Third Sailing Arabia – The Tour sets off
EFG Bank Sailing Arabia – The Tour, the Middle East’s only long distance offshore sailing race, started today with nine crews contesting the 670 mile long seven leg event clockwise through the Gulf States between Bahrain and Muscat.
At the opening ceremony, His Highness Sheikh Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Supreme Council for Youth and Sports and the President of Bahrain Olympic Committee said: “Bahrain is extremely proud to host the opening ceremony and first leg of the EFG Bank Sailing Arabia – The Tour. Thanks to the inspiring vision of Oman Sail a world-class event has been established that unites the region through sailing while also promoting the sport to a new generation. As the crews set sail for Qatar on the first leg we wish all involved a thrilling race from start to finish.”
This year’s event is being contested by nine teams, as usual competing aboard Farr 30 yachts.
The 100 mile leg to Qatar is the first of seven that will see the fleet visit stopover ports first in Qatar, then along the UAE coastline to Abu Dhabi, Dubai (new to the course this year) and Ras Al Khaimah before passing through the Strait of Hormuz and on to Oman, visiting Dibba, Mussanah and the finish in Muscat. The event takes place over 15 days during which teams will sail a total of 670 miles.
“We have created EFG Bank Sailing Arabia - The Tour as a replica of Tour de France a Voile,” says Issa Al Ismaili, Director of Events at the race’s organiser Oman Sail, comparing his event to the original where professional, amateur and student teams race anti-clockwise around the coast of France each year. “We are trying to link all the GCC countries in one common interest which is sport and the maritime heritage.”
The line-up this year features nine teams from five nations, but while last year there were five nations from the GCC represented, this year there are only two with four boats from Oman and two from the UAE. “This year we still have five nations, but more international - from Monaco, Holland and the EU,” says Al Ismaili. “So it is just becoming more international, which is fair enough and we’ll grow it that way.”
Favourite to win is probably the Dubai-based Team AISM, skippered by Bertrand Pacé. Aside from winning the 2011 event, Pacé is a former America’s Cup helmsman and, relevant to this event, has won the Tour de France a la Voile eight times in its 35 year history. However with a similar pedigree is Cedric Pouligny, skipper of Team BAE Systems, which has finished third in the past two races.
New to EFG Bank Sailing Arabia - The Tour is Oman Sail’s MOD70 skipper Sidney Gavignet, on this occasion helming EFG Bank (Monaco), with many of the crew from his giant trimaran including British round the world veteran Neal McDonald and Oman’s Fahad Al Hasni. Also on board are Damien Desprat, who competed at the Olympic Games for Monaco in the Laser and Oman’s experience Tour de France sailor, Yasser Al Rahbi, and bodybuilder Sami Al Shukaili.
Gavignet claims to be at a disadvantage because he has little past experience sailing Farr 30s, but no one is believing him: “We spent one week on Oman in December to train with our Omani crew and to discover the boat. I’ve sailed a bit in Oman, but not so much. We are coming to win, but we haven’t had proper preparation like you would usually.”
British yachtswoman Dee Caffari is returning as skipper of Al-Thuraya Bank Muscat, once again sailed exclusively by women. Her crew includes American round the world sailor Katie Pettibone, but also a squad of six up and coming Omani female sailors, four of whom will be on board at any one time (compared to two last year). Because the girls are smaller, they will race with eight, while the boys teams will be sailed by six or seven crew.
This year Caffari says they have had more training time. “We did the Muscat Regatta and the Muscat–Kashab offshore race in November. We won the inshore regatta and comes second in the offshore regatta – with the delivery back that was 400 offshore miles.” Caffari sailed two more weeks with the team in January but stresses that as they are part of Oman Sail’s keelboat training program and they sail regularly even when she isn’t there.
Racing in EFG Bank Sailing Arabia - The Tour is a unique experience, with the desert rolling into the sea for much of the course, punctuated by the metropolises the event visits en route, before the boats pass the rocky mountainous Omani coast around the Strait of Hormuz, exiting the Gulf in the Gulf of Oman. On the first leg the depth is rarely more than 4m, weather forecasts are typically unreliable and off Qatar and the UAE there are numerous oil fields to negotiate. “There’s never a dull moment,” says Caffari.
In addition to Bertrand Pacé’s team, UAE hopes are being placed on the Emirates most famous sailor Adil Khaled, who competed in the last Volvo Ocean Race aboard the Ian Walker-skippered Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing.
Khaled’s crew is a mix of sailors from Abu Dhabi and Dubai. “It is my first time with a fully Emirati crew. It is a great thing for my country and I am so proud, because it was my dream to have a full Emirati crew after the Volvo Ocean Race.” Khaled admits he put the team together at the last minute. “We will try our best. I don’t know what will happen – we’ll see.”
Team Renaissance’s Omani skipper Mohsin Al Busaidi, was the first Arab to sail non-stop around the world and is competing in this event for a third time, the second time as skipper. His crew is mainly Omani new recruits, each with less than three months sailing experience, balanced by French-speaking heavyweights sailmaker Bruno Dubois (not sailing the first leg) and navigator Thierry Douillard.
“Last year I finished seventh overall - not too bad for a new team,” says Al Busaidi. “We were on the podium three times and we finished the last leg second.” Typically Al Busaidi says the racing gets more competitive as the event progresses and hopefully they will be able to use their home waters advantage on the concluding two legs - however possibly not to the same degree as the Royal Navy of Oman team led by Qais Al Mamari.
International youth competition also comes to the race in the form of Team Messe Frankfurt, mainly British crew from the University of Plymouth, but with a German skipper in Marcel Herrera. They are joined by the Dutch team of Kay Heemskerk aboard Team Delft Challenge, previous competitors on the Tour de France a la Voice but making their competitive debut in the Middle East.
The format for the event includes seven legs but with the inport racing in Doha, Abu Dhabi, Ras Al Khaimah and Dibba. These will comprise a maximum of three races which will either be windward-leeward, around the cans or even match racing.