x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Sheikh steps in to save RAK sailing club

Country's oldest sailing club will be demolished to make way for a new property development, but plans are afoot to rebuild the club 500 metres down the road.

Caretaker Denesh Kumar lives at the RAK Sailing Club and is the host serving refreshments during club activities.
Caretaker Denesh Kumar lives at the RAK Sailing Club and is the host serving refreshments during club activities.

??RAS AL KHAIMAH // A woman in a Laser dinghy leans backwards over the side of her boat until she is nearly submerged in water, catching the wind in her sails to win the first of the weekly Friday races.

Her young fans watch from the beach, awestruck.

“Barbara,” sighs Alfredo Prodi, a Grade 4 student several decades her junior. He says her name like an incantation. “She’s the best.”

Alfredo is the favourite to win the children’s league of the Commodore’s Cup and Barbara Couldrey, who has sailed here since the 1980s, is favourite to take the cup.

The finals at the RAK Sailing Association (Raksa) will be held this Friday, the culmination of 20 weeks of racing.

Alfredo is not concerned about that. One day, he hopes to compete against Barbara.

Until recently, it looked like he would never get the chance. The club’s existence was threatened by a 1,230,503-square-metre residential development that will obliterate the pier Raksa has sat on since 1977.

But Raksa will live on, thanks to the generous donation of a RAK royal. Sheikh Faisal bin Saqr, the chair of the RAK Finance Department and RAK Free Trade Zone, has pledged Dh1 million to rebuild the club 500 metres away from its current location.

“This club carries old traditions and we want to preserve it for the people,” said Sheikh Faisal. “When the Europeans came to RAK, His Highness Sheikh Saqr wanted to give them a lifestyle they knew and a place they could call home. We want to keep it in a way that it continues to serve the wider community.”

No exact date has been given for the old Raksa’s demolition, but Sheikh Faisal plans to build the new facility before then beside the coastguard station, where stronger tides will bring fresher water.

Sheikh Faisal’s father, the late Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed who ruled RAK for 62 years, opened Raksa and dubbed it the “Norwegian Club”. It was so named because of the Scandinavians who made up the bulk of the expat community at that time.

The original name is still used on official documentation and legend has it the concrete building once housed the sheikh’s own seaplane.

Like the harbour it overlooks, Raksa is modest but well loved.

On June’s hottest days, members take refuge inside its bamboo walls under fishnet-draped ceilings.

The walls are covered with club photos that date back to the 1970s, shelves are cluttered with tarnished trophies and broken oars that carry the names of victorious sailors.

“The attraction of this place is we are really under the radar,” says Daniel Zeytoun Millie, the Raksa commodore. “When other clubs come here, they see what their clubs used to look like. We’re actually a part of the place; we’re really a part of the harbour community.”

The club has 65 members but belongs to the whole community – sailors and landlubbers alike.

When Santa Claus and the Easter bunny visit RAK, the sailing club is their venue of choice. Thanksgiving turkeys, iftar soups and Saint Patrick’s Day stews have bubbled and brewed in the club kitchen.

Former members flew in from across the world to celebrate the club’s 33rd anniversary last year.

“This place is where families come,” said Christie Grieve, a teacher and member of nine years. “You just don’t realise the wonder of it when you live here.”

Sailing events at the club are not limited to strict competition. Next week there will be a whale shark search and on Friday there will be a sail-by of “anything that can float” before the club takes its annual summer recess until September.

Despite its low profile, the club is integrated into a neighbourhood famed in the Gulf for its mariners.

Laser and topper dinghies are repaired at a local boat yard and Zouzou, the club’s traditional UAE jelbut sailboat, was built across the harbour by the renowned shipbuilder Abdulla al Mansoori.

Memberships grows through word of mouth. Until a few years ago, the only landmark for finding Raksa was a large bush that hid the pier entrance.

New roads will make access easier and when they do, all will be welcomed.

azacharias@thenational.ae