x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Optimism shines for Adil Khalid

The young Emirati sailor still possesses a Hollywood smile and shy nature, but he is amazed at how much he has changed over the past year.

Adil Khalid sailed solo in the 2008 Beijing Olympics before joining the crew.
Adil Khalid sailed solo in the 2008 Beijing Olympics before joining the crew.

The wait staff in Portugal called him "the orange juice guy" for his propensity to stop in for tall glasses of sunshine, and if that counted as a fresh incarnation for Adil Khalid, it would not be the only one in 2011.

Over one such glass at his chosen corner restaurant in the mini-mall near the security gate of the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing headquarters, in late September, Khalid flashed that electric Hollywood perma-smile and marvelled at his metamorphosis from the January version of himself.

"Sometimes you sit, like you sit there laughing," he said. "People say, 'Why are you laughing?' I'm laughing at myself because I've changed a lot. Sometimes it's hard to believe. You're like, 'Oh, I'm totally different.'"

The former Khalid, of course, sailed solo in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, won a whole plethora of things around the Gulf region before even so much as bothering to turn 20 and, at 22, became the Emirati chosen from 120-some hopefuls for the Volvo Ocean Race.

The latter Khalid turned 23 in October, has become a father in June and has lurched into an ocean-racing world so bewilderingly different from his background that he readily and admirably tattles on himself.

As a regular excellent athlete beforehand, he said, he knew the routine of waking up, working out, practising and ending the day at some point perhaps north of diligent but south of fervid. Now he has breathed among elite sailors whose toll of toil sprawls across the days, dwarfs that of Olympians, makes the calendar nebulous and ventures into quirky-but-vital chores.

He describes a world of "how to sail-paint, how to drill in the boat, how to slice rope, how to fix the boat" and, he says, "you learn to fix the winches, you know?"

Yes, he has thought that ocean-sailor thought: "Sometimes you come to a point where you think, What am I doing? What am I doing here? It comes in your mind and you start fighting with yourself: 'No, no, you have to do this, this is what I was born for, because this is my country, I love my country. You think about your country, your grandfather. You have so many people behind you."

He has absorbed the ribbing all the guys take - and for him on two fronts: "The waves, they hit me, and I start closing my eyes. They say, 'You are sleeping! You are sleeping!' I hold something, I'm closing my eyes. 'Wake up!'" And then, "When I finish my four hours, I'm straightaway to the bed. Sometimes you can sleep, sometimes not. You get used to it."

He tells of flinching at the workload, furthering his admiration for Butti Al Muhairi, the reserve Emirati sailor and bastion of diligence: "Butti is a worker. He's better than me, I promise you."

Al Muhairi said: "Adil is trying his best and improving a lot himself. And he's a good sailor."

Through Khalid's media dealings through the year, a shimmering personality has sprouted, far from the 12 year old who came to Sid Bensalah's tutelage at Dubai International Marine Club not all that long ago. That first day Bensalah spent with three Khalid brothers, Adil might - or might not have - uttered one word.

Even through his talented teens, Bensalah said, "If you would ask him, how was it, what did you think, what do we need to do, it was very hard to get any kind of word out of his mouth. Very shy, very polite. You would never hear him, to be honest with you."

Flip past the Olympics to a fallow period when he struggled for funding and then to the Volvo choice - "From our side, we are very proud," Bensalah said - and Bensalah told Azzam skipper Ian Walker: "Your main challenge is basically to try to figure out what's going on in his head, because sometimes it's very hard to get any feedback because he's a very shy person."

Craig Satterthwaite, the watch leader who mentors the young Emiratis, said: "Adil doesn't say so much, so sometimes it's hard to know what he's thinking."

He does grow effusive, though, when waxing about promoting sailing in the UAE. ("He always had that killer smile," Bensalah said.) And when foreseeing the Abu Dhabi stopover set for early January. ("Everyone will be so happy!" Khalid said.) And when envisioning entering a Volvo someday with a crew entirely Emirati ...

"I have so many dreams in my life," he said, the orange juice just about drained.

cculpepper@thenational.ae