x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A Volvo voyage of discovery for Emirati sailors

Butti Al Muhairi and Adil Khalid are eager to learn all there is to know about ocean racing.

When not on the sea, Butti Al Muhairi, left, and Adil Khalid are learning the drills with the Shore Team in the workshop.
When not on the sea, Butti Al Muhairi, left, and Adil Khalid are learning the drills with the Shore Team in the workshop.

Butti Al Muhairi has grown so much through 2011 that he has become gigantic.

No, really.

An out-sized likeness of the 27-year-old Emirati reserve sailor graces the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority office entrance with such booming presence that it shocked the subject.

"It's bigger than me," said the genial and humble and hard-working and deeply liked Al Muhairi. Noting the wristwatch he wears in the enlargement, he said, "The watch is bigger than my head."

In some way, the leap from normal human size to colossal mural size echoes the leap the Emirati sailors, Al Muhairi and Adil Khalid, have taken within the wide parameters of sailing.

While an outsider might reckon that sailing is sailing is sailing, that would have to rank among the untruest of untruths.

In joining Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing for the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race, the 20-something Emirati sailors have made a jump almost perpendicular.

"From my side, it's too much for me," Al Muhairi said of the enlargement. "I don't want to be more than what I am. Everyone knows that we jump just for a few months to Volvo. I don't think anyone can compare for a few months to Rob, or Craig, or Ian, or Jules."

He meant Azzam teammates Rob Greenhalgh, Craig Satterthwaite, Ian Walker and Jules Salter - elite sailors who have navigated the planet like modern-day Magellans.

Khalid and Al Muhairi, meanwhile, have sailed and sailed well, but almost as if in some other - if brethren - sport.

Khalid, 23, weathered the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority's pruning from 120-some entries to become the titled "Emirati sailor" aboard the daring Emirati yacht.

He won a bale of international events, represented the UAE in Lasers at the Beijing Olympics, and he walked into the stadium among the world's most Herculean athletes. Only the snooty would lampoon his capability.

Still, Lasers do not stay gone for 25 days solid, and they do not hurl themselves into vicious seas at three o'clock in the morning and, crucially, they do not require the finesse and know-how of participating on an 11-man team with multifarious tasks. If you hold a team meeting aboard a Laser, you talk to yourself.

"It's incredibly hard for a person like Adil that's come from a single-handed background to step into a boat like this and figure out what's going on," Satterthwaite said.

"So we have to be realistic in our expectations."

Sid Bensalah of the Dubai International Marine Club trained Khalid through his teen years but knows more than enough of what it is to comprehend the vertigo here.

"It's physically demanding," he said of the Volvo, "but, mentally, it's basically 10 times as demanding. It's not a normal course of race. It's absolutely, absolutely a completely different environment and a different concept. It's tough. But he's in really good hands."

The good hands must lend attention beyond the norm, given the perpendicularity of this climb. On a Saturday morning in late September in a tent by the shore in Portugal, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing held a routine meeting so deep into nautical terminology that a novice should require subtitles.

Present were the 11-man onboard team, reserve sailor Paul Willcox and then Al Muhairi, the reserve Emirati sailor who has replaced Khalid on two multi-day hauls, and who works with admired diligence on the Shore Team that supports and rebuilds the yacht.

When it adjourned and almost everybody filed out in anticipation of a hard afternoon practice at sea, Walker remained with Khalid and Al Muhairi, as both listened intently. "I really need you to concentrate out there today," Walker said to Khalid, with the understanding that Al Muhairi can stand in for Khalid if needed, as occurred on the route from Portugal around Gibraltar to Alicante, Spain.

Never at sea for more than six days running, Khalid awaits the three-week mystery from Alicante to Cape Town with curiosity.

"It's the middle of nowhere," he said. "You can't run away. You have to do it. You are there. It's not anyone who can do it. Every four hours you wake up, or every two hours you wake up, you're working your side. You're getting hit by the waves in the face. No shower for 25 days. You're sweating ..."

