Picturesque, lateen-rigged Arab dhows are still around, but nowadays it is frequently mains, jibs and spinnakers of Dacron that propel boats across certain bays and inlets along Saudi Arabia's east coast. Arab sailors discovered long ago that teakwood caulked with sheep's wool and rubbed with fish oil stands up best against the salt, sun and sandstorms of the Persian Gulf. Today fiberglass hulls punched out of molds in American, Dutch and British boatyards are challenging the elements on water where Sindbad once sailed.
To the Arabs, sailing is a business, not a sport. Their shallow-draft dhows are used exclusively for coast-wise trade. It was Westerners, usually living near the coast as oil company employees, who introduced pleasure boating to the Persian Gulf. Recently a number of young Saudi Arabs have themselves joined the keel-and-trailer set.
Arab, American or Britisher, the sailor who casts off into the Gulf, with all its tricky shoals, must be of a special breed. On that body of briny water sailing comes fairly close to being a year-'round activity. Over a given 12-month span skippers can expect every sort of weather condition from bitingly cold gusts to steamy calms, both often shifting to sand-carrying shamals that can obscure a shoreline quicker than you can say "hard a' lee."
The first sailing craft to be imported into Saudi Arabia by an Aramco man was a Lightning, built in the Finger Lakes region of western New York State and delivered to Ras Tanura, where the company's refinery and marine terminal are. That was back in 1947, and for some seasons following, Lightnings held the day. As more small craft, both sail and power, began to appear on the scene, water sport enthusiasts organized boating groups and built their own docks and clubhouses. Ras Tanura, where local pleasure-boating got its start, has long since been served by the Sandy Hook Yacht Association. Nautically-minded residents of Dhahran and Abqaiq use boating facilities of the Half Moon Yacht Association, situated at the head of a big salt-water inlet between these two communities.
Some week-end sailors earned their sea legs on American waters before joining Aramco. Sloops at home off Ras Tanura or in Half Moon Bay are helmed by skippers who are, as individuals, equally familiar with Massachusetts, Narragansett or Chesapeake Bays, Long Island Sound, the coast of Florida, Newport Beach, Catalina, or the Golden Gate. But large numbers of the active boating contingent, including a majority of cup-winners, first felt the sting of salt on their faces by water splashed up from the Persian Gulf. While their colleagues were getting experience aboard Cape Cod cats or ocean-going schooners, these erstwhile sailing neophytes were spending younger days far from blue salt water sports, typically in the dry oil country of Texas and Oklahoma.
Aramco's amateur boatmen hold three seasonal sailing contests a year, formally designated as the Spring Regatta, the Fall Regatta, and, borrowing a term from northeastern American yachting circles, a wintertime "frostbite" series. Small-craft events in Half Moon Bay put heavy arithmetical responsibilities on race committeemen who must handicap on the Portsmouth System a fleet often made up of one Jollyboat, two Lightnings, one Tern, two Albacores, one Tech Dinghy and one Gull.
Periodic sports exchanges with oil company employees from Qatar and Kuwait are both a welcome change and a severe test of sailing skills. Aramco's competitors in these events are all Britishers, who take their yachting very seriously, indeed. As guests in unfamiliar waters of such places as Umm Sa'id and Dukhan, sailors from Dhahran and Ras Tanura enjoy the rare experience of true one-class
competition. At the helm of craft belonging to their hosts, they can feel the exultation or chagrin of knowing exactly where they stand while the race is in progress, instead, as in home ports, of waiting for the corrected times to be worked out on the beach.