Monthly Archives: July 2009

Dhow Racing

This is something I am itching to find out more about, being a bit of a sailor myself.

Secrets of the sea

By Alex Westcott, Sub-Editor/Writer
Published: July 23, 2009, 22:15

The dhow may have modernised in some ways, but the design principles remain the same as they were in the time of the pearl trade.

It is a sport driven by teamwork. The starting point of the highly competitive dhow race (of which there are two kinds: the al khayour course, a route that features a turn and the al-yoush or al yoush al wahed course, which is a straight course) is decided according to the wind direction of the day, but weather, always volatile, can change at any given moment.

As the dhow glides across the pristine waters of the Gulf coast, it’s easy to become lost in the azure. But the crew remains focused on the task at hand, ensuring that the sail remains taut to produce maximum speed.

The captain remains at the tiller, steering the vessel in the same calculated fashion that he steers his team with a calm directness. He remains constantly aware of the wind’s direction, as this is the deciding factor that can make or break a race.

It is not as easy for a dhow to turn across the wind the way modern yachts do. As the dhow has no weighted keel, balance is precarious. However, its structure is solid and hardy, and each boat is built to withstand the most gruelling skies and waters.

In order to change direction, the mainsail has to be released from the mast (al-sari or al-duqal), lowered and swung to the other side, an exercise that can take over ten minutes timing which, in a race, is crucial.

On a 43-foot dhow, a crew numbers between eight to 15 people, whereas with a 60-foot dhow, the crew can include anywhere between 15 and 35.

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It is a sport all about balance. Traditionally, when dhows were used for the transportation of goods by seafaring merchants in the Gulf, the cargo was stored below the deck.

But this also served another purpose it kept the dhow balanced. Today, around 50 bags filled with sand are used to coordinate direction, adjusted according to the wind conditions.

The crew members will also shift their weight in order to balance the dhow, which is why they will often lean over the sides in order to achieve better balance and to prevent the dhow from capsizing.

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If there is little wind, the captain can elect to dispose of some of the bags to lighten the vessel. But if the wind is stronger, extra bags are needed for greater stability.

The practice of dhow racing dates back centuries. Before arriving in the UAE, dhow racing was going full throttle in Qatar.

The pearl trade between the Gulf and the Far East was facilitated by the sea, and sailing was the quickest means of transport. That was how dhows became part of a livelihood and from this they developed into a sport.

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Dubai is one of the busiest dhow ports in the Arabian Gulf, and is a hub for race season. Competitions were initiated in the 1980s.

The race programme is driven at keeping the sailing tradition of the UAE alive. Dhow racing has served as a reminder of the importance of the Emirati’s historic linkages with the sea.

As Captain Al Mazroui explains, you also need balance in terms of experience, which is why an average crew comprises men of different ages.

“Each crew member is a link in the process the older, more experienced men guide and teach the younger members and so the cycle continues across the generations,” he says.

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“Being the captain doesn’t make me the best at everything I am the designator and the decision maker. If the wind changes, I am the one who has to make the call on changing the sail. Sometimes of course, the crew members will be dubious, and sometimes I will be wrong, but it’s all part of the sport. One decision pertaining to a change of direction changes everything. As captain I need to know what action to take in the event of change.

“Every captain has his secrets,” smiles the 30-year-old captain. “My father taught me to sail as a young boy, and we now compete against each other. In 2004, I started sailing on my own. We’re both really competitive when we race against each other, but in the end we are still a team because we are family. If I come fourth and he comes first, banter and tongue-in-cheek teasing will always follow! We take everything the other says with a pinch of salt. It’s a sport that strengthens family bonds and builds friendships. It encourages camaraderie with your fellows and that’s more important than the position you come in a race.”

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Despite the rapid development that the UAE has undergone in the past decade, the ethos of dhow racing has not changed.

First and foremost, dhow racers are all united by their love of the sea. Like the Emirati traditions of horse breeding, falconry and camel racing, dhow racing “re-enforces UAE tradition and is a reminder of our heritage,” says Al Mazroui.

