x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

From wet behind the ears to worldly-wise

Adil Khalid and Butti Al Muhairi have battled elements within and without during a gruelling race across the world. They are better men for it. Chuck Culpepper reports from Miami.

Adil Khalid has come a long way from the first leg of the Volvo Ocean Race after the Emirati was drafted into the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crew. Nick Dana / Volvo Ocean Race
Adil Khalid has come a long way from the first leg of the Volvo Ocean Race after the Emirati was drafted into the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crew. Nick Dana / Volvo Ocean Race

Not many people can compare sleeping in the cabin of a surging sailboat in the boisterous Southern Ocean with sleeping in the cabin of a surging sailboat in the calmer Atlantic.

Adil Khalid can, and his contrast proves counter-intuitive.

Of the Southern Ocean between New Zealand and South America, he said: "It was freezing cold. The sprays. When you're sleeping you have to wear your socks. You touch the boat, it's freezing cold. You have to wear gloves. You have to wear thermals."

But then he adds: "It's cold weather like at home with the air conditioning, and we sleep. It was quite a nice leg. I liked it."

Of the Atlantic leg, off the Americas: "I couldn't sleep. Sweating. Hot."

Not many people have a year when they see their first-ever falling snow in Beijing, learn to surf in Brazil, gaze from atop Table Mountain in Cape Town and drive remarkably south from Miami.

Butti Al Muhairi has, and his take conjures an American pleasure: long drives.

"Ninety minutes south, and all the bridges in between" along the strand of land from Miami toward Key West and, he said: "If you look to the right side, you can see the beach, and if you look to the left side, you can see the beach as well. It's amazing.

"Driving in the USA, when you are driving for a few hours, you don't feel bored. Because if you keep driving, there's always a new thing coming your way. It's not the same thing."

During the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing campaign in the Volvo Ocean Race, two men of the UAE have become men of the world. With Khalid, 23, as the designated Emirati sailor, and Al Muhairi, 28, as the reserve Emirati sailor and shore-team member, cultures have melded. Awareness has flowered.

The boat has not thrived as hoped, but in general the cultural experiment has thrived maybe even beyond as hoped.

"That side of things has been really successful, in my opinion," the Australian bowman Wade Morgan said. "I'm thinking there should have been more [Emiratis]."

In the category of people-do-surprise-you, Khalid has shown sturdier innards than anyone imagined. Over the months you could hear members of the vast team – crew, shore, support – speculate as to his potential withdrawal, about whether he would return from mid-stopover trips home.

His leap was steep, from point-to-point sprints to round-the-world gruel. Having mastered the individual game to various accolades and Olympic participation, and having won the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority's choose-the-sailor contest among 120-some contestants, he had come upon a bewildering team concept.

He would confess (commendably) to nervousness before early ocean legs. More seasoned sailors wondered if a hard leg might ruin him.

Well, listen to the chorus from the stopover last week in Miami:

Ian Walker, the skipper: "I wouldn't have given him a greater than 50 per cent chance of finishing the race at the start."

Morgan: "I think when he came to the team he had probably never been in a team environment before. That's changed a lot. He's figured it out."

Al Muhairi: "He is stronger."

Nick Dana, the media crew member: "He's definitely more confident with everything on board. You can tell he is not as much about reaction anymore, it's more instinct with him."

Walker: "And, you know, he's done a good job picking up a few things on the boat, no questions asked. He's always had a good feel for the boat, and now he understands that much more."

Rob Greenhalgh, the veteran watch leader and a practitioner of candour: "He's good, to be honest. He's come a long way, he's learned a lot from where he came, with no big-boat experience. He's a nice guy. He's a good team member. I don't think he'll jump at the chance to sail around the world again, but … he's done a good job."

Pause for a wink: "When he turns up at work, that is."

Craig Satterthwaite, the veteran watch leader: "He did well in the last leg. He tried really hard. I think when we do something continuously for a long time [say, three days running], he understands it and it's easy for him."

Walker: "And, you know, I was wrong."

