The stroke of the hour is signaled by twin flares and, as the orange smoke rises in the afternoon sky, there is sudden frantic activity in the coastal waters off Dubai's Port Rashid. Instantly, almost 500 men are hauling ropes in time to urgent, rhythmic chanting. Fifty white sails, each nearly as big as a tennis court, rise majestically and begin to billow, like a flock of giant swans spreading their wings to fly. As the soft curves of sailcloth fill with wind and take on tauter lines, sleek wooden hulls begin cutting the chop toward the starting line. The annual dhow-racing season in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has begun.
Unlike racing yachts in Newport, Sydney or the Solent, where pre-start maneuvering is all-important, these racing dhows sit placidly, sails dropped, until the starting signal. When the smoke appears, each boat's 12-man crew works together to hoist up to the masthead the nearly 30-meter (90') boom that carries the sail. Here, no motorized winches are allowed: just blocks, tackle and muscle-power.
Today's race is called al-Shandagha, after the headland at the mouth of Dubai Creek that was the first landfall for merchants and fishermen entering Dubai's harbor. It's the first event in a three-race series for 18-meter (60') boats bearing at most two sails. The competing vessels are constructed in the traditional style of the coastal dhows that traded among Arabia, India and East Africa for centuries.
Those dhows, and ships of kindred design from Iran, India, Yemen, East Africa and Southeast Asia, have always moored along the long, snaking waterway that cuts through the center of Dubai. To this day, the city remains the most active dhow port in the Arabian Peninsula, with vessels tied up three and four abreast at dockside in the heart of the business district—a striking contrast to the city's marble-and-glass office towers. Though their masts have long been removed and engines built in, the dhows' designs are otherwise unaltered. Cargo ranging from sacks of rice and flour through crates of second-hand motor parts to electronic equipment in the original packaging is loaded and unloaded by hand.
In the mid-1980's, Dubai's deputy ruler HH Shaykh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who had already initiated several programs to maintain traditional crafts, conceived of a sailing competition to help reaffirm the region's historic link to the sea and revive the skills of local seamen.
Saeed Harib, managing director of the Dubai International Marine Club (DIMC), which oversees the races, says that the first ones, in 1986, "involved a few sailing dhows that had survived from the old days. But from that day on we have tried to encourage owners to improve the standard of the boats without affecting the basic design used by our forefathers." To do this, the DIMC inspects each racing dhow to be sure that its specifications are met, resulting in competition that is both safe and fair, and which calls on many of the skills of sailors of the past.
For example, the hull (al-haikal) must be constructed from teakwood, which may be varnished but not painted, for traditionally a dhow's hull was treated with lime below the waterline to deter barnacles and other growth, but the remaining timber was uncoated. Seasoned teak, often imported from India's Malabar Coast, had long proved itself the ideal marine timber: It does not split, crack or shrink in seawater, and is highly resistant to decay. The dhow's mast (al-sari or al-duqal) and bowsprit (al-dastur) must also be wooden. However, in a concession to the superior performance of modern materials, the massive sail-support spar may be made of aluminum or carbon fiber. Similarly, sails that originally would have been cotton may now be made of spun or laminated polyester cloth.
Even with these changes, however, a visit to the al-Buteen boatyard in Abu Dhabi, southwest of Dubai, is like traveling back in time. This yard, one of a handful in the Emirates, builds the best racing dhows and always has a backlog of orders. Hulls are still constructed in the open under palm-leaf awnings, surrounded by piles of massive seasoned logs. The work is labor-intensive, and an adz, or hand-axe, shapes major timbers while hand-saws and chisels finish details. No drawings or plans are used: Each design exists in the mind of the master shipwright. Owners constantly ask for modifications—thinner planking here or a different waterline curve there to improve speed—and these changes are made without compromising strength or seaworthiness.
"My father and grandfather worked here on the dhows," says V. P. Viswanathan, a finishing carpenter. "India has always supplied the men and the timber for shipbuilding in Arabia, and I am proud of this tradition." Like the teak logs with which he works, his family originally came from the Malabar Coast, in the southwest of the subcontinent.
On the water, a dhow is distinguished by its lateen sail, whose upper edge is lashed to the obliquely slung yard, which is in turn attached high on the mast by a massive rope parrel. Also called a fore-and-aft sail—indeed, it appears to be the ancestor of all fore-and-aft sails—the lateen probably originated in the western Indian Ocean. First a three-sided design, it was modified by cutting off the forward angle to form a short luff, or leading edge. The resulting four-sided sail, though still virtually a triangle, has been used on dhows for centuries, and it is still the standard today. The lateen has an enormous advantage over the multiple square sails used in the West up through the 15th century: It allows the dhow to sail well with the wind abeam, that is, at 90 degrees to the direction of travel, and even to sail passably well with the wind forward of the beam, at 50 to 60 degrees off the bow; square-riggers required a following wind.
