In a desperate bid to escape summer, we hang off the side of a catamaran. Here's what happened
There’s a hot wind blowing. It’s whipping off the dunes out in Jebel Ali and hitting our group of sandy, would-be catamaran sailors on Club Mina’s beach. We’re standing around, rather gormlessly, as our instructor, Menaka Gemage, points out the dipsail, the mainsail and the harnesses on one of Club Mina’s Hobie 15 catamarans. Menaka tells us that, with the fierce wind, these are prime sailing conditions, but they seem a little too prime for this group of absolute beginners.
Still, in the sheltered marina of the Mina Seyahi, the water is relatively calm. ‘We can’t go outside of the marina when it’s like this,’ says Menaka, referring to the choppiness of the open sea beyond. Clambering on, we sit up front and are introduced to the ropes. ‘This,’ he says, holding one high for me to see, ‘is your accelerator. In this wind, if you pull too much on this, the hull is going to rise and we can tip. Let it out and we’ll slow down.’ Nodding, somewhat confusedly, we’re also told to keep a good grip of the single bar at the back of the boat that angles the paddles. ‘And that’s you’re steering wheel. Don’t ever let go.’ With that out of the way, Menaka heads us straight out in the direction of the distant, rocky sandbank. With a crack, the sail tightens and the catamaran glides into life. There is a buzzing slap of waves beneath us and, as the breeze cools, we gather an intimidating pace on the water.
As we near the rocks I glance to my right and Menaka is no longer there. For a moment, I consider the thought of a pre-emptive bail as we move ever closer to the marina bank, but then I realise that he’s hooked on to a trapeze attached to the mast and is hanging off the side of the boat, controlling everything from this position. He grins as the water whips up beneath him, trailing against his back and hitting his face, and steadily, terrifyingly, the catamaran begins to angle up into the air and I’m left gripping on to the side as water runs off deck into the tumultuous swell below us.
After a couple of these rather exhilarating and bumping vaults, he swings back in. We begin a sharp turn towards the beach, our speed drops and the cool breeze rushes back to its high temperature. There’s a chaotic scramble to the other side of the cat to maintain balance and a hurried crack of the ropes on the dipsail as it heaves round. I insist that – despite a wind that is potentially overwhelming for amateurs – I want to know what an average cat lesson entails. Menaka ushers us to the bow (the back of the boat). I’m handed the rope that controls the mainsail and the bar for the two paddles and begin a much slower but no less satisfying zigzag back towards the beach.
One of the real joys of sailing has to be the mechanical bliss of the whole thing: pull a rope here, let one out there, swing this round and so on. Like the movements found in rowing, slowly and calmly you slip into a zone of concentration. It’s a trance-like state that, as the cool, salty and sharp wind hits you, is liberating, until the hull starts to rise. Lost for a few seconds in all that Zen-like reflection, we’ve let the boat gather a little too much speed and the boat lurches uneasily. Menaka leans in and reminds me to let the sail out a bit. It runs through my hand, the hull sinks back into the water and we reach something like a manageable pace.
We complete a few more circuits as I get accustomed to turning, and Menaka explains that two lessons should be enough to get you out on the water, on your own, provided you stay in Club Mina’s marina. It’s surprising to hear this, but he insists that with slightly easier winds a lot of the mechanics will fall into place and a more intensive how-to-sail lesson becomes possible.
I take his word for it and hand the controls back. He builds up some speed, hooks me on to the trapeze and I’m told to hang off the boat. Shakily, daunted, I do so and, aside from a couple of moments when (with legs too close together) I swing and collide with Menaka, I’m left to lean back, feel the cooling splash of surf and forget that thing called summer. Club Mina (04 318 1372), Le Méridien Mina Seyahi, offers one-hour lessons for Dhs220 (non-members) and Dhs200 (members). A skilled catamaran pilot can hire their own for Dhs170 (members) and Dhs150 (non-members). Laser and windsurfing lessons are also available.