Morgan: "Back then, he was doing it because people expected him to do. Now, he's doing it a lot because he wants to be here."

Dana: "I think he's really carved out a place in professional sailing for himself."

Al Muhairi: "Adil's going to be a professional sailor."

By now, Khalid claims – believably – to feel zero nervousness approaching a leg. He tells of getting sick on the way out of China and says: "It's fine. You throw up once and it's fine. You get through it."

He says: "You keep going day by day and, at the end, it's like you don't know you've crossed the ocean already." And: "It's like, mentally, I have to fight through it."

And: "I was born for this thing and I've got to keep doing it, trying my best."

Al Muhairi's path stayed along the shore but specialised in upwards turns. From the get-go he won unanimous praise for diligence. "Tries hard. Tries really, really hard," Mike Danks, the shore team technical manager, said during training in Portugal.

In Al Muhairi's words, he moved from the "fibreglass" of oil rig work (not for the meek) to the "carbon fibre" of sailing (not for the lazy), and way back in Portugal you could spot him drilling carbon fibre, chips spraying everywhere. Boat-building, he said, "is something that's a new experience in my life."

To measure the progress of his prowess, you could do worse than his grasp of the English language. He had joined the team as an alternate who impressed the ADTA, and the first day, at a meeting at the Abu Dhabi International Marine Club, he said: "I can't understand anything they are saying. I don't know if they give me a good word. Now it's totally different, joking with them and laughing and everything."

Now he uses English idioms such as "cross the fingers" and "touch the wood".

He honed strong working relationships, especially with sailors, and he says of Greenhalgh – "What's inside, he will tell you. He doesn't keep anything inside. And he's teaching. He's teaching me lots of things" – and Justin Slattery – "You sail with him in a day, you cannot learn [as much] in a sailing school in a month."

Al Muhairi became an indelible part of the tapestry, even holidaying on that drive toward Key West with Jeremy and Jo Elliott, respectively the sail co-ordinator and the team logistics manager.

Of those cut loose in lay-offs set for after the Lisbon stopover, Al Muhairi said, "For me, it's really hard to see the guys leaving."

Greenhalgh: "A great guy to have around, good character, very diligent and enjoys working on the team."

Morgan wishes there were 10 of Al Muhairi around and says: "He has improved a lot with his understanding and now, with any small cultural difference. He understands who we are. He's one of the guys and he gets a lot of slang."

By the time of the Miami stopover and their first foray into America, here were two adaptable sorts who know their way around the world.

Khalid had jetted in from the UAE one night and, after some work on the boat the next morning, stood on the dock eyeing the future. "My dream," he reiterated, "is to make a UAE team and take it around the world.

"To be a coach or a manager of a UAE team, take a team to the Olympics. This is my target. An Emirati team in the future. I think I'll do it in the future. You'll see me one day and say, 'Oh, you did it!'"

Within two Miami days, he had stopped off to join a beach volleyball match ongoing amid the stopover. Within an hour after that, he had bolted over to the Abu Dhabi racing tents to grab a pile of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing shirts.

"For my teammates," he grinned, and he meant the volleyball.

Arriving well before Azzam or Khalid, Al Muhairi had stationed himself in South Beach, the vivacious, art deco enclave of Miami Beach. He had been cooking for himself. "My wife, she taught me for two weeks how to do pizza margherita," he said. He would run each day, six or seven kilometres along the beach. He had found himself a kick-boxing gym for extra training. "I feel that I'm really fit now," he said. "When you are healthy, you feel you are light, you know?"

He and his wife expect their first child in September. He readies for a future of anything, having already made one drastic career change. "I love to change," he said. "The people who don't, don't trust themselves, and you don't believe you are strong enough that you can do it."

While Khalid played some volleyball in the post-sail balance of a Friday afternoon, this other changed man walked from the boat back toward the tents. A part of the team, one of the guys, fluent in English, fluent in banter, incurably curious and knowledgeable about the world, he spotted Morgan, seated and answering questions from a reporter.

Al Muhairi grinned and joked: "None of that is true!"

cculpepper@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE