x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

UAE yacht race hopefuls vie for spot

From an initial field of 120, three Emiratis are left competing for a place in a grueling ocean race that will cover 39,000 nautical miles.

Adil Khalid works outs on a yacht under the supervision of Ian Walker, the skipper of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing. He is hoping to join the Volvo Ocean Race team.
Adil Khalid works outs on a yacht under the supervision of Ian Walker, the skipper of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing. He is hoping to join the Volvo Ocean Race team.

ABU DHABI // One is a former Olympian. Another is descended from pearl divers. And the third candidate for an open spot on the Abu Dhabi boat in the Volvo Ocean Race has sailing in his blood.

This Thursday, one of three Emiratis - Adil Khalid, 22, Abdul Aziz Abdulla, 27, and Butti Al Muhairi, 26 -will be named as the first Arab to take part in the world's most gruelling sailing race.

The man chosen will be among a team of 11 who will leave Alicante, Spain in October. They will head to South Africa, stopping in Abu Dhabi two months after leaving European waters.

After two weeks in the capital, the race will continue to New Zealand, before crossing the southern Pacific and around the Cape Horn.

Stopping in Brazil and Miami, the teams will race across the Atlantic to Portugal and northern France before crossing the finish line off Ireland next summer.

By then, they will have sailed some 39,000 nautical miles, experiencing winds of up to 110km/h and waves up to 30 metres high.

It is not for the faint of heart.

Three months ago, exactly 120 Emiratis were hoping the man in the boat could be him. Since then, the field has been narrowed through tests on land and at sea.

The candidates have undergone psychometric examinations and physical tests, and for the past fortnight they have taken gruelling trials at sea on a 21m training boat, used by the Puma team in the 2008-2009 race. A new boat for the Abu Dhabi team is been built in Italy.

The team's skipper, Ian Walker, himself a double Olympic medallist and Volvo Ocean Race veteran, said the selection process had been "a demanding assessment of both physical and mental strength as well as their ability to be part of a team".

The youngest of the trio, Mr Khalid, from Dubai, started sailing at just 12.

A coach at the Emirates Sailing School (ESS) in Abu Dhabi, he has already flown his country's flag at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and also competed in numerous Asian and Middle East regattas.

"It is my dream," he said. "I want to compete, win and hoist my country's flag up for everyone to see. It would make me very proud. I know I have the sailing skills but need to work on my physical strength."

Khalid described sailing a Volvo Open 70, the type of boat used in the race, as very demanding, requiring "a different type of strength than say solo competitive sailing."

"But I want it," he said. "I am ready."

Aziz, too, has a wealth of experience. The 27-year-old from Abu Dhabi has been an assistant coach at ESS for six years. He teaches kiteboarding in his spare time. He is not the only one in his family accustomed to working in extreme conditions - he comes from generations of fishermen and pearlers.

"This is something I have grown up with and I want to carry on the tradition," he said. "It would be an amazing honour to be able to represent Abu Dhabi."

Al Muhairi, a wellhead platform operator in the Umm al Dalkh oilfield, learnt about the 2008 Volvo Ocean Race on the internet and knew he wanted to be part of it.

"My family has sailed for more than 60 years, travelling on dhows between here and India," said the resident of Al Rahba. "I know and love the sea.

"For me, the biggest challenge will be how I can best represent Abu Dhabi globally."

Mubarak al Muhairi, the director general of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, which manages the team, said the trials had "already been a remarkable journey.

"And for one of these three very talented and dynamic young sailors, it is an adventure which has only just begun."

eharnan@thenational.ae