"Twenty-five days," he reiterated a few minutes later. "I'm thinking about it. I'm saying, 'For sure I will lose weight'. I'm trying to put on weight now. Everything in front of me, I have to eat. If I like it, if I don't like it, I have to eat it. I don't want to be 10 days in and weak. Put your head down and eat it."

He knew what to do before, in his past life. "I knew my level," he said.

Now, he has flung himself into the discomfort. "Now here with this thing, with the fitness and everything, I know I can do much better," he said.

"Now you're much stronger, much fitter, much more intelligent. You know what you can do, do things at the right moment."

Al Muhairi has raced dhows, and he strained to stop and visit his dhow buddies on a stop through Abu Dhabi earlier this month. But his lead-in to this oceanic marathon was six years in the Gulf on an oil rig. His job? Not for the fainthearted.. As he explains it, he would be the first guy "who receives the crude oil" as it arrives.

"I'm the first guy who can control the flow," he said. "Increase or decrease or stop it. Because of the high pressure you have to be careful."

If you tally up his minutes of tardiness for work through all of those six years, the sum comes to zero. His three brothers worked there also. When he left for Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, his manager told him he could return anytime so long as he provided one second's notice.

Everybody around Azzam understands why.

At 27, Al Muhairi is the kind of man who notices the cobblestones in the streets of Lisbon and Cascais in Portugal and tries to imagine all the centuries-ago toil involved. He notices world-renowned sailors working like artisans and figures he has to work even harder and stay even longer. Ask him how long he will be around on a given day and he might tell you, "Until the end".

He will stand there and chat with you while he works some inscrutable drill, and then he will warn you to stand back as the carbon fibres start to fly all over the place because he has spent many a night with them burrowed into his skin wreaking itching.

At age 12 or 13, he explained, he joined a discussion with his father and his father's friends and peppered it with his own 12- or 13-year-old viewpoints. Thereafter, his father called him aside and explained carefully that God had used careful reasoning in granting him two ears with only one mouth.

He listened. He always listens.

"Tries really hard," Mike Danks, the Shore Team technical manager, said. "He tries really, really hard. Always wanting to help. Very polite. Nice personality. Always tries to learn."

Al Muhairi believes in changing up things in life, has done so from oil rig to Volvo yacht, and reckons he will do so again after this. "Even when I'm working with them, I know I'm not going to be a boat-builder, I'm not going to be a professional sailor in these nine months," he said. "But, you do your best. And if you are working hard, you can do something."

Khalid said: "It's a big jump for him. He used to work in oil rigs. Now he's a Volvo sailor. He wakes up and he does his job. He has learned a lot, a lot, a lot."

He learned a lot in one wave while replacing Khalid between Portugal and England this past summer. "I was tired, I wasn't sleeping, so I had my dinner," he said. "When I had my dinner I got more sleepy. Sleeping between winches, in my life jacket, I'm lucky I had put on my harness.

"A big wave came and threw me down below the steering. Everyone was saying, 'Are you OK?"

On the trip from Portugal to Alicante where the nine-month saga will begin today in port, Al Muhairi also served as a last-minute replacement for Khalid because Walker saw fit. Khalid, in turn, betrays not one ounce of territoriality, preferring to see himself and the man he has known for eight years as a UAE-representing tandem.

"If I'm not doing it ... and Butti's doing it, I'm happy," Khalid said. "Because we are in it together ... He's like my back-up. We started sharing things, you know. It's a big step up for everyone, about the wind, about the navigation, about a lot of things."

In turn Al Muhairi said, "Lasers to Volvo 70 is a big jump," but then he had to reach for an extra "big" when illustrating himself, saying, "Dhow to Volvo is a big, big jump."

In the big-big jump, he has become bigger - physically. He has dived into one of his favourite pastimes, that of growing through listening and working, and he has thickened noticeably and enviably, as has Khalid.

"Even in the oil rig," Al Muhairi said, "I was not this much strong. I was working with heavy things, but it's good to be a sportsman, go to the gym."

It is good even if you wind up so enlarged that it makes you sort of queasy.