Last updated: March 6, 2012 4:29 pm

Arab girl power broadens Gulf’s horizons

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Gulf Co-operation Council countries this week finished an offshore sailing race that united the region, one with an ancient seafaring and trading tradition, in a sport that in just two years has taken Arab women to the highest level of competition and drawn half the teams’ crew from Arab nations.

In 2011, Sailing Arabia – The Tour, a competition based on the Tour de France à la Voile and organised by Oman Sail, attracted teams from Bahrain, Qatar, Ras Al Khaimah and Oman. France’s Team New Caledonia also entered the Arabian coastal race, a contest for 10-metre Farr 30s in the warm waters during the European winter.

Layla Mohsin, from Bahrain, was the first and only woman to take part in the inaugural year, crewing for Team GAC Pindar, and the race generated more than $1.5m in media value, according to the organisers, a figure expected to have doubled this year.

The latest 15-day race followed a 1,400km route from Manama, Bahrain, to Doha, Abu Dhabi, Ras Al Khaimah, then along the Omani coast to Musandam on the Strait of Hormuz, to Mussanah and finishing at Muscat with nine teams instead of 2011’s six.

Four teams represented Oman with others from Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Ras Al Khaimah. The overall winners were Daniel Souben with his crew on Courrier Dunkerque, from northern France, who had an insurmountable lead heading into the final leg. Second overall was Bertrand Pace’s Team CommercialBank, Qatari-flagged, with Team BAE Systems third, Team Renaissance fifth, Team Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sixth, Team Bahrain seventh, Team Muscat eighth and Team Ras Al Khaimah ninth. On the penultimate leg they had negotiated four metre waves and navigated around 200 container ships in shipping lanes.

However, it was the all-woman crew of Al Thuraya Bank Muscat, skippered by Dee Caffari, the first woman to sail solo non-stop around the world in both directions, which caught the race followers’ imagination with their fourth-place finish.

She said later: “The Oman Sail programme has overturned preconceptions about women and the area. As the programme developed from small steps at first, teaching the basics of fitness and nutrition before racing skills, we had to build trust and commitment until we had all-round sailors in one big team.”

Hannah Wilkinson-Tough, Oman Sail’s women’s programme course manager, explained: “We saw from the very beginning a large number of Omani females from extremely different backgrounds showing interest; some more experienced, some not, but all willing to take on the challenge of learning and team-working, many also learning to swim for the first time.

“Real leadership qualities have come out of the girls. Some who were timid girls at first have now turned into confident young women who can easily lead a group in a variety of tasks. It is something for an Omani woman to use her muscles. When they first arrived, the men wanted to help them in heavier tasks such as getting the boats out of the water onto the slipway, but they now realise they can do this as well as the men and the men themselves are more accepting of sailing as a women’s profession. The women will proudly show they can work as instructors, working around their traditional and religious commitments when the first qualify soon.”

Aged from 19-23, some 30 women are about to complete the first six-month programme for instructors, having sailed in RS Qubas and the double-handed RS Vision, with training in power boating, spinnaker handling, racing and work with local children around their Mussanah base.

Ms Wilkinson-Tough added: “All these girls have worked hard to achieve this success and as ex-pat instructors it’s our hope that in years to come Oman Sail will become all Omani-run. These ladies can carry it on.” Oman Sail is establishing seven sailing schools and has already taught 7,000 children to sail with the aim of topping 30,000 by 2015.

Saada Ahmed Said Al Habsi, 22, was a beautician in a Muscat store when her cousin told her about the programme. A keen swimmer and horse-rider, her mother encouraged her and sister Kawthar to join. “I took part in the Muscat regatta and learned so many sailing skills and techniques by talking to my new friends,” she said. “My hope is that every kid could try sailing. If you can make a boat pick up speed and be driven by the wind you forget everything and only want to travel further and faster – to fly on the sea.”

Raya Rashid Al Aabsi, 23, a swimmer and volleyball player from Muscat, was crewing in the race. Joining the instructor scheme after an open day for women just five months ago, she is now competing at the highest possible level. She said: “I always take up challenges. I like to prove to other girls that nothing is impossible.”

The skipper of Team KSA, the youngest team with an average age of just 21, was Briton Robin Elsey. He said: “The tour has achieved all the goals it set out to in international competition, attracting top-flight teams. It’s one of the toughest races with no real breaks, a rolling programme of in-port and offshore races. What has been vital to its early success was Oman Sail getting it bang on, raising the presence of sailing in the GCC countries, and we hope to see more European and US teams joining the fray soon.”

