50 identical, brand new, French built Catamarans stretch out across the sand. Their sails resplendent in the colours of the United Arab Emirates; their crews eager for the Race Committee’s signal to launch into the azure waters of the Persian Gulf for the first race of the qualifiers for the 1996 Hobie 16 World Championships.
It is 1996 and Dubai is starting its ambitious programme to become a key travel destination and sporting venue.
- Inaugural Dubai World Cup Horse race
- Dubai Desert Classic Golf tournament
- Dubai Tennis Championships
- First Dubai Shopping Festival
- And ….
The Hobie Cat 16 World Championship
The National champion of each country qualifies to race at the World Championship. Depending on the size of the country, the runners up might also qualify.
Dubai wants to make this a significant event with many more boats. They organise through the International Hobie Council an opening round of races whereby sailors who are not pre-qualified can qualify to race in the actual championship. South Africa is offered 32 spots with free accommodation in air conditioned tents and all meals. We just have to pay for our flights.
Nikki and I are very keen and invite Nikki’s folks to join us – they will stay in a proper hotel (and watch from the sidelines).
We arrive at the old Dubai airport in the middle of the night. Customs are stern, unwelcoming and difficult, scouring our passports and bombarding us with questions on the reasons for our visit and where we will be staying. “Sailing and tents” didn’t seem to have the right effect. Two gentlemen in Kanduras and Gutras sweep in. The customs officials are instantly deferential, our passports are stamped and we are ushered through as esteemed guests onto luxury buses. It is light by the time we arrive at the Dubai International Marine Club (DIMC).
It appears that most of the other countries have already arrived and chosen the best tents. There are 4 man, 6-man and 8-man tents and one very large tent that can house 50. We are given strict instructions that males and females are not to share tents. There are 40 of us and we split up, trying to find something suitable and see which tents still have beds free. The current inhabitants are not welcoming or friendly at all. They do their best to spread their belongings over beds to hide the fact they are available. We are exhausted and it is very frustrating. Eventually we get together and decide to declare UDI. We commandeer the large tent for the SA team ignoring the gender instruction. We stand several beds on end as make-shift male and female changing rooms. It is Nikki and I’s first anniversary, so the team upends a few more beds to create a ‘honeymoon suite’ for us. And so we create a wonderful, warm enclave to the envy of the other teams who mutter about it’s not right that we don’t abide by the instructions/rules. Karma…
The air conditioning seems to have gone missing in translation, but the sea breeze is cooling.
After settling in, we go down to the Marina to register. Easy and slick process. We are a little concerned that there might be some reaction to us having the same tent number, but they don’t seem to care.
All meals, other than the parties, are available at the Marina, we just need to show our passes. There are special shuttle buses for the competitors that run regularly between the Marina and town. We are shown how to pack the sails and shackles in a specific way so that each competitor is able to rig a different boat each day, knowing where to find each piece of equipment. Hobie’s are a one class design – all boats are exactly the same. Tuning and skill are the differentiator.
All admin finally completed, we have a light lunch and a long cool drink before resting for the afternoon.
Race day dawns bright and clear but with very light winds. We rig the boat that we draw and lie around in the hot sun waiting for the race to start. There is no testing or getting used to the boat. We dip into the warm water every now and then to cool down.
Eventually the breeze picks up and the hooter sounds to launch. A mad dash down to the shoreline, dragging our boat into the shallow water, getting our rudders down and off the to start line, jockeying for position with the normal shouting and posturing. We are both nervous and exhilarated. Bang! and we are off. We don’t make the best start, but eventually find clean air and start passing a few boats. The sea is flat and the breeze is steady. Perfect for single trapezing. These French built boats are a pleasure to sail. Everything feels smooth and responsive. We finish in the middle of the fleet and bob around waiting for the next race. The Race Committee manage to complete the 4 planned races and it is gloomy by the time we make our way back to shore to derig and haul the sails back to the containers. We are dog tired but on a high. What a stunning day.
The second day is just as much fun. Another 4 races, slightly more wind and much double trapezing. We don’t qualify, but what an amazing experience. (an Australian team known as “Baddy and Worsy” do )
The Championships are exceptionally well run. Everything – the boats, the admin, the parties run like clockwork.
The awards ceremony is a grand affair. Copious amounts of seafood and delectable eats. As westerners we are allowed alcohol. (It is amusing to see the robed locals clutching beers wrapped in serviettes.
Jan and Phyllis had been our unofficial fan club. They forewent the adventurous tents and stayed in the luxurious 5 star Chicago Beach Hotel (demolished in 1997 to make way for Jumeriah Beach and Wild Wadi). Nice to relax there and be served drinks in the days that followed the opening rounds. We still stayed in our tent, though.
Dubai in 1996 is only just starting to spread its wings, and we can see that things are starting to happen. We are bedazzled by the window fronts filled with the jewellery in the Gold souk and even more amazed by the absence of security bars and guards. The electronic souk is equally impressive. Prices have been reduced for the Shopping Festival and combined with the fact that 1 ZAR gets you 5 UAD Dirham, we load up on jewellery, camping equipment, binoculars, cameras and lenses. Dad bought an iPhone 1995 – way ahead of his time!
The annual rainfall for Dubai, falls in one day while we are there. The gutters are not designed for this amount of water and the streets soon flood. We are in our element – just love this weather.
The Creek is still plied by dhows other wooden craft and we spend a delightful few hours exploring the dockyard quite unhindered and feeling completely safe.
There are new buildings everywhere, but the skyline is still relatively clear – for now….
What a glorious opportunity to experience this country at this stage of its development doing something we love.
You will see us back soon!