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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

High stakes at the Al Dhafra Water Festival as 2,000 crew fight for cash prize

Traditional sailing event attracts more than 100 boats 

Emirati Competitors sail a traditional dhow during the  Dhow race at the Mirfa  Water Festival near Abu Dhabi. Satish Kumar for The National
Emirati Competitors sail a traditional dhow during the Dhow race at the Mirfa Water Festival near Abu Dhabi. Satish Kumar for The National

Shaban Ahmed led his crew in song as his ship arrived at the start line alongside more than a hundred other dhows. Mr Ahmed was amongst more than 2,000 sailors competing in the 18-metre dhows race at the Al Dhafra Water Festival on Saturday afternoon.

There had been concern that his would be among the last ships to arrive at the starting point, more than an hour off the coastal city of Mirfa in western Abu Dhabi. Start timing had been ambiguous: after the noon prayer but also after the winds started. Some said it could all be over by 3pm, others said it might not begin until 4pm.

Renewed captains had come with their crews from Dubai and Abu Dhabi and as far as Suwaiq, on Oman’s Batinah Coast. Some were there for fame. Others were drawn by the Dh200,000 first prize.

“I came for neither money nor glory,” said Mr Ahmed, 33. “I do it all for the joy of the sea.”

Mr Ahmed and the crew of 20 young men, all from Mirfa, sat in the midday heat waiting for the wind.

The ship had been pulled in by a speedboat. The young men sat on deck enjoying the trip, passing each other packaged croissants, cigarettes and juice boxes for lunch before settling in for the way. Across the sea, other crews arrived by air-conditioned yacht, reaching the starting point fresh and ready. Mr Ahmed’s crew exchanged quick fire banter between each other and passing boats. Conversation slowed as the sun rose and they napped on the rocking dhow.

On other ships, excitement was building. Men rapped their knuckles on decks and banged out tempos on water coolers, waiting for the wind.

Patience is part of a sailor’s skill, explained Mr Ahmed.

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“The secret’s here,” said Mr Ahmed, pointing to his brain. “The crew and the captain must be balanced and must have patience. The most important thing to read is the wind. I could be last but if I catch the wind…”

Mr Ahmed is a bodyguard who speaks fluent Russian but his grandfather was a pearler who spent his summer diving into the shallow waters off these islands. He had worked on jelbut dhow much like the one Mr Ahmed was on. The jelbut is a small boat, prized for speed. Today’s jelbut use nylon sails and carbon fiber masts imported from Germany but the skills to master this agile ship are unchanged.

Most of Mr Ahmed’s crew, from Mirfa and Delma Island, had learnt to sail from their grandfathers. The men practice every week with wind, up to five hours at a time.

Mr Ahmed considers himself co-captain with the ship’s owner, Shihab Al Hammadi.

While some ship owners had named their vessels for prowess, blessing them with grand and poetic titles, Mr Al Hammadi had named his ship for his grandfather, Hamaidan.

They had two ships as serious competition: Al Zilzal “The Earthquake” and Al Asifa “The Storm”.

Al Dhafra Water Festival, now in its tenth year, had boosted interest in jelbut sailing and shipbuilding in Abu Dhabi’s western Al Dhafra region. Lucrative competitions like this have spurred interest and investment from young participants. Mr Al Hammadi’s crew, most in their twenties and early thirties, compete in up to 20 events a year.

“They are doing it because they like the challenge,” said Mr Al Hammadi, who is 28.

When they win, he takes half the prize money and the rest is divided equally amongst the crew. Much is reinvested into the sport. The body of a 18-metre jelbut cost Dh60,000 and masts can cost twice as much.

“The most important thing is the government investment,” said Mr Al Hammadi. “They want us to keep doing the traditional thing and that’s why they’re paying.”

At 3pm, the wind picked up and the seas began to ripple.

Men hoisted the sails and raised their voices as the race began.

Mr Ahmed’s excitement was short lived. Hamaidan collided with another ship early in the race.

“We were in first place. They didn’t want us to get ahead,” he after the race, disappointed. Racing over the finish line, they had another minor collision. “They should have moved,” said Mr Ahmed.

A ship captained by another Mirfa resident, Jabbar Al Hammadi placed first.

“I’m from Mirfa, so it would have been good to place first,” said Mr Ahmed. “But you know, my friend Jabbar got first and Jabbar is from Mirfa.”

The Al Dhafra Water Festival runs daily until Saturday, April 28.

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