Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 August 2019

End of an era as UAE's oldest sailing club waves goodbye to home

Ras Al Khaimah Sailing Association club is moving after nearly half a century

Ras Al Khaimah expatriates had precisely four social venues in the 1980s: the Sailing Club, the Norwegian Club, the Nakheel Hotel and the Ras Al Khaimah Hotel. If you weren’t Norwegian, there were just three, and the favourite was a cinder block building at the end of a long, rocky jetty on the outskirts of town.

This month, the country’s oldest sailing club could shut its doors for the last time. The jetty has been expanded into a 123 hectare stretch of land and is about to become a residential district. The Ras Al Khaimah Sailing Association will be relocated.

An eviction notice appeared on its metal gate in late June. Faded photos, fishing nets, a broken oar that serves as a trophy and other club flotsam will soon be packed into cardboard boxes as a new clubhouse is built 500 metres down the coast.

“It’s very simple; it’s not very grand at all,” said Ian Pollard, the club commodore, of the new site.

“We didn’t want anything grand.

RAS AL KHAIMAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JUNE 27 2019. Grant McCreadie, Vice Commodore, adjust the photo of the late Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed opening Raksa. Photo by Reem Mohammed / The National 
Grant McCreadie, vice commodore, adjusts the photo of the late Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed opening Raksa in the 1970s. Reem Mohammed / The National

"We want to retain the character, so we’ll take a lot of the decor, all the furniture, all the equipment, everything really. We want to retain that quirkiness of Raksa.”

The club opened during the 1970s in a beach house donated by one of the UAE's Founding Fathers, the late Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed.

Its long history, however, threatened its undoing. The agreement was made in an age of good faith. The deed to the land went missing long ago.

However, the sheikh’s arrangement was not forgotten and the government-owned Saqr Port has agreed to rehome the new clubhouse. Construction will begin once the municipality approves plans for the site.

RAS AL KHAIMAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JUNE 27 2019. Ella-May Elba-Pawsey, 4, arranges the billiard balls at Ras Al Khaimah Sailing Club. Photo by Reem Mohammed / The National
Ella-May Elba-Pawsey, 4, arranges the billiard balls at the Ras Al Khaimah sailing club. Reem Mohammed / The National

The new club will be single-storey and of comparable size, with a rooftop sun deck, a workshop and a boatyard with a ramp.

The current clubhouse is believed to have been built for Sheikh Saqr in the sixties and donated in the mid-seventies.

“We’re hoping to sort of replicate it,” said Mr Pollard. “The old beach house of the Sheikh was single-storey and we’ve just about almost copied it. If we could pick up the old building and move it a few hundred metres we would.

"Sheikh Saqr, you know, was not showy. He liked the simple life. It is such a wonderful building.”

In an era when Ras Al Khaimah was still considered a hardship posting, the sailing club was a piece of home for adventurous expatriates.

It quickly became the venue for Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations, Guy Fawkes parties and New Year's Eve dances, wedding receptions and memorials.

Yuletide spirit may have been in short supply in conservative Ras Al Khaimah, but the club was decorated with ornaments brought back by expatriates who spent their summers abroad.

Christmas trees imported from France could be procured from a short-lived downtown branch of Spinneys supermarket in the 1980s and Christmas pantomimes performing on the club’s sandy beach became a tradition for decades to come.

RAK Sailing Club was a popular venue for dances and New Year's Eve parties, like this one in the 1980s. Photo courtesy Michelle Leboutte.
The sailing club was a popular venue for dances and New Year's Eve parties, like this one in the 1980s. Courtesy Michelle Leboutte

Raksa was well established as the local port of call for Santa Claus by the early 1980s. It was the venue of choice for everybody.

“We arrived in RAK in 1982 and the sailing club was one of the few semi-public places for expats to gather and expose enough skin to swim in the water and sunbathe,” said Christine Walzer, who came to RAK in 1982 with her husband.

