By: Kathryn Clark
Part of Abu Dhabi’s legendary The Club, The Abu Dhabi Sailing Club is training the sailing stars of the future...
Bad luck Adam!” shouts Martin Allen, sailing instructor at The Abu Dhabi Sailing Club from the safety boat. A disgruntled child is bobbing in the water next to his Optima sailboat. Adam’s first attempt at a monkey tack – a tricky balancing act that involves walking around the mast of the wobbly seven foot vessels – did not quite end in glory. But before long, Adam is back at the tiller, zipping around confidently with his classmates.
“Sailors! Come to me!” shouts Vicky Hill, Martin’s co-instructor. “No crashing or bumping your boats! Look with two eyes!” The five children, who are aged between seven and twelve-years-old, pull their tillers and skim across the water towards Vicky like butterflies, reading the wind almost subliminally.
For the last hour they have sailed in tight circles, practised tacking, “passed the pudding” – a game which involves carefully passing a buoy from boat to boat without colliding, and shown some pretty flash freestyle moves. Luca and Chloe have done perfect monkey tacks, Adam has laid down in his boat while continuing to sail, Keira has also fallen out, and Adam has capsized and righted his boat again.
Vicky and Martin shout rapid fire instructions, advice and encouragement.I can’t help getting caught up in the excitement,as the children improve throughout the session.
They might be playing games, but these young people are being groomed as future sailing champions. Organised by the International Sailing Association,dinghy racing is a fiercely-contested Olympic sport, which is currently dominated by Poland, Italy, Brazil, Greece and Great Britain.
Despite being hedged by the Arabian Gulf’s teal waters, being blessed with an ideal climate, and hosting a very well-established sailing community, the UAE has somehow slipped beneath the global sailing radar. However, the inclusion of Abu Dhabi in the Volvo Ocean Race this month is set to change all that and, it is hoped, inspire a new generation of globally competitive athletes.
It’s a long-term view, but one that the Abu Dhabi Sailing Club is committed to. A vibrant sub-section of Abu Dhabi’s well-known members’ establishment The Club,
and boasting a fleet of RS400s, Kestrels, Lasers and Optimists, the sailing club is on a mission to get young people out there racing, by offering sailing lessons and hosting and participating in regattas. The instruction these children are receiving is world-class – Vicky and Martin are both Royal Yachting Association qualified instructors, both of whom left white collar professions to pursue their passion for life on the seas.
The Club itself is a veritable institution. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, The Club came into being back in the 1960s when the major oil companies invested in a few boats, most likely Kestrels, for the recreation of their senior staff members. In 1962, the late HH Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan gifted The Club the land it still stands on now. Today, it is one of Abu Dhabi’s best-loved private members’clubs. Under its wing, the Abu Dhabi Sailing Club started up in 1964, and today is morphing into a sailing force to be reckoned with.
Relaxing with a cool drink in The Club’s beautiful Shore Bar, I meet the man who is generating much of the excitement. Amer Hamze first became involved in The Abu Dhabi Sailing Club back in 1986 when two former members invited him to join. “I started sailing straight away, and after eight or nine months I was a good competitor,” he begins. “It was a lot of fun, and at the end of the first year I had collected a lot of trophies.”
The bright-eyed Lebanese national went on to become one of the most successful sailors in the history of the sailing club, being awarded the title of sailing champion countless times.
“In the late 1980s we were invited to race along the Corniche, from the Sheraton to the Hilton,” he remembers. “The cash prizes had been donated by the committee established by HH Sheikh Zayed. I came first, and when I came on stage to collect my trophy, it was delivered by Sheikh Zayed! I was nervous, but it was an amazing once-in-a-lifetime honour I will never forget. It was the ultimate experience.”
Today Amer is in charge of the sailing training programmes and is a member of the sailing section’s committee – responsibilities he undertakes on a voluntary basis. “When you race dinghies, you just switch off and go,” he says. “Out on the water all you think about is winning. This is a constant with sailing. It’s tiring because it requires total concentration. You focus on the turning tides and the wind shifts. If someone closes in on you, you try to figure out what they’re doing. We have some really good sailors here – from Australia, the UK, the US and New Zealand – but I am the only one from the Middle East until now!”
The junior training programmes I came to see are fairly new to the Abu Dhabi Sailing Club, having been established by Amer in October 2010. But they’ve proved popular – Amer and his team trained 36 children in 2010 and this has almost doubled in 2011 to 66.
“This is the future,” Amer insists. “In the old days, we were training only adults. Now that we have a junior class, we are really building our future. I love sailing and I will be so happy to see the kids we train winning regattas. Our reputation is growing. We host three regattas per year where we invite sailors from Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Dubai to come and participate. And now the Volvo Ocean Race is really putting Abu Dhabi on the sailing map. It’s been a really big thing for us.”
In celebration of The Club’s 50th anniversary, the sailing club is hosting a jubilee regatta next month. Participation in the regattas is something that Amer feels has lifted the standard of sailing in the Gulf. “The introduction of government-run regattas has brought all the sailors together in the Gulf,” he says. “This is the best thing that’s happened to the sport, because previously we were only racing against each other. This is a unique place – we have sailors from all over the world here. And the quality is excellent. When I joined, Iain and Fran Leonard were members –they were in the top ten sailors in the UK. In the late 1980s, Roger Williams was here, who finished fourth in the Laser division in the World Masters Games in Thailand. We are racing against top guys here.”
Amer smiles and shakes my hand. I wander back toward the slipway where Vicky and Martin are supervising the children rinsing off their boats. Abu Dhabi’s sailing scene is gathering speed, and these children have a lot to live up to. But if their enthusiasm is anything to go by, it seems they’ll be up for the challenge.