Watching world-class athletes at work can be awe-inspiring. Their bodies look superhuman as they run, jump, dunk, serve or do whatever they do. In the discipline of moth sailing, the men on the boats are skilled technicians and are certainly fine athletes, but it’s their boats that will have you staring in wonder.
A moth dinghy weighs just 30kg and is crafted from light, sturdy and super-expensive carbon. With the right wind and guidance, these vessels can reach speeds of 55kph, or 30 knots per hour – it wouldn’t be much on Sheikh Zayed Road, but is very fast for a tiny boat on water. Their lithe nature and the speed at which they race means the boats skip over the waves and their hulls lift entirely out of the water, hovering about 60cm above the surface. ‘It’s the pinnacle of the dinghy class,’ says UAE resident Chris Graham, who’s both organising and sailing in the Puma Moth World Championships, which comes to Dubai this week.
Moth racing has been around since the ’30s, but the boats only began to ‘fly’ once hydrofoil technology was introduced in 2004. This means the whole vessel sits out of the water at speed, with only a T-shaped structure submerged. It’s quite a sight.
‘It’s just magical,’ says Arnaud Psarofaghis, a Swiss sailor who’s in Dubai for the championships. He’s still only 21 and is ranked third in the world in the moth class. Admittedly, he’s been sailing since he was four, his whole family are sailors and he works as a designer for North Sails. It’s safe to say he loves sailing, and apparently it’s only people who truly adore the sport that get into the moth class in the first place. Why? Because there’s no money in it.
Arnaud’s boat cost him more than Dhs70,000 and, in order to stay truly competitive, he needs to clock about 20 hours of training on the water each week. It’s a big investment and the prize money is minimal – the moth class’s main competition offers no cash for the winners. There will be one slalom race that has a small purse thanks to local company Marine Tech, but aside from this it’s a sport that Olympic-level sailors do for the love of it. ‘No one gets paid to sail the moth. We do it because it’s so nice,’ says Psarofaghis.
It’s also a huge technical challenge: skill and agility are needed to maintain balance and position the sail at the right angle as the boat moves (it also ensures spectators are guaranteed some spectacular spills). It’s an extremely tricky sport to get into without any prior sailing knowledge, although Psarofaghis says that wind sailing experience and an understanding of balance on water can help beginners to pick up the technique more easily.
This week’s competition is based on the best of 15 races, with each sailor permitted to bin their bottom two results. The races begin at an imaginary line between two boats. ‘About a minute after the start
you have a big split of the fleet and you pretty much know who’s in a good position,’ says Psarofaghis. But the race ain’t over ’til it’s over – someone may catch good wind, something could break on a leader’s boat or someone could have a nasty spill. ‘You can even come back in the last leg,’ he points out.
Wind permitting, the races will kick off at 1pm every day, with an average of three races a day, back to back. The men to watch this week are Psarofaghis, of course, as well as Americans Bora Gulari (who’s the current world number one) and Dalton Bergen (the world number four). The class is friendly and all the sailors seem to have an immense amount of respect for each other, but Psarofaghis is quick to point out one thing. ‘I came here to win.’
Want to catch the moths in action? The event is free for spectators – we recommend heading to the free beach next to the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club to get the best view (you can’t miss the bright red Puma sails). Just keep your fingers crossed that it’s breezy – if there’s not enough wind, everyone will have to stay on dry land.
The Puma Moth World Championships continues until March 15 near Dubai Offshore Sailing Club, from 1pm, free.