Sailing heritage catches fresh wind in modern UAE

Thu Jun 21, 2012 9:13am EDT
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By Martin Dokoupil

SIR BU NUAYR ISLAND, United Arab Emirates (Reuters) - Rashed al-Humairi likes to trade the sleek glass and steel towers of modern Abu Dhabi for the thrill of reviving a seafaring heritage aboard an antiquated wooden sailboat.

The 30-year-old banker watches his shipmates push the long slender dhow from a trailer into the sea off Sir Bu Nuayr island 100 km west of Dubai and explains the joy of coaxing a proud Gulf maritime tradition back from near extinction.

"With traditional boats you need a lot of skills, especially with the wind," Humairi said.

His voice is nearly drowned out by the morning wind and the buzz of the small port, where dhow crews are preparing for a race towards Dubai's sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel.

Dhow sailing, which has roots in the Gulf's history of trading, fishing and pearl diving, was almost forgotten during decades of breakneck, oil-fuelled modernization after World War Two in the United Arab Emirates.

But it is now catching a fresh wind among Emiratis, many from old pearling and fishing families. They want to get away from the glass and concrete of the UAE's wealthy cities, while rising incomes have given them the time and money needed to develop an interest in some of their ancestors' traditions.

"It's a change, like an escape," said Ali Salem al-Falasi, a dhow navigator, who has been sailing on traditional boats since the late 1980s.

UAE nationals coming from other than seafaring families find it harder to learn how to sail a dhow, said Humairi, who is from a desert family. He learned the skill in the sailing team of Mohammed Rashid al-Rumaithi, owner of Al Fattan shipyards. The team builds four or five dhows for its own use each year.   Continued...