says of his love for the pastime. "Abu Dhabi and Dubai are coastal cities, so we should make the most of the beautiful sea on our doorstep."

After the mile, the next most demanding race is the Etihad Holidays Splash Dash. A 700-metre event that will see competitors thrashing across from the Corniche beach to the Flag Pole opposite, it has been divided into four separate heats: men, women, boys under 15 and girls under 15. "When you drive across the causeway to Marina Mall, you look at it and think 'Oh, that's not that bad,' but actually when you're standing on the beach looking across the water it's much farther," says Rachel Chisnall, one of those throwing herself into the challenge.

"I'm not really a swimmer; I've been going up and down the pool," she explains, before laughing and admitting she has only just tried out one session of training in the sea. "It was awful," she says. "You just forget when you're in the pool; it's chlorinated or fresh water. The salt water gets up your nose, it stings and it burns and it gets in your eyes. And then you can't turn your head to breathe because if you lift your head then a wave comes over it. It was a steep learning curve."

On the day itself, Chisnall hopes that the early start (the 700m races kick off at around 9.30am; all the others are earlier) means that the water will be relatively calm. "I think we'll have to deal with a little bit of current when we get to the middle of the race but the water's such a nice temperature." Also competing on the day itself will be her husband Anthony and 10-year-old son Matthew, in the Father and Child Relay (the father does 200 metres, the child does 100).

Quite an active family, then? "Yes, we are, really. We do like to keep busy," she says. "When we saw this being advertised we thought what a great thing for all of us to do on a weekend because we can still go out and do brunch later, having really worked up an appetite." The community interaction, Chisnall emphasises, is one of the best things about the collaborative effort behind the festival. People emailed each other about it, support has been drummed up in the Abu Dhabi Country Club and several schools have got behind it, too.

Claire Pocock is a mother competing in one of the relay races with her daughter, Alex, aged nine. "It's a great thing to get out and do during the winter months," she says of their participation and the need to encourage swimming, adding: "And it encourages people to keep the beach clean." They do not expect to win, as Alex will be one of the youngest - all children involved must be aged 15 or under. It's more just a matter of having fun, says her mother, "and then we can come back and do it again."

More competitive are Jude and James Comyn. A married couple competing in the Splash Dash, they have enlisted the help of a coach at the Olympic-sized Al Jazira pool to strengthen their swimming. "I was one of those people that was quite good when I was eight, but hadn't progressed since," Jude explains. Like many others, they decided to enlist because "it sounded like a really great thing to do in Abu Dhabi. A big community event, getting people active and we like to be active because it can be quite hard here."

Their strokes, she says, have leapt ahead in the few lessons they've had. Are they optimistic about their chances then? "Oh, I'm about survival at the moment because I've never done this before. Even though in a pool the distance is unchallenging, I've no idea how I'll find it in the ocean." A voyage into the unknown for all involved, then. Ÿ The Abu Dhabi Swimming Festival takes place this Saturday. For details, see www.swimabudhabi.com.