Sail away

Dhow racing is a practice deeply rooted in Emirati tradition. It’s an age-old ritual of sons learning the ropes at the hands of their fathers.

The wind is not on their side today. The enormous 140-square metre sail al sheraa balloons at the command of the fierce Gulf wind.

It billows gracefully, hanging for a moment in suspension and then whipping down to buffet the young sailors as they try in vain to seize control of the cloth’s unruly dance.

Ropes pass roughly through leathery hands as they form a web around the teakwood vessel the sail, their prey to tame. Yelling above the howling din in Arabic, the young men trot around in swift, startlingly coordinated movements, working in tandem to rein her in the way one would calm a wild horse with patience, passion and a thread of clear communication.

Their captain looks on from a few metres away, content to let them get on with it. Occasionally he chides one of the youngsters or makes a passing suggestion.

They obey diligently, altering their step or relaxing on a tug. The elders lend their weathered arms to the juniors, their years of experience meaning they act almost entirely on instinct. This is the art of dhow racing.

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Into the blue

The origin of the word ‘dhow’ remains ambiguous. While some suggest it’s derived from Arabic, other etymologists argue that it could be from the Swahili word for boat.

In the old days, the dhow sail was made of handmade cloth, but today it is made from fabric imported from Europe just one aspect of the modernisation of the craft.

Today’s racing dhow is lighter and therefore faster than its predecessors. Dhows are categorised according to the shape of their hulls, unlike European boats, which are classified according to their sail design.

They are carvel-built, which means that the planks comprising the hull (al haikal or al farmah) are laid flush to one another, rather than overlapping, as is the case with Western boats.

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The hull is designed to suit the shallow waters of the Gulf coast. Its flat-bottomed design makes it easy to pull on to the shore.

Timeless tradition

“It’s an invaluable skill,” says Emirati captain Ateeq Mohammad Al Mazroui. “As captain I am the leader of the crew, but no role is of less importance than another. There is of course hierarchy in terms of experience, but at the end of the day, dhow racing is first and foremost about teamwork. It’s a family affair. Chances are if someone sails, his father will have raced, as will his father before him. This is one aspect of dhow racing that hasn’t changed. But everyone has a different mindset, like in any sport. I think priorities have changed and the sport has become more competitive everyone is more driven to win these days,” says Al Mazroui.


Sexual Harrassment – East versus West

I was recently approached and leered at in a rather unpleasant manner by a creepy guy in a construction worker’s outfit (blue jumpsuit).

This happened while I was walking from my apartment building to the local supermarket in The Greens, which is a very Western-style community where people regularly walk around wearing a LOT less than I was at the time.

It is also private property  which is owned and controlled by Emaar, whose head office is within the community.  The surrounding gardens and pathways are patrolled heavily by security, as well as the always polite gardeners and cleaners that are employed here.

It made me uncomfortable enough to go home and change out of outfit I was wearing (navy knee-length dress and red shoes) and lodge a complaint with the Greens’ Security Office.  The security team was excellent; very kind and reassuring; and immediately went in search of the perp, which they found quickly.

The next day I was flipping through a magazine (Desert Fish) and found the very interesting Dubai Code of Conduct.

Desert Fish Magazine (for more about this great mag go to

Desert Fish Magazine (for more about this great mag go to

I was encouraged by the Security team to bring in the police, which I didn’t want to do.  Now I realise that my very Western belief in giving someone a warning, and not charging them,  is what saved this guy from almost certain deportation (see 1.4 Public Displays of Affection).

It was a very interesting cultural experience to see how these things are treated in the East, where the good of the community is seen as paramount to the rights of the individual.  But as a Westerner I just couldn’t get past my ethical imprinting that having a guy lose his job (and possibly his family’s livelihood?) was too high a price for any individual to pay for this.

I always thought of myself as a committed feminist.

