x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Yachts at starting line in Sailing Arabia The Tour

Fourteen-day race to Bahrain and Muscat is the first of its kind in the region.

The Team RAK yacht leaves Abu Dhabi in her wake to begin a race in Bahrain.
The Team RAK yacht leaves Abu Dhabi in her wake to begin a race in Bahrain.

ABU DHABI // Emirati amateur sailors are hoping to give the professionals a run for their money in a race, starting today, along part of the coast of the Arabian Peninsula.

In Sailing Arabia The Tour, the first race of its kind in the region, Team RAK will crew their Farr 30 yacht with both old hands and newcomers to sailing.

The 14-day event will pit the RAK crew against three teams from Oman, one from Bahrain and one from France.

The 1,408km race starts in Bahrain today and finishes in Muscat, with stops in Doha, Abu Dhabi, Ras al Khaimah, Zighy Bay and Mussanah. The boats are expected to reach Abu Dhabi on Thursday.

The crew consists of six or seven men for each leg of the race, and there will be substitutions made at some of the stops along the route.

Toby Haws, the team captain and manager of RAK's Royal Yacht Club, said the race was laying the foundations for future Emiratis to take part in international competitions.

He said there was "a great deal" of interest in sailing in RAK.

"The whole idea of the Royal Yacht Club was to get people on the water," he said. "We have everyone from top-notch racers all the way down to people who have never been in a dinghy."

Yousef bin Lahej, one of the Emirati crew members, said his inclusion on the boat would boost the image of sailing among locals.

"They call it modern sailing," said the 31-year-old, who has been sailing for 15 year and represented his country in the Beijing Olympics.

"It is seen as a western expat sport. Emiratis don't associate themselves with it - but they do with dhow racing."

That, he said, was changing. "We've had the Louis Vuitton Trophy and the RC-44 Team Sea Dubai. We've had a calibre of events but we have to change the mindsets of Emirati people."

He admitted 2009's abortive attempt to host the America's Cup - which was eventually halted by a New York court - had been a "debacle." But despite that, he said, RAK "hasn't turned its back on sailing." Instead, he said, local enthusiasts "got even more positive."

The team's skipper, Mark Feilberg, said sailing was in a sorry state when he came to the UAE eight years ago, with obsolete materials such as cloth sails still in use.

However, he said, the sport has grown since then, a trend he expects to continue. "It's a sport that anyone can do," he said. "When the kids get involved, the parents get drawn into it."

And he expects his motley crew to give their more seasoned rivals a run for their money.

"The boats are all the same, so it'll be down to who sails the smartest," he said. "We'll take a few scalps from those professional teams."