In the 16th century, European ships began supplementing their square rigs with a triangular mizzen sail which functioned similarly to a lateen. Its name came from mizan, which is Arabic for "balance.' The mizzen allowed Western ships at last to make way in headwinds, and with this development the voyages to the Americas and around the Horn of Africa became possible.
The term dhow is not an Arabic word. It was adopted by English writers, perhaps from the Persian dawh or from the Swahili word for "boat," daw. Like the latter, it is a generic term. In earlier days, Arab sailing craft were categorized according to the design of their hulls (whereas European sailing vessels were categorized by their sail design), with boom, zarooq, badan and other specific terms referring to various double-ended ship-shapes and such words as sambuk, ganja and baghalah used for ships with the square, "transom" sterns that the Arabs derived from European models in the 16th century. (See Aramco World, March/April 1974.)
All dhows were carvel-built, that is, with their wooden hull planks laid edge to edge rather than overlapping like clapboards, as ships are built in the West. The planks were stitched together using coir, a rot-resistant rope made from coconut fibers, which was passed through holes drilled in the planks. This light sewn hull was well-adapted to the shallow, sandy waters of much of the Arabian Gulf. It could withstand a storm-driven grounding, and its broad, flat bottom allowed it to ride ashore on the surf or be drawn up on the beach for maintenance or storage.
It was not until the Portuguese set up boatyards in India and Persia that iron fastenings started to replace coir in some vessels. To demonstrate the remarkable skills of the early Arab seafarers, British author-explorer Tim Severin built a hand-stitched dhow in Oman in 1981, and with a crew of 25 sailed 9600 kilometers (4300 mi) from Muscat to Canton, navigating using instruments from the Middle Ages. (See Aramco World, September/October 1981.) Severin's account portrays the hardships encountered by early sailors, and today's racing program in Dubai is a small reminder of the demands of life at sea.
In the few days preceding a race, activity is intense. One evening, close to sunset, I was taken to a little harbor to witness the work. On the beach, the sand was covered with a vast white sheet, and men were squatting around its perimeter sewing. This was a new mainsail for the dhow al-Munadi, and its approximately 140 square meters (1500 sq ft) was roughly double the area of sailcloth an international racing yacht would carry. As members of the crew were attaching the rope that stiffens the upper edge of the sail and allows it to be stopped to the spar, it occurred to me that this scene would have changed but little over the last few hundred years.
"Racing is a family affair," said skipper Mustabbeh al-Marri. "Grandfathers, fathers, sons, uncles and cousins can often be found on the same team, as you see here." At the nearby breakwater, a dozen or so racing boats were lined up on road trailers, their masts, bowsprits and spars lashed to the decks. Owners discussed tactics, while crewmuscle rigged the boats. The longer, 18-meter vessels use two masts, which improves speed and stability, and these have to be hauled into position and raised to the vertical, stepped and lashed into place. Lines need to be made fast, booms attached and sails tied on. As if basking in their own sense of tradition, the men—many of whom had probably spent their working day in modern offices—sang sea chanteys while they worked, silhouetted against the evening sky.
The following morning, the day before race day, it was time for warm-up runs out of the DIMC marina. I was welcomed aboard the 18-meter, two-masted Arhab, and a motorized support boat towed us out of the harbor. Once clear of the land, the tow was released and on a brief command the crew started to raise the mainsail. The wind was steady but not strong, probably 10 to 12 knots. Even so, we picked up speed quickly, and in no time, due to the dhow's lack of fixed ballast, we were heeled over at an angle that a Western sailor would find alarming.
Built without a weighted keel, large dhows are actually as frisky and unstable as a racing dinghy. A modern yacht of similar size would carry around 2000 to 2500 kilos (4400-5500 lbs) of lead or iron in the keel, shaped into an underwater fin that counterbalances the pressure of the wind on the sail. Traditionally, dhows stowed their heavy cargo low in the hold to assist with balance, and today's racers use around 50 sandbags of a few dozen kilos each to perform the same task. As the wind freshens, these sandbags have to be shifted about to keep the boat optimally trimmed. Fine-tuning this balance is accomplished by shifting the weight of the crew members, who lean precariously over the side as necessary. If the wind dies, the captain can elect to dump some sandbags overboard to reduce weight and increase speed, but if the wind freshens again the boat will then be difficult to manage, and the risk of capsizing can become quite vivid.
Aboard the Arhab, I was impressed by the teamwork. As soon as the spar had been fixed at the top of the main mast, hands were trimming the sail to produce that ideal, taut curve that would power us up to maximum speed. Saeed al-Tayer, the captain, hunched over the tiller and steered onto a beam reach, the course on which the wind is at 90 degrees to the boat, and which maximizes the sail's airfoil effect. Meanwhile, the crew was setting another sail on the second, smaller mast. Instructions were shouted from man to man until they were happy with the sails' finely tuned trim. By now we were skimming along at an exhilarating pace—probably around 10 knots—close to the water and gazing up at an expanse of white sailcloth that seemed not much smaller than the water itself.
