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.
Rumaithi has been teaching children how to sail to promote the tradition. “Around half of the people we see on all other boats today have been taught by us since the 1980s. They started sailing, and then they built their own boats,” he said.
Some 16 dhow races in 22-, 43- and 60-foot (7-, 13- and 18-metre) classes are held in Abu Dhabi and Dubai between September and May. Only Emiratis and other Gulf nationals may take part.
The season culminates with the Al Gaffal, or “Return” in Arabic; its 10 million dirham ($2.7 million) purse lured nearly 100 60-foot boats this year, each with two sails and a crew of 25-30, sometimes with three generations of a family aboard.
“It is now the 22nd year since its start in 1991 and it seems to me that there is an interest in it,” UAE Finance Minister and Dubai’s deputy ruler Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al-Maktoum told Reuters aboard the royal yacht Al Fahedi.
“We were hoping that other states of the Gulf will participate, but it seems to me that they are not ready,” said Sheikh Hamdan, who revived the race and sponsors the event.
In 1991, 53 boats of different sizes and varying states of repair competed in the inaugural race, which commemorates the homecoming of boats from pearling expeditions.
Omanis form around half of UAE dhow crews as it is still hard to find enough Emirati sailors. But the government hopes that youngsters competing in the 22-foot class will help fill the gap eventually and keep the heritage alive.
Dhows equipped with sails and heavy oars were central to the pearling industry which once thrived in the Gulf’s warm, shallow waters; some 4,500 boats and as many as 74,000 men operated at the Gulf industry’s peak in the early 1900s.
Pearl fleets from the UAE, then known as the Trucial States and controlled by Britain, used to stop at the small and uninhabited island of Sir Bu Nuayr after months at sea.
An economic slump in the 1930s and the development of the cultured pearl industry left many dhows decaying on beaches, depriving Gulf tribes of an important source of income. The pearl income of Bahrain, one of the main Gulf centers, fell to a mere $200,000 per harvest by 1949 from $1.5 million in 1896, a research paper by British archaeologist Robert Carter showed.
Today, engine-powered wooden boats are still loaded with goods ranging from tires to electronics in the Dubai Creek before heading off to Iran and India to trade. But pearl fishing is only a hobby.
“There was a time where you could not see a single sail on the sea. People only talked about it,” said Ahmad Mohammad Binthani, chairman of the Dubai International Marine Club, who comes from a fishing and pearl diving family.
“We could hear a story about the name of that boat, how many pearls they got, the name of the captain, names of the crew, but we did not practice it,” said Binthani.
Compared to heavy old pearling boats, modern racing dhows, many built from Meranti wood brought from Indonesia due to a teak shortage, are about two thirds lighter and much faster.
“During the pearl hunt in old times, dhows used to compete over who was faster reaching the pearl hunting areas,” said Mohammed Hareb, a former dhow racer.
“Our dhows are very fast ... we exceed the speed of the wind by five, six, seven knots. I achieved a speed of 20, 22 knots but I broke my mast.”
Some dhows carry as many as 150 sand bags as well as water barrels as stabilizers, because they do not have keels like modern racing yachts.
A racing dhow, which may last five to seven years, does not come cheap. A fully equipped boat may cost up to 370,000 dirhams with tens of thousands spent on repairs and modifications; locals still build them at home with skills passed from father to son, and their designs are a closely guarded secret.
“These boats take about three to four weeks to build from zero,” says Falasi, checking a route on his electronic global positioning system while his shipmates tighten ropes on their dhow’s deck. “The building has not changed but materials, yes.”
Lamination has replaced shark liver oil and epoxy is used instead of cotton, while masts and booms are made of carbon fiber. Sails are also much lighter than they used to be, and radio and satellite navigation are permitted.
But that is as far as many of the dhow sailors want modernization to go.
“We are modernizing but the dhow must stay. We cannot afford to live without it,” said Khalid Bin Dasmal, a jury member at Dubai International Marine Club.
Reporting by Martin Dokoupil