“The social life in RAK back in those days was amazingly active considering the few places that were available to us to gather.”

Santa Claus arrived by speed boat, dhow and even helicopter.

For other guests, finding the club proved more of a challenge and entailed driving through the dirt roads of old Ma’aridh town and down a rocky jetty hidden by a great bush.

The jetty washed out after storms and heavy rains, exposing treacherous boulders.

But inside the gates was a community. There was simply nowhere else to go. Midweek barbecues at the Sailing Club were a regular feature of the social calendar, as were Mahjongg Tuesdays and dinner parties.

“We went once a week,” said Cynthia Leboutte, who moved to RAK in January 1978 with her husband. “Every Thursday as that was the weekend. It was a place to relax and pass the time, catch up with friends.”

Cynthia Leboutte unwinds at the RAK Sailing Club in the early 1990s. "It was a place to relax and pass the time, catch up with friends.” Photo courtesy Michelle Leboutte.
Cynthia Leboutte unwinds at the sailing club in the early 1990s. Courtesy Michelle Leboutte

Ms Leboutte honed her darts skills and her daughters swam, sailed and paddled in a bay known for its shipyard and fish market.

“To my knowledge it was opened in mid-seventies by some “Englishmen”,” said Erik Johansen, who came to RAK in February, 1981, as a manager for Norcem Cement Norway.

The Norwegians led the RAK social scene with their own club and school in a neighbourhood popularly known as as Norwegian Hill.

But Fridays were for sailing, waterskiing, fishing and camping with children on the other side of town at the Sailing Club.

Sailing competitions were sponsored by Grindlays Bank, British Bank of the Middle East, Union Cement Co, Norcem Norway and Air France.

A regatte in the Maaridh harbour at the RAK Sailing Club in November, 1989. Photo courtesy Michelle Leboutte.
November, 1989. A Raksa race in the Maaridh harbour. Courtesy: Michelle Leboutte

“I think that 50 per cent of the Norwegian families were members in the Sailing Club,” Mr Johansen said.

“So it was a good mix of expats. I felt it was very important for us since we socialised with expats from all over the world.

"It was also very important for our children to play with children speaking English.”

It was also the only beach in RAK where women could wear bathing suits.

“The sailing club was screened off for privacy and by law at the time, by a tall wooden fence made from planks with large knot holes in them,” said Ms Walzer.

RAS AL KHAIMAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JUNE 27 2019. Ras Al Khaimah Sailing Club. Photo by Reem Mohammed / The National
A kayaker in Al Maaridh harbour. Reem Mohammed / The National

The club’s tenuous connection with the shore shifted about 15 years ago. The original jetty road was demolished and replaced with a land extension connecting it to the Hilton Beach Club and Spa.

Land reclamations now extend 15 kilometres along RAK’s north coast, including shoreline extensions and island developments delayed after the 2008 recession.

The club remains an introduction to maritime life in the Gulf. It averages about 50 members and serves a much wider community.

RAS AL KHAIMAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JUNE 27 2019. Ella-May Elba-Pawsey, 4, learns how to sail at Ras Al Khaimah Sailing Club. Photo by Reem Mohammed / The National
Ella-May Elba-Pawsey, 4, learns how to sail at Ras Al Khaimah Sailing Club. Reem Mohammed / The National

Biweekly races run from September until late June. Thursday nights are for yoga and oven-fired pizza. There is a kayaking group and plans to regroup the mahmel rowing team, the traditional Gulf rowing introduced to the club in 2011 by former Australian commodore Daniel Zeytoun Millie in partnership with the neighbourhood boatbuilder, Abdulla Al Mansoori.

“It’s so easy to put up all these fantastic big fancy buildings and then forgot where we came from and I think that’s something to hold on to,” said commodore Pollard. “It’s not just a place to relax but to socialise and get a grip on what Ras Al Khaimah has got."

Updated: August 4, 2019 07:31 PM

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