"I used to race power boats and buy the biggest outboard engines I could afford," Saeed told me from the tiller, "but that doesn't compare with this experience. Under sail you really feel the sea and the weather. It makes me realize what a tough job our forefathers did. They had to be out here every day to make a living."
Just as we settled down to enjoy the day's practice, Saeed gave new orders and the crew dropped the sails. Only frantic activity kept the mainsail from sliding into the water. A minor adjustment in sail position, in turned out, would help improve speed.
Back on shore, Saeed Harib of DIMC explained more about the background of the races. "At first it was the older generation that participated, men who knew the techniques of sailing from their jobs at sea. Now we have a mix of ages, with younger men in the majority. The young people are more competitive, and they try to learn from the designers of international racing yachts, like the America's Cup winners, and apply those ideas to the dhow" within DIMC's tradition-oriented limitations. "A side effect of these events," he adds, "has been to revive the language of the sea, the words that refer to parts of the dhow and points of sail. Around 100 terms that were mostly unknown to this generation have come back into use."
There are two different race formats: the al-Yoush course, which is one straight leg from start to finish, and the al-Khayour course, which includes a designated turn. There are three annual events for 13-meter (43') dhows with crews of 10, and three for 18-meter (60') boats with minimum crews of 12 men. The position of the starting line depends on the wind direction just before the race, and it is set so that the boats can easily complete the course. But as any sailor knows, the wind may change direction and speed many times during a race.
This makes dhow racing particularly tricky. Unlike modern racing yachts, the dhow cannot easily turn across the wind. (With a headwind, this turn is called a tack; with a following wind, it is a jibe.) Each maneuver requires the mainsail to swing to the other side of the mast—quickly done on a contemporary sailboat. On a dhow, however, the heavy mainsail spar must be freed from the mast and lowered slightly, and its front end dipped almost to vertical and swung around the base of the mast to the other side. At the same time, the four shrouds supporting the mast as well as the line to the parrel—the sliding rope collar that attaches the spar to the mast—must also be transferred to the other side. "Even when the crew are working well together, and the wind is not too strong, this takes five to 10 minutes," says Ahmed Hassan Abdullah, the skipper of al-Ghayoon. "On the longer races we sometimes have to decide between a faster course, with many changes of direction, and the slower way with less work on the sails."
In 1991, a race of 50 nautical miles (93 km, 57 mi) was added to the season, on a course called al-Qaffal, or "homeward run," to Dubai from Sir Bu Naair Island, the traditional end-of-season gathering point for pearling boats. In the old days, each captain, or nokhatha, raced to be the first to arrive in Dubai and greet his family after a season at sea—and perhaps get the best price for his pearls. Now, this final event of the dhow-racing season has become the greatest test of sailing and navigational skills for those rivals' competitive descendants.
"I remember that we had only 15 entries for the first Sir Bu Naair," said Shaykh Hamdan at a post-season press conference. "But in 1998, 87 boats registered. This shows the increasing acceptance of the event, particularly among the younger generation."
That younger generation is well represented in today's opening race, a run of 13½ nautical miles (25 km, 15 mi). By the time the orange smoke has cleared and the rhythmic chanting has died down, the competitors are well past the starting line. Old adversaries vie for an early lead, with al-Raed taking the inshore line and Sirdal, last year's overall winner, pulling away on the offshore flank. With the wind at 12 to 15 knots and waves cresting at nearly a meter, conditions are ideal and the pace is impressive. Choice of the exact course is everything, and skippers crouch down with the breeze in their face to try to sense the best passage across the shimmering sea. Local knowledge and a keen ability to read ripples on waves for subtle wind shifts are crucial to success; there are no speed logs, wind gauges, depth sounders, weather computers or satellite positioning systems here.
Almost an hour later, with the finish buoys in sight, al-Raed takes a small but convincing lead, and an exuberant cheer rolls across the water from its crew as it crosses the line. Sirdal is second, piloted by Ahmed al-Rumaithi of Abu Dhabi, whose family is a virtual dhow-racing dynasty.
Soon after the race is over, Majid al-Mahari, captain of al-Raed, accepts the first-place trophy cup and the government-sponsored prize money at a ceremony at the DIMC. Throughout the evening, captains, crews and their families debate the tactics they'll use in next year's races. Time may have changed the men who ply the waters of the Arabian Gulf, but the Dubai dhow races ensure a lasting place for the region's unique sailing traditions.
Sport sailing never paid Jeff Harris's bills, so he became a film director. He works for Saudi Aramco's Media Production Division in Dhahran.