Into the Blue

By Frank Coles
Originally appeared in What’s On Magazine

Dolphin!’ yells one of the crew. All heads swivel in the direction of the shout and 20 yards off our port bow, four inquisitive dolphins rise from the water, curiously nosing around the bright red life buoy that we are using for man overboard drills. We spend the next twenty minutes sailing around the area where we first saw them and are thrilled as the dolphins, in turn, track us, arching their backs out of the water to get a better look at these humans and their peculiar games.

An amazing day’s sailing ends on a high note, with picture perfect seas, moderate winds, easy swells and comfortable temperatures. The novice to day skipper course with Bluesail Dubai has taken 11 days in total, five days of theory and six days on the water, and is hopefully the start of a life long passion that will enable me to see the world in a new way and talk people’s ears off with tales of nautical derring-do for years to come.

Back to School
The United Arab Emirates has the sea in its blood. However, living in Dubai, the sea is usually hidden behind a wall of five-star luxury and often overlooked among more immediate challenges, like navigating the relentless tide of mechanised sociopaths on Sheikh Zayed road every morning.

It is easy to forget that the sea is even there and this is one of the reasons I’ve signed up for a fast track course with Bluesail Dubai because, if I’m honest with myself, there is only so much five star frolicking my wallet and waistline can take. I’m also craving adrenaline, inspiration and time away from a computer screen and I know that seeing the country I now call home from the sea, will provide a fresh perspective on the same old, same old.

The tuition for the five days of theory takes place aboard Bluesail’s distinctive office that sits, literally, on Dubai Creek next to the British Embassy. In essence it is a floating pontoon with a futuristic office space on deck, long enough to hold Bluesail’s hardworking staff at one end, a classroom at the other and moorings for several craft on the other side.

Our theory tutor is the towering and likeable Mark Devitt, one of South Africa’s most capable yachtsmen who now lives in Dubai. He’s a relaxed teacher who eases my fellow classmate Andreas and I back into study. After so many years as an adult assuming I know all the answers it’s a shock to the ego to be back in a classroom and realising that I don’t.

To work with boats it appears you have to think in a different way and speak in a different language, initially I have a problem remembering bow from stern and port from starboard. Inevitably every student asks the same question, “Why don’t they just call it the front, back, left and right?”

As I learn how to learn again, Mark injects humour and insight from his years of sailing and racing yachts into topics that could otherwise be easily overlooked. For instance, in our RYA course books there are descriptions and pictures of a bung, which is, well, a piece of cork. Yes, exactly, we instantly skipped that bit as well, but as Mark tells us, on one scary night aboard a yacht, between far flung destinations, he discovered water was seeping in below decks and was quickly up to his knees. In the dark and slowly sinking, they realised