Land Ahoy: UAE Seafaring

SAIL ON: Some 112 boats took part in the UAE’s dhow race in May, a record number for the competition that was launched in 1991.

UAE seafaring heritage revived with dhow racing

BY Martin Dokoupil

Once on the brink of extinction, traditional dhow sailing is on the rise in the United Arab Emirates with the final race of the season having taken place in May in Dubai. The race drew in a record number of 112 slender wooden boats with triangular sails, better known as dhows.

Dhow sailing, which used to provide a major income for tribes along the Arab Gulf coast through trading and pearl diving, was nearly lost after the pearling industry vanished post-World War II, and the dangerous diving jobs were later replaced with more comfortable ones at oil companies.

Some 4,500 dhows and 74,000 men operated at the Gulf pearling industry’s peak in the early 1900s. An economic depression in the 1930s and arrival of cultured pearls from Japan ushered its decline. The pearl income of Bahrain, a hub for most of the Gulf pearl trade, fell to $200,000 per harvest by 1949 from $1.5 million in 1896, a research paper by British archaeologist Robert Carter shows.

But, it was not until 1991 that Dubai decided to commission a major long-distance dhow race to preserve the tradition of old pearling boats competing on return from months-long expeditions at sea.

At the time, organizers assembled a fleet of 53 43-foot boats to compete in the first edition of the long distance sailing race called Al Gaffal, or “Return” in Arabic.

“I do not think there was anyone from that time still sailing because … we started with old people,” says Saeed Harib, Vice President of the Dubai International Marine Club.

“Most of them had kids and… when they were sailing with their fathers they were 10. Today, they are skippers,” he adds.

Racing dhows, which unlike the old ones have masts and booms from carbon fiber, may carry up to as 150 sand bags along with water barrels as stabilizers because they have no keels like modern racing yachts. Locals still build them at home with skills passed from father to son, and their designs are a closely guarded secret.

“The design of the boat, the sail is very important. That is the experience we learnt,” says skipper Marwan Al Marzouqi, who steered his dhow Zilzal to a comfortable victory in this year’s Al Gaffal.

In May, 112 60-foot (18-meter) dhows set sail from Sir Bu Nuayr Island, where old pearling boats used to congregate, to wrap up the season with a 51-nautical mile (94 km) dash to Dubai. Over 3,500 sailors and organizers took part. A big draw is Al Gaffal’s generous 10 million dirham ($2.7 million) purse, up from 3 million dirhams in 1991. Three top-end sport utility vehicles were added to the pot this year.

Besides Al Gaffal, more than 30 shorter-distance dhow races in 22 to 60-foot (7 to 18-meter) dhows are held in Abu Dhabi and Dubai between September and May.

Omani seamen account for around half of UAE dhow crews. A Kuwaiti crew also competed this year although the UAE is still the only country in the Gulf organizing traditional races.

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