Emirati Adil Khalid is key part of building the sailing race’s profile in the UAE
By far the most enthusiastic celebration of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's crushing victory in Saturday's opening stage of the Volvo Ocean Race came from 23-year-old crew member Adil Khalid.
As the sleek black yacht Azzam made its way back to port in Spain's Alicante after blowing away its five rivals, Khalid energetically waved a huge United Arab Emirates (UAE) flag before spraying champagne off the side of the boat as he beamed at the cameras.
The first sailor from UAE to take part in the Olympic Games in 2008, Khalid beat around 120 other applicants to win a place on Azzam, which means "determined", and is the first Emirati to compete in the eight-month, 39,000 nautical mile Volvo Ocean Race.
"I loved it," Dubai-born Khalid said in an interview on Sunday as Azzam and the five other 70-foot yachts bobbed gently up and down in the harbour nearby and crew members chatted in the warm sunshine.
"Winning is always the best moment in every sailor's life but this is only the first step and there is a long way to go," he added.
"The guys were so happy and we have the confidence now and we think we are going to do so well going around the world representing UAE."
As organisers acknowledge, Khalid's presence on the boat has less to do with his sailing skills, which were honed in much smaller dinghies a world away from the Ocean Race vessels, and a lot to do with raising the event's profile in UAE.
As well as entering the first Middle Eastern-backed team, Abu Dhabi is one of the host ports, a key attraction for some of the race's corporate sponsors keen to push their business in the region.
Azzam skipper Ian Walker, a double Olympic silver medallist competing in his second Ocean Race, said having Khalid on board was crucial to building the event's profile in UAE and had the added benefit of taking some of the attention away from him and the rest of the 11-man crew.
"The whole thing is new for him as he has obviously come from a dinghy background," Walker said on Sunday."So although he's a good sailor and he's sailed in the Olympics he was really starting from scratch in terms of sailing on big boats.
"He has a lot more to learn but he's coming on very well and the good thing about Adil is that he is pretty comfortable on the boat so we don't have to keep an eye on him too much.
"The important thing is to get him to a stage where he can contribute to the team and hold down his watch. Without that he would just be slowing us down."
Khalid's job is to help the bow man and complete physically challenging tasks such as grinding and trimming.
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