Despite its relatively small size the UAE is one of those places where things can happen under your very nose without you ever knowing about them. Unless you happen to chance upon the right person, that is. The right person in this case is a charismatic giant of a man by the name of Captain Berend Lens van Rijn, who runs yacht charter company Belvari Marine. He is also the individual behind the monthly yacht races that take place around Lulu Island. Better still, anyone can crew the yachts.
I am an islander by birth, but the salt in my veins has more to do with an unhealthy diet than any naval instinct. I don’t really swim, I’m not good with a rope and I hate rum, but it isn’t often that you get to compete in a genuine yacht race.
The yacht in question is a 12-metre cruiser by the name of Eid, and its captain, an amiable Antipoden with a sunny disposition called Mike. Aboard, I meet my crewmates: two young couples, one German, the other Norwegian. They too had stumbled across Berend and found their way onboard, and it becomes apparent pretty soon that the atmosphere is firmly tilted towards the informal. One couple has baked very good muffins, another ‘shipmate’ produces a Carrefour bag of tandoori chicken, and accompanying beverages are flowing in no time flat.
Before long we meander our way to the start line, in doing so passing a steely grey police boat. The officer manning the machine gun is busy folding up his prayer mat, but looks up and gives a cheerful wave. There are only around 10 racing yachts in Abu Dhabi, I’m told, but the turnout is respectable, and a half-dozen gleaming white vessels manoeuvre 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 of dirhams) jostle perilously close for a good line, but once we are under way it soon settles down. With each boat timed individually and handicapped, it’s essentially a race against the clock, although that doesn’t stop the smug look of triumph when other yachts pass us, or vice versa. Sailing against the current, we avoid tacking – changing direction to catch the breeze – as much as possible to maintain speed.
On occasion we need to manoevre, and then have to make sure to avoid the mast boom as it swings round with a terminal force. But, for the amateur, there is as much or as little to do as you want. The party is completed by a pair of knowledgeable Germans who take care of much of the tricky business of seamanship, but as the journey goes on, each crewmember is called upon to help out. However, if you want to sit back with a chicken drumstick, sun glistening off the water, and just the let the gentle bobbing of the yacht soothe your troubled soul, then you can. In the summer, Mike tells me, 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 as we turn into the home straight; the wind is behind us and the current in our favour. Up goes the spinnaker – a lateral sail that captures the breeze – but there’s work to be done to get into position. The gentlemen are called upon to use their brute strength on the various ropes that rig the vessel. Drumsticks are quickly thrown to one side and all is industry and sweat. But just as soon again this dies down and the wind carries us at great pace towards the finishing stretch.
Passing the final marker, a certain sense of triumph is evident in the air. This is a competition largely in 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. But it’s a great experience, and as the sail is lowered and we chug back into the jetty, one of the guests (a slight Norwegian girl), gamely pushes us away from a neighbouring boat that we’d strayed too close to with her feet. Cheers go up, and with it a sense of real achievement as we come to a rest, most of us knowing that we had completed our first (and most likely only) yacht race.
The race takes place on the first Saturday of every month. Places are limited. Contact Captain Berend Lens van Rijn on 050 661 2176 to find out more.