Let’s face it, there’s nothing more boast-worthy than spending your weekend rigging up a yacht and heading out on the turquoise waters of the Gulf. If sailing (and bragging about it to your friends) is something you’ve always wanted to do, the UAE has many opportunities to learn, but to get the ball rolling you’ll need to sign up for a course with a Royal Yachting Association (RYA) training centre.
Where and how
There are a couple of authorised training centres in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but bear in mind that sailing is a hugely popular pastime – you only have to look at the waiting lists at the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club (DOSC) to get a reality check. Classes are small (six people to each instructor) as per RYA procedures and it’s likely you’ll have to wait many months before getting on board (pun intended).
Beginners wanting to learn the very basics of sailing start with the RYA learn to sail course, which runs for two full days, either over a weekend or one day a week over two weeks. For a higher price, you can also get private instruction, but costs are already quite steep (courses start at around Dhs1,500).
Who can sail
If you’re worried that you’re too uncoordinated, too old, pudgy or unfit, fear not. Anyone can learn how to sail according to DOSC senior sailing instructor Simon Adams. ‘There are blind sailors and disabled sailors and we have kids with Down’s Syndrome who come in for lessons,’ he says. ‘We teach people from six to 60 how to sail, but I’ve even taught a 70-year-old woman. There’s no criteria – it’s for everyone.’
What’s it like?
You can squash those grand visions of climbing aboard a gleaming 50-foot Beneteau on your first day – newbies at DOSC learn the art of sailing in modest dinghies – usually either a small vessel that fits three students and an instructor, or a lightweight laser pico; strictly a one-person boat. It’s best to know how to swim as these little vessels are notorious for capsizing, though they’re easily up-righted by students in the water. There’s no need to worry as safety procedures are also a priority; all lessons are carried out under the watchful eye of instructors and every sailor is required to wear a buoyancy vest. All you need to bring are lightweight shorts and a T-shirt, a hat, some sunglasses on a strap (or ones you’re not worried about losing) a change of clothes and a towel. Sailing aids like rash vests, gloves and non-slip footwear are optional, but one absolute essential is sun cream. Spending a day out on the water means you’re at a very real risk of sunburn and the reflection off the water only increases your chances of ending the day ruddier than a sundried tomato. Lastly, there’s no need to bring a paper and pen as, even though students need to understand some basic theory before they hit the water, sailing is best learned through practise – and there’s plenty of opportunity in one of these beginner courses.
Level one kicks off with a brief intro into wind principles and points of sail (how to harness the wind), but within minutes students are on the beach, learning how to rig up their boats. And after practising ‘tacking’ land drills (learning how to align the boat to capture the maximum amount of wind in different sides of the sail), students set off.
Inevitably, the first few tries will be rather chaotic until students get the hang of it (don’t worry, sailing instructors are unfailingly patient), but by the end of the two-day course, you can expect to be confidently tacking upwind and learning other nifty manouevres like jibing (sailing downwind).
Level two of the RYA learn to sail course (held over two full days) will cram students’ brains with more sailing theory. By the end of the course, sailors will be more comfortable on the water and more adept at tricky techniques, meaning they will be permitted to hire equipment from the club and go out alone. From here, the world of sailing is your oyster and you can go on to learn more RYA-accredited courses, covering everything from sailing with spinnakers (the big sail at the front of the yacht), or start racing, which covers all the essentials of race tactics and rig tuning; opening the door to crewing onboard a yacht in thrilling club races.
Sailing the biggies
If you’re lucky enough to own your own yacht and want to learn how to sail it, then there’s a fantastic course offered by Bluesail, another RYA sailing school operating from the Jebel Ali Golf Resort & Spa. Though the ‘competent crew’ course costs a frightening Dhs6,200, it’s actually a five-day course where you live onboard a shiny 40ft yacht with one instructor and four other students. During the full five days, sailors will learn everything there is to know about sailing a large yacht, including basic seamanship like mooring, anchoring and navigation. The course fee includes meals, snacks and soft drinks to boot.
No experience sailing?
If you don’t fancy the responsibility of sailing at sea, there are other ways to take to the waters in a yacht. This is thanks to a charismatic giant of a man by the name of Captain Berend Lens van Rijn, who runs yacht charter company Belvari Marine.
Captain Berend is also the person behind the monthly yacht races that take place around Lulu Island in Abu Dhabi. Anyone can hop on board to crew and unlike structured learn-how-to-sail lessons, a day out on this vessel is firmly tilted towards the informal. There are only around 10 racing yachts in Abu Dhabi but the turnout on race days is respectable enough, and everything kicks off with half-a-dozen gleaming white vessels manoeuvering around the starting line like awkward teenagers at a high school dance.
Although it is still pretty relaxed, there is a certain frisson in the air as the yachts (some worth millions) jostle perilously close for a good line, but once the race is under way this soon settles down. Each boat is timed individually and handicapped and so it’s essentially a race against the clock, although that doesn’t stop the smug looks of triumph when other yachts get ahead. Sailing in a race such as this means maintaining as much speed as possible, so on occasion there is need to tack (manoeuvering the sail to catch the wind) and as part of the crew you have to make sure to avoid the mast boom as it swings round with a terminal force.
In truth, though, for the amateur, there is as much or as little to do as you want. If you want to sit back with a chicken drumstick, sun glistening off the water and just let the gentle bobbing of the yacht soothe your troubled soul – then you can. But if you want to participate as the journey goes on, each crew member is called upon to help out here and there – tug on this rope, pull that in, swing this, and so forth. In other words, drumsticks may have to be quickly thrown to one side.
After races are over, however, there’s plenty of time to soak up the joy of being out on the water. Mike says they trail a line off the back so that people can be dragged along in the water – ‘For fun, we tell them to watch out for sharks,’ he says, laughing. The atmosphere is laidback and the competition is largely by name only, although get any man behind a wheel and tell him he’s in a race, and you’ll soon see a competitive glint in his eye.
Races take place on the first Saturday of every month. Places cost Dhs300 and are limited. Contact Captain Berend Lens van Rijn on 050 661 2176 to find out more.