From its rich maritime history to its modern-day marinas, the UAE is thriving as a world-class sailing destination. While undulating desert dunes and glittering skyscrapers may be the first images that spring to mind when you think of the UAE’s landscape, the nation’s history is also indelibly linked to the ocean. The bond between man and sea has always been strong; both Abu Dhabi and Dubai originated as humble fishing villages, dependent on the ocean for survival. Before the discovery of oil, it was through sailing, trading, fishing and pearling that the region was able to grow, thrive and begin to make its fortune.
These days, the UAE has maintained strong connections with its maritime heritage, while also drawing in the crowds as a contemporary destination for sailing enthusiasts. Visitors and neighbouring residents alike flock to the region for its year-round sunshine, relatively calm seas and pristine coastline. In fact, in addition to the annual Dubai International Boat Show, this year saw the capital host the first-ever Abu Dhabi International Boat Show at ADNEC Marina. It attracted more than 20,000 visitors across four days, further cementing the UAE’s status as one of the fastest growing leisure marine markets in the world.
Today, the main modern sailing hubs in the UAE can currently be found at the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club, Dubai International Marine Club, Al Hamra Marina and Yacht Club and the Abu Dhabi Sailing and Yacht Club (ADSYC). Throughout the year, the ADSYC hosts regular dhow races, a national sport inspired by the region’s sailing traditions. Navigating a dhow is a much-lauded skill passed down through generations. Dhow races are quite the spectacle, too – there’s something unforgettable about the sight of the billowing white sails racing across the blue water.
Meanwhile, in Dubai, the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club is the go-to destination for the emirate’s ocean-loving residents. Memberships at this club are extremely popular. There is usually a waiting list to join and to gain membership you have to prove that you’re an active sailor through a points system in ordered to be considered. Fortunately, sailing lessons are available and open to non-members.
Al Hamra Sailing Club in Ras Al Khaimah is the newest addition to the UAE’s sailing scene. Located just a short walk from the well-established Al Hamra Marina and Yacht Club, it has been open for less than two years yet it is already a hive of activity for the area’s sailing enthusiasts. Instructor Philip Reeves, a British expat who moved to Ras Al Khaimah to manage the club, is on a mission to build a thriving sailing community here that not only serves the emirate, but the wider region.
Reeves notes: “Although we’ve not been open that long, we already have our own sailing team that we enter into regional competitions. The prestigious Asian Sailing Federation (ASAF) Youth Sailing Cup Finals was held here earlier this year. We’ve also hosted a leg of the UAE National Championships for Sailing.” The national sailing competition involves a series of regattas held at different clubs across the emirates throughout the season.”
Al Hamra is an idyllic location for a sailing hub, with a serene coastline that nevertheless gets enough of a breeze to power Ras Al Khaimah’s fleet of vessels. The sailing clubhouse is well equipped and provides a warm, welcoming base where the community can meet. Most of the lessons on offer are aimed at children and teens, but the adult sailing lessons are becoming increasingly popular in the club. At the weekends, residents from all over Ras Al Khaimah flock to the club to sail and to socialise (the clubhouse has a casual food menu and a licensed bar). Some even make the drive from Dubai every weekend to take part.
Reeves has a number of plans to expand Ras Al Khaimah’s sailing scene even further, from teaming up with nearby schools to offer lessons, to encouraging Ras Al Khaimah’s Emirati residents to sign up and learn to set sail.“Sailing is one of the most important national pastimes in the UAE, and we need to recognise this heritage and celebrate it. That’s why I want to get more of the local Emirati residents involved in the club.”
Even for the absolute beginner who can’t tell their port from their starboard, the UAE is an ideal place to learn to sail. The wind speeds are well suited to both racing and relaxed sailing, while there are plenty of choices for both open and closed water sessions. Al Hamra Marina, for example, has an enclosed lagoon that makes for a very safe learning environment. Most importantly, when learning to sail its best to look out for a club or course that is certified by the Royal Yachting Association (RYA). This is the UK’s national body for all forms of boating and ensures that you’re receiving the best, safest training possible.
Further afield dhow cruises have become a popular pastime, particularly in Oman. These recreational cruises take place mostly around the Musandam peninsula, a stunning stretch of coastline that has been dubbed the Norway of the Gulf, thanks to its majestic fjords. There are a number of ways to experience these boats – Six Senses Zighy Bay offers a high-end option on its luxury dhow vessel, for one. However, many travellers prefer the more rustic dhow sailing approach. Daytime cruises are available, although nothing beats an overnight dhow trip, where you sleep on the deck under the stars and wake up to the sound of the ocean all around you. Most cruises involve regular stops in sheltered bays for swimming, kayaking and even scuba diving. While you may not be at the helm, it’s still a memorable insight into life at sea.