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Donkin on Sailing

September 2010 -  Middle East Sailing

In the spring of 2009, the Omani trimaran, Musandam, completed a 24,000 mile round-the-world voyage. Among its crew of seasoned sailors was Mohsin Al Busaidi who entered the history books as the first Arab to sail non-stop around the world.

The 76-day voyage was just one stage in an ambitious programme to promote sailing in Oman and rekindle a sailing culture in a region that enjoys a rich maritime heritage.

But it is not just in Oman that the Middle East has seen an upsurge in sailing interest. For the first time Abu Dhabi is to be a host port in the Volvo Ocean Race and has entered a team for the 2011-2012 race. The Kingdom of Bahrain , meanwhile, is hosting two former Volvo Ocean Race yachts, owned by the Pindar yacht racing team. A Pindar yacht skippered by Brian Thompson, sailed in the 2008/9 Vendee Globe round-the-world race bearing the emblem of the Kingdom of Bahrain.

It was in Dubai, however, that the potential for high class yacht racing was recognised four years ago when Russell Coutts, a four times America's Cup winning skipper, chose the emirate to launch an annual series of fleet races among the RC44 high performance yachts he designed in partnership with naval architect Andrej Justin.

Marina development has begun following these trends. Michael Horrigan, chief executive officer of Mourjan Marinas, a Dubai-based marina development and management company, says that after a difficult two years when many developments were put on hold, confidence is re-emerging in the Middle Eastern yacht market. "Relative to 2007 it may seem a lot quieter but it's still very dynamic," he says.

"Boating is a strong part of Middle Eastern culture. Everyone tends to think of it as a desert culture but there's a deep relationship with water and water activities here," he said.

Oman sail has been drawing on this relationship, structuring a programme aimed at raising awareness of sailing in schools and youth sailing clubs.

"We plan to give up to 30,000 young people a chance to experience sailing in the next five years. That's where we think this initiative can make a difference in a country where half the population is under the age of twenty," says David Graham, chief executive officer of Oman Sail.

In the short term Oman Sail has made an impact on the international racing circuit by fielding two catamarans in the iShares Extreme 40 Catamaran racing series established by the OC Group, whose chief executive, Mark Turner instigated the Oman Sail project with Albert Whitley, its first chief executive and Rajiha bint Abdulameer bin Ali , Oman 's minister of tourism.

Musandam was formerly B&Q/Castorama, the yacht sailed by Ellen MacArthur in her record-breaking circumnavigation in 2004/5. Now, however, Sail Oman has launched a larger purpose-built trimaran, the 100 ft long Majan, flagship of the fleet and first member of the Arabian 100 one-design class that aims to establish high level sail-racing in the region.

Earlier this year, the Majan, traced the course of a five-leg Indian Ocean Five Capes race conceived by the OC Group and still in the planning stage. In February 2011, an Oman Sail team is expected to be competing in another OC Group-planned event, the Tour of Arabia, a five-leg 1,700 mile race down the eastern Gulf coast, running from Kuwait City to Muscat in Oman, taking in Bahrain, Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Not all initiatives have succeeded, however. A plan to hold the 33rd America 's Cup off Ras al - Khaimah was abandoned when the teams chose instead to sail out of Valencia in Spain . Larry Ellison, the head of the challenging team, BMW Oracle Racing, had expressed safety concerns because of the proximity of Iran on the northern gulf coast.

One of the team Pindar boats was impounded briefly in 2009 when Iranian authorities accused its crew of straying in to Iranian waters. "It was a misunderstanding that hardly merited the fuss that it seemed to cause," says Andrew Pindar, chairman of Pindar, the international printing group based in Scarborough, North Yorkshire .

"We think the Middle East has huge potential in sailing which is why we've been prepared to invest time and money in making Sail Bahrain a success. But we know we have a long way to go. These things don't happen overnight."

The Pindar team has now entered in to a partnership sponsorship arrangement for all the Pindar yachts with GAC Logistics, the shipping, logistics and shipping agents business based in Dubai .

"There is a real hunger for people to do things in sailing in the region. We're getting inquiries from people who want sailing assets to promote their businesses," says Mr Pindar.

David Graham says the plan at Oman Sail is to build a sustainable programme backed in time by commercial and industry sponsors. "There isn't an end date on this programme. The intention very much is to keep it alive," he says.

"We have 12 qualified Omani instructors so we already have Omanis teaching Omanis to sail and we have an embryonic elite squad with aims to qualify Oman on its own merit in the sailing events of the 2020 Olympics. We will continue to grow that competence on the coaching side. The whole programme is growing from strength to strength."


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