x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Sailing Arabia: A different port of call

What seemed like perfect sailing conditions proved trickier than anticipated as young crew of TU Delft Challenge show maturity beyond their years at Abu Dhabi in-port races of Sailing Arabia – The Tour.

With columnist Ali Khaled onboard, the Delft Challenge yacht sails along the coast during the Abu Dhabi in-port leg of Sailing Arabia – The Tour on Saturday. Lloyd Images
With columnist Ali Khaled onboard, the Delft Challenge yacht sails along the coast during the Abu Dhabi in-port leg of Sailing Arabia – The Tour on Saturday. Lloyd Images

The instructions were simple enough. My job as the newest crew member of the Delft Challenge team was to sit at the back of the boat, ensure the boom didn't smack me in the head and switch seats from starboard to port and vice versa every time the boat jibes or tacks.

And just like that, I have exhausted all the nautical terms I am familiar with in the opening paragraph.

Still, by the end of the Saturday's racing, I reckon I had excelled at keeping out of harm's – and more importantly the crew's – way.

The crew in question are Belgian skipper Koen de Smedt and six Dutch students from Delft University of Technology. And at stake were the in-port races of the Abu Dhabi leg of the third EFG Bank Sailing Arabia – The Tour.

"They are all university students, and their ages range from 19 to 21," De Smedt said. "But they have been participating in the Tour de France which is very similar to these races."

Indeed, Sailing Arabia is modelled on the Tour De France à la Voile, with crews sailing in the Farr 30 category of boats – starting in Manama before stops in Doha, Abu Dhabi, Ras Al Khaimah, Musandam, Musannah and finally ending at The Wave, Muscat, Oman.

After about 15 minutes of relaxed sailing in front of Abu Dhabi's Corniche, it was time for the first race of the day. Suddenly, the boats were aggressively vying to get the best possible starting position. Our boat got off to a great start, and though it is not always obvious to tell what position you are in, it soon became clear that we were cruising in second place.

My sailing career may have been approximately 27 minutes long, but I was starting to think that our skipper was a tactical master.

Every jibe, every tack seemed to catch the right gust of wind and take us away from the six boats behind us. Six boats I had to resist the temptation to taunt, behaviour I guessed would be frowned upon in maritime circles. And what I had presumed to be gentle conditions were, it seems, anything but.

"These are actually difficult conditions because it's such a confined space and the gusts of wind change direction suddenly," the captain enlightened me.

In half an hour, I had gone from detached bystander to desperately wanting these boys (two insisted on calling me "sir") to win. But to quote an old Arab saying, "Tagri alriyah bima la tashtahi alsufon", which roughly translates in English to, "Winds blow against what ships desire."

On the first lap of the second race our boat's spinnaker got tangled as it was being hoisted, which meant we lost valuable time. We finished seventh, vindicating my earlier decision not to gloat about our second-place finish in the earlier race.

There was a minor scare as well as De Smedt received a nasty gash just above his left eye, but he barely seemed to notice, treating it the way most of us do a small shaving cut.

Despite the disappointing finish, the young crew remained reassuringly calm. Only two days earlier they had been through far more trying conditions on the Qatar-Abu Dhabi leg, the longest of the tour, and finished a creditable fourth.

"The conditions that day were very tricky, but it was a lot of fun too because the race was mostly downwind and there was a lot of reaching going on," the skipper said of the monstrous 18-hour sail.

"It was not very wavy but we were racing at night and had to avoid many obstacles in our way, and the lights from the gasfields can also be confusing."

In fact, it was those conditions that forced the crew of Team Abu Dhabi to abandon their boat after it ran aground, the all-Emirati crew had to be airlifted to safety.

In the third race, Delft Challenge bounced back from the previous encounter to finish fourth.

"That was a good comeback by the team," the proud captain said. Indeed, the second, seventh and fourth-place finishes leave them in a healthy fifth overall position on the tour so far.

The immediate future, however, was an early morning start on Sunday for the Abu Dhabi-Dubai leg.

"We have to prepare the boat for tomorrow and buy food and supplies," De Smedt said with a smile.

"After that, it's off to bed early, we have to be up by 4am."

With that, we dock back at Abu Dhabi Sailing and Yacht Club by Marina Mall.

Being back on dry land is, it must be said, a bit of a come down. I consider asking for a lift back to Dubai on the boat, but decide to quit while I am ahead.

Which is exactly were the crew of Delft Challenge will, I am hoping, finish all their remaining races.

All-Emirati sailing team expected back Tuesday

Having had their boat run aground on the Qatar – Abu Dhabi leg of Sailing Arabia – The Tour, Team Abu Dhabi did not take part in Saturday’s in-port races in the capital but expect to be back in action in the next few days.

On Saturday night, the organisers of the event said that the all-Emirati crew will resume racing in Ras Al Khaimah on Tuesday after a new boat is delivered to replace the one damaged last week.


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