x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Traditional mahmel rowing race puts expats and Emiratis in same boat

At the first annual Autumn Open Water Rowing Regatta at the Ras al Khaimah Sailing Association, expatriates and nationals managed the 30ft mahmel, the traditional teak rowing boat of the UAE.

The RAK Free Trade Zone rowers, right, compete with the Al Shaheen team yesterday.
The RAK Free Trade Zone rowers, right, compete with the Al Shaheen team yesterday.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // Few would have thought that a broken oar could bring the community of Ras al Khaimah together. But a flimsy piece of driftwood was the coveted prize in a race that introduced the traditional UAE rowing boat to the wider population in RAK yesterday.

The splash of nine-foot oars and the cheers of children initiated the first annual Autumn Open Water Rowing Regatta at the Ras al Khaimah Sailing Association (Raksa), where expatriates and Emiratis managed the 30ft mahmel, the traditional teak rowing boat of the UAE. The prize was not a sparkling trophy or cup, but in fact a broken oar, passed from winner to winner each year.

It is the first time expatriates have been involved in a mahmel regatta, and they managed it with the aid of boats loaned to them by Emirati patrons and folk societies.

Abdulla al Mansoori, one of the country's most famous mahmel builders, who donated boats to the event, said: "I'm more than happy and I encourage everybody to take part in these kinds of races and to preserve the races. If Emiratis see other people doing this sport, they become more interested themselves."

Four teams of 10 men and women battled through the 2km race in the historic Maaridh harbour, flanked by the sailing club and RAK's dhow and mahmel boat yards.

The sport has boomed among Emiratis in RAK in the past six years, a phenomenon widely attributed to Daniel Zeytoun Millie, the Raksa commodore, who works at the Men's College when he is not at sea himself. Mr al Mansoori said: "I noticed that this sport is much, much more popular than before because the Higher Colleges of Technology [HCT] is involved."

Mr Zeytoun Millie has fostered an 18-man HCT team since 2004. Now he feels it is time to introduce the sport to the rest of the community.

He said: "A lot of people here today come from places like India and Europe where they have indigenous rowing sports. The sport of rowing is quite universal.

"We are a community-based sailing club and our community now is not just for the expatriates. We're for the local population as well and if we see that rowing is a unifying sport then we can easily get involved in more sides of the community."

It seemed to be working yesterday.

A group of men from Al Shaheen, an outdoor adventure company, tested out one of the 450-kilogram boats.

Brian Parry, the director of adventure activities at Al Shaheen, said: "A lot of our national students are losing touch with their opportunity to race so if they can do it on an education course with us it might actually just remind them that the opportunity is there.

"Also, a lot of our staff are expatriates from around the world and it helps them understand our international links because a lot of them have touched different kinds of rowing around the world."

For some of his squad, it was the wrong touch. As he finished his sentence, a piece of their boat broke off. After some serious discussion, it was decided that the piece was loose before.

Abdulla Ahmed, 21, a rower from the RAK's Men College, provided commentary to friends as the racers lined up beside the RAK Police boats in Khor al Mataf. He eyed lucky number 14, manned by the RAK Free Trade Zone, as a favourite for its prior success in Dubai and Abu Dhabi races.

Mr Ahmed changed his prediction seconds into the race as the Raksa team splashed ahead for a strong lead, stroking in perfect unison. Seven weeks of early morning practice had paid off.

It was a race for second between lucky number 14 and Al Shaheen.

At this point, Al Shaheen's Jasem Reehan, by no means a man of small proportions, held up his broken paddle - sadly not the same broken paddle awarded to the winner. It looked like a toothpick in the giant's hands. Worst still, it was Al Shaheen's third broken paddle.

Unable to accept defeat, they began to chant.

The Raksa team cleared the finish first, cheered on by a group of young girls and their teddy bear. Al Shaheen finished third, fractions of a second behind the RAK Free Trade Zone.

The other RAK Free Trade Zone boat arrived in fourth place a few minutes later.

No times were kept but it did not seem to matter.

Taqdees Iqbal, 33, a quality co-ordinator from India, said: "I love rowing, I love boating but obviously competition is hard. I mean, I wanted to sing, 'Row, row, row your boat'."

After the race, Raksa members expressed surprise at their victory.

Jane McCallum said: "We just pulled together people from all walks of life with no experience mostly. It felt amazing. We didn't come into this thinking we would win, not that winning is the only thing. It felt really good because we were together. We were just flowing."

azacharias@thenational.ae