Dhow racing in Dubai

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Hundreds of dhows will flood Dubai in an event combining old tradition with modern sport.

You only need a quick walk around Dubai Marina or to have glimpsed the Burj Al Arab to know that the dhow, Arabia’s traditional sail boat, is a symbol of the UAE’s past and present, and on Saturday May 17 more than 100 dhows will be sailing into Mina Seyahi in the Al Gaffal Long Distance Race.

The history of Al Gaffal, which means The Return, stems back to a time when Dubai’s main trade was pearl diving. The divers would head out on dhows and stop over in Sir Bu Naair Island on their way back to Dubai after a long trip at sea.

Al Gaffal is now in its 24th year and Ali Bin Ghulaita, CEO of Dubai International Marine Club, who is in charge of the nautical event, sees it as one of the highlights of the year. "This is the main event in dhow racing in the UAE. There are a number of races, but this is the top race in terms of prize money and distance."

The race is 51.3 nautical miles from Sir Bu Naair Island to Mina Seyahi and includes a checkpoint at the man-made Moon Island before heading to Mina Seyahi. The first one back with all its crew and boat in tact will scoop the prestigious prize of AED5m ($1.36m) in prize money.

Racing dhows are unlike other sailing boats. Traditional dhows do not have motors and all the vessels participating in Al Gaffal must adhere to strict regulations on traditional build and size. Bin Ghulaita explains that when the competitive race began in 1991, 43ft dhows were used but because of the their smaller size they were not ideally suited to long-distance sailing, now only 60ft wooden dhows are allowed to race.

Each dhow has a crew of a minimum of 12, and because the boats have no motors, the wind and the weather will have as much to do with the winner as the skill of the crew. Bin Ghulaita and his team at DIMC have factored this in and changed part of the structure of the race to accommodate for nature’s role. "There’s an area called Al Dhlaima that the boats have to pass by a certain time because the wind dies over there, and during that time they stand still until the wind picks up again. That’s why last year we started the races at 6am to prevent this from happening so the boats will have already passed that area, and we’re doing the same this year."

The checkpoint at Moon Island will also act as first finishing position for boats that don’t catch the wind. "Sometimes you have no wind or you get a storm and you have to cancel the race but if people have finished up to that point, their position will still stand."

Sailing is still a strong tradition in the UAE and the race is only open to UAE nationals, but as Bin Ghulaita explains, visitors are intrigued by the Arab boats. "Last year we had honorary participants of a German team and a French team – there will be a two honorary teams this year, too. They want to try and compete with the nationals and learn how to sail with these boats – they are completely different to modern boats."

The shipping manufacturing industry also gets a boost from the race as all the boats taking part in Al Gaffal are made in the UAE, keeping dhow-making traditions alive. Each dhow that takes to the water in Al Gaffal is constructed of solid wood, with two sails, and oars are allowed but shouldn’t be used in the race. The Dhagal or main mast of the vessel should be no more than 32ft. All the entrants race in registered dhows.

The event promises to be a spectacle on Dubai’s seas and the day will also feature entertainment and traditional Arabic dancing, food and refreshments. Moreover, the sight of 100 crisp white sails heading into the Marina will be a display evoking memories of a bygone era.

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