x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Al Gharbia festival has won fans over a year at a time

If there is one thing the Al Gharbia Watersports Festival can say it is that it is helping bring people back to the water not just as competitors but as a community.

The Al Gharbia Watersports Festival in Al Mirfa has been successful in bringing people back to the water not just as competitors but also as a community.
The Al Gharbia Watersports Festival in Al Mirfa has been successful in bringing people back to the water not just as competitors but also as a community.

People have lived for decades in Abu Dhabi without seeing the shoreline at Al Mirfa just 150 kilometres west. One road in from the E11 presents a long stretch of sand, resourceful vegetation and occasional oryxes.

Reaching a sparse town, you might feel surprised to see a large bank, then another.

Yet on Saturday night, the beach bustled with a fulcrum of local pride.

In a community where a 19 year old named Ahmed might see you walking along the road, stop and insist upon driving you to wherever, thousands halted to gaze up at a laser show and a fireworks display.

At a series of booths, local women proudly sold the garments they had created just for this Al Gharbia Watersports Festival.

Sport as powerful tool had struck again. Noting this "undiscovered place," Obaid Al Mazrouei, the festival manager, said: "By using the tool, by using the sports festival, we try to promote Al Gharbia as much as we can."

Across four years, he has overseen the sports expand from two to 11 at this Western Region Development Council event, such that he said: "I believe it's fixed now after a few years, and I'm positive about this feeling that the Al Gharbia Watersports Festival will get bigger and bigger."

With the Al Mirfa resort hotel just across the way, contestants of 20 nationalities competed for 10 days in everything from kitesurfing to surf-ski paddling to swimming to sailing to multiple surf-and-sand endeavors.

Three police teams joined the sand football and volleyball competitions. Kitesurfers arrived again and again for their various days, with some sleeping in their vans.

Sailing instructors gave lessons throughout, with the youngest pupil eight years old and with entire families coming from places such as Ruwais.

"It's good to get them back on the water, you know," said Stuart Downie, who instructed along with John Gaughan. "The locals here before all the infrastructure started were water people. So it's good to get them back on the water and" - grinning - "off those jet skis."

From the safety boat, he would coach them through on the Laser -class boat until, he said: "It kind of clicks all together, you know?"

The evening crowds confirmed the contention that the festival matters greatly as a seafront instalment among other annual festivals. Seemingly every child and teenager from the area had come to scramble around or hang out.

Women sat together by the shore.

You might run across 16-year-old Mohammed Al Hammadi, whose football side won their tournament. "It was amazing," he said through an interpreter.

Mnawar Jamil Shourakaa, a chronicler of all the results, answered his own question: "The festival has been a success. Why? Because it brought all these people together to bring a unity to the society, which it already had, but it gave them a place to be together."

One local swimming contestant had built his fitness regimen around the festival, said Thea van der Westhuizen, who has competed for four years in surf-skiing, from the first year when she "fell off five times and nearly drowned" to this fourth year when she won by 35 minutes.

Through her job at the Higher College of Technology in Abu Dhabi, and through the Higher College students who help organise the swimming, Van der Westhuizen had seen a local man shape himself anew across four years from overweight into an athlete whose family had come to watch him.

"He looked like Hercules" in comparison, she said. "He was all muscled. For him living in Mirfa, this was the big thing happening every year."

Word has begun to fan out. On a trip to her native South Africa in February 2011, Van der Westhuizen met some surf-ski paddlers who wound up coming to the 2011 festival.

By the time of her next trip, their prize money and T-shirts had other paddlers in South Africa chattering about coming not to Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but to Al Mirfa.

And through social media, along came Alberto Corominas, a Spanish surf-ski athlete who travels the world and who finished second in the competition to Hayden Smith, who came from Australia.

Corominas posted photographs of his adventure for his social-media followers, and revelled in the locally prepared meals, camel rides and dune-bashing.

Said Van der Westhuizen: "The location of the little islands and the way the tides come in, it makes the water perfect for international water races."

She drove Corominas on Saturday to the Abu Dhabi airport, where he would make off for home and for, on Saturday night, the Barcelona-Real Madrid football match at Camp Nou.

"His words were, 'See you next year'," she said.

 

cculpepper@thenational.ae

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