Issa Al Ismali, Oman Sail’s events director, hopes the tour will become a permanent fixture on the international sailing calendar and said there was interest being shown by potential teams from Germany and Sweden: “I believe sailing can become the number two sport for us, after football, it’s one of few pan-GCC sports.” Kuwait is the nation yet to participate. It costs about €90,000 for a team to enter.

Oman Sail chief executive David Graham said the company was taking delivery of a new MOD70 trimaran in April which will have two Omanis in its crew of six. “We also aim to qualify competitors from Oman for the 2020 Olympics in selected sailing disciplines while our commercial development will include more sailing schools, access to the sport for ex-pats and companies, sailing on a pay-as-you-go basis, chartering bases and eventually a boat manufacturing business,” he said.

Sheikh Mohammed Daij Al Khalifa, of the Bahrain Maritime Sports Association, who assembled his emirate’s team and crewed with it, said that with a good match-racing team, only a lack of funding was holding Bahrain back from further success on the sea after two gold medals in the Arab Games and he wanted to see more financial institutions get involved in sponsorship. He said: “The sport is a great platform for companies to market themselves and with sailors moving throughout the world, investing companies, wealth managers and luxury goods groups can take their message, too.”

Ahmad Thani Al Rumaithi, chairman of Abu Dhabi Sailing and Yacht Club, said: “We are aiming to develop sailing as one of the fastest growing sports in the region. It is the strategy of the club to provide our support to make sailing events a success and, considering the tour includes Arabia, we aim to use this as a tool to show the brotherly relationship between other GCC and Arabian countries.”

Sheikh Khalifa bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, from Bahrain, the head of the GCC’s maritime sports association, told the FT: “The Arab Tour has opened the window to clever investors who want to invest in the Arabian Gulf. Naturally, we have an abundance of water, sun and wind, a great setting for marine life and watersports. There are lots of opportunities to enjoy this environment and to invest in our waterfront cities. This race is so promising and will continue for many years to come. I see it as our Admiral’s Cup, no less than that.”

Sheikh Mohamed bin Saud Al Qasimi, crown prince of Ras Al Khaimah, said: “This race means a lot for the past and the present, especially for this emirate and our strong ties to the sea and seafaring.”

Maitha Bint Saif Al Mahrouqi, undersecretary at the Oman ministry of tourism, which is promoting Muscat as Arab Tourism Capital 2012, said: “The ministry will continue supporting and sponsoring SATT next year and we are happy to see young female and Omani sailors competing in the race which will undoubtedly enrich sports and tourism together, which are complementing each other, and this race encourages youth to learn and contribute to the heritage of their ancestors.

The new season of the Extreme 40 catamaran racing series, in its sixth year after expanding from a European championship to go global last year, got under way off The Wave, Muscat, last week with Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli taking the helm of the Alinghi boat. The two-time America’s Cup winner, said: “The team needs to learn to sail with me. I’m not a professional. I run a business and have other interests. It’s a question of time commitment. For the last two years I’ve taken a bit of a break from sailing and I’m not sure I’m going to do every event of the series.

“Oman has fantastic sailing conditions. We trained here with Alinghi before and found the dessert offers tremendous sea breezes.”

Mark Turner, chief executive of series organisers OC Thirdpole, confirmed that after two years without a title sponsor, it was “quite close” to announcing two new joint lead sponsors for the series. “We created this event around a 2007 client liaison platform for iShares, and it’s still being underexploited commercially. For investors it’s a great opportunity to shape the next chapter.”

With two new teams, Trifork from Denmark, and Zoulou, skippered by France’s Loick Peyron, favourites Groupe Edmond de Rothschild, led by Pierre Pennec, were ahead in the eight-boat fleet with Oman Air a close second in the early races. Oman Air had an opening-day slip with a crewman overboard in a cracking start for new skipper Morgan Larson, the 40-year-old American with six world championship titles. Omani Nasser Al Mashari, competing in his second Extreme 40 season, was on board for an eventual home victory.

Oman Air and The Wave, skippered by Leigh McMillan, went on to score a one-two, squeezing out the French team who had finished every day but the last at the top of the leaderboard. Austria’s Roman Hagara took Red Bull into fourth place.

This season, the series will move next to Qingdao, China, then Istanbul, Turkey, Porto, Portugal, Cardiff, UK, Trapani, Italy, Nice, France, and for the first time, Latin America, when it finishes in Brazil.

Simon Greaves is FT.com’s sailing correspondent

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