x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Abu Dhabi's marinas are lovely but where are the sailors?

There is a mismatch between Abu Dhabi's ambition to become a global yachting destination and the dim prospects for those of us who actually sail.

I get a sinking feeling whenever I walk into the Yacht Club at the Intercontinental Hotel in Abu Dhabi. It's not that I don't enjoy the classy drinks, beautiful people or luxurious sofas, but the venue lacks an essential ingredient: sailors. I cherish sailing so much that proximity to the ocean is at the top of my priorities when I am thinking of a move. My last job was in Lagos, named by the Portuguese after the fabulous lagoons that surround the city. There, I was a regular competitor at the weekly races held every Saturday by the Lagos Yacht Club from the confluence of two creeks on the corner of Lagos Island. The club had a fleet of almost 100 boats, ranging from 50-year-old "woodies" to the state-of-the-art Hobie Cats. It also had a beach annex on another island across the harbour, where the surf-chic speed freaks kept their catamarans on the sand.

When my wife crewed for me, nothing gave me greater pleasure than watching her take an unintended dip in the sea when I pretended to lose control of the spinnaker on a run. So it was my first instinct, when Abu Dhabi popped onto my radar, to check out its sailing potential. I was excited by what I saw. Having touched down in the capital, I was on the water within days and, as luck would have it, stepped in as replacement crew for the commodore at the Abu Dhabi Sailing Club on my first race, and walked away with a cup!

But in the two years since, I have become downhearted by the prospects for sailing in Abu Dhabi. There is no shortage of grand designs for megayacht marinas and five-star beachfront hotels, but sailing seems to have been left out of the equation. There is a mismatch between Abu Dhabi's ambition to become a global yachting destination and the dim prospects for ordinary sailors. In the Abu Dhabi Sailing Club, for example, membership is restricted by the fact that you have to be a member of The Club to join, meaning a year-long waiting list and high entrance fees; the Emirates Sailing School near Raha Beach is restricted to nationals; and the Abu Dhabi International Marine Sports Club does sail training and holds regattas but no regular races. Even the wonderful racing dhows, whose helms must be Emirati, seem to have been forgotten in the rush to develop Abu Dhabi's beachfront assets.

I believe there is a strong case for bringing these sailors together into a more vibrant, inclusive sailing club, which could form the centrepiece of yachting life in the capital. Such a club would teach our youth to sail, promote the integration of sailing traditions, and add a dynamism and purpose to a marina development being planned for the new stretches of coast recently opened up by the road across Yas and Saadiyat islands. What a sight it would be to watch dozens of sailing boats slicing through the cobalt-coloured sea from the terrace of the Saadiyat Beach Golf Club or the National Museum.

Saadiyat and Yas offer world-class sailing conditions and an ideal winter base for European yachtsmen. The sea breezes blow year-round and there are hundreds of kilometres of pristine beach on our doorstep. Aldar and TDIC are developing high-end marinas on these islands, but there appears to have been no provision for the ordinary sailors and their small craft, which form the lifeblood of any boating environment. As it stands, Abu Dhabi is building boat parks without a soul.

A sailing club furnishes the harbour with picturesque white canvas, fills the club house with entertaining chatter, festoons its shelves with trophies and infects the place with a fierce competitive spirit. Winners of big national races can go on to compete for their clubs at world championships. There is a commercial imperative, too: our sails and hulls offer an advertising space often favoured by blue chip companies, jewellers and luxury retailers.

If the capital needed inspiration, it could do worse than look down the road. Dubai has developed a sailing club on Jumeirah beach, which has become the focal point for a flourishing tradition. Last week's Class 44 Championship and the forthcoming Louis Vuitton series illustrate how a vibrant grassroots sailing club can be a catalyst for attracting major international events. The time is ripe to consolidate the sailing clubs of the capital. Until Abu Dhabi realises the value of the humble sailor, its dreams of becoming a great yachting capital may remain just that or, even worse, end up as a series of lifeless boat parks.

@Email:tashby@thenational.ae Tom Ashby is the business editor of The National