x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

'My presence gave us a fat chance to win'

The National's William Johnson teams up with Olympic sailing gold medallist Shirley Robertson in a new entertainment initiative to hit the Gulf Region.

DUBAI // Taking part in a professional yacht race with absolutely no experience of sailing is a thrill-seeking ride that has so far been available only to the privileged few. Thanks to an initiative by a European-based group it is expected to become the next big thing to satisfy the Gulf Region's desire for imaginative corporate entertainment packages.

I was invited to be the "Sixth Man" on a catamaran skippered by Shirley Robertson, the brilliant Scottish yachtswoman who won successive gold medals at the Sydney and Athens Olympics in two different classes. It was an irresistible offer, even though it meant adding 15 stones of prime British beef to the weight load which turned out to be an insurmountable handicap in our battle around Dubai Marina against three other deceptively quick vessels.

Our race, a 10-minute sprint around a course between two marks about 800 metres apart was part of the Arabian Extreme 40 Challenge which began with a three-day meet at Mina Seyahi in Dubai and concludes with Act II in Muscat today and tomorrow. At the end of all that, one lucky Omani sailor out of more than 200 contenders will be rewarded with a place on Dame Ellen McArthur's former boat, renamed Musandam after the Omani peninsular, to complete a crew of five on a round-the-world challenge.

If the rookie sailor completes that circumnavigation, he will become the first from his country to achieve the demanding feat. And if, as is the plan, the voyage is completed non-stop, the Omani will be the first from an Arab nation to join an illustrious maritime band who have done so. Two who got within tantalising reach of claiming that exciting prize helped to guide me around our two-lap journey in Robertson's "Oman Air" boat.

Khamis al Anbouri and Ali Ambusandy enthusiastically carried out the instructions of our blonde skipper and two other more experienced crew mates in Fraser Brown and David Carr. The "Sixth Man" was offered the chance to skip back and forth along the netting which forms what many would regard as a disturbing see-through base to the boat. I took the view, however, that it would probably do more harm than good and opted to just sit as still as possible avoiding the swinging sail and the rapidly moving limbs of those doing the hard work.

Some of the other so-called VIPs who made up the numbers in the five races which took place that afternoon were more willing helpers and were transferred off the racing boats into the supporting vessel clearly invigorated by their efforts. So was I, despite making no contribution to our third place finish behind "Oman Sail", a craft that proved the dominant force over the three days, benefiting from a sustained period of training of the crew under the leadership of skipper Chris Draper.

Draper takes a commanding lead of 15 points into today's second phase in Muscat. Robertson, who admitted to having a "bad day at the office" when sailed with her, is in third place behind "iShares" but ahead of the other competitor "Teamaqua". "Let's hope we have better fortunes in Muscat," said Robertson. "But in these short races you can't afford to make any mistakes because there is no time to rectify them. We made a couple of errors today and they proved costly.

"But this type of racing is great fun and I'm sure it is going to catch on with the public in this area. We've just completed our second year of five events in Europe and that has been a tremendous success." wjohnson@thenational.ae