But today, as I went outside feeling a little fearful of strangers, I have to ask myself, do I hold a set of ethics that enables sexual harrassment of women, in an effort to protect the rights of the men that do this?

This is a question that I never anticipated having to ask myself.

Dubai Code of Conduct

1. Social Ethics:

Dubai is characterised by the interaction of a large number of cultures and nationalities. However, the culture, customs and traditions of the United Arab Emirates and its people shall be respected by adopting courtesy and moderation and avoiding all types of improper behaviour in the Emirate.

1.1. The symbols of the state:

It is the duty of every citizen, resident and visitor to show respect for the symbols of the United Arab Emirates’ rulers, flag and national emblem. The abuse of any of those symbols is a crime punishable by law.

1,2. Decency:

An official business or business casual dress code shall be adopted by all visitors of Dubai’s official government buildings as well as business buildings and office towers. Access to Dubai’s official and business buildings may be denied if dress code is considered inappropriate.
In all other public places such as streets, shopping malls and restaurants, shorts and skirts shall be of appropriate length. Moreover, clothing shall not indecently expose parts of the body, be transparent, or display obscene or offensive pictures and slogans.

1.3. Beaches:

Beachgoers — men and women — shall wear conservative swimwear that is acceptable to Dubai’s culture. Swimwear shall not be worn outside the beach, as decent dress is the rule in the rest of the city. Nudity is strictly forbidden in every part of the city and is liable to be punished by imprisonment or deportation.

1.4. Public displays of affection:

Displays of affection among couples — whether married or not — in public places does not fit the local customs and culture. Holding hands for a married couple is tolerated but kissing and petting are considered an offence to public decency.
Public displays of affection, as well as sexual harassment or randomly addressing women in public places is liable to be punished by imprisonment or deportation.

1.5. Dancing and music:

Loud music and dancing are forbidden in public places like parks, beaches or residential areas and must be restricted to licensed venues only.

1.6. Public facilities:

Public facilities (i.e. public parks, benches, bus stops, etc.) shall be kept in good conditions. Concerned authorities must be informed of any damages.

2. Substance abuse:

The consumption of alcohol as well as any other drug or psychotropic substance is strictly prohibited in Islam and is punishable by law. Due to the large diversity of cultures and nationalities present in Dubai, alcohol consumption is closely regulated.

2.1. Drugs:

Holding, consuming, buying or selling any kind of drug — in any quantity — as well as being tested positive to any drug by the authorities in the UAE is considered a crime.

2.2. Alcohol consumption:

Alcohol consumption shall be confined to designated areas (i.e. licensed restaurants and venues that serve alcohol to their clients). Being caught under the effect of alcohol outside these places (even in light doses) can lead to a fine or incarceration.

2.3. Driving and alcohol:

The UAE has adopted a zero-tolerance policy in terms of driving under the effect of alcohol. Being caught driving with even the smallest dose of alcohol can lead to a fine, incarceration or deportation.

2.4. Purchasing alcohol:

Buying and selling alcohol is controlled by very strict laws. Alcohol is exclusively sold by specialised licensed stores. It can only be bought by holders of an alcohol-purchasing license (this license is only attainable by non-Muslims). Buyers shall respect the local culture by carrying their alcohol in paper bags such that it cannot be seen.

2.5. Smoking:

Smoking is not allowed in government facilities, offices, malls and shops. Smoking outside designated areas is subject to fine.

2.6. Prescriptions for some medicines:

Some medicines containing psychotropic substances are forbidden in the UAE. Their holders must carry a prescription from a UAE-licensed medical doctor. Visitors shall verify that their medicines are allowed in the UAE before entering the country.


Richard and I just returned from a great vacation in Amsterdam. I think it will take me a month to detox and get back to normal!

Mozz and Kell stayed in Ras al-Khaimah – the Emirate at the top of the UAE – with a Canadian woman who used to work for their vet.

She lives on a date farm with several cats and dogs that she has homed.

I am told that Mozz spent his days watching the lizards and the baby camel spiders in fascination as they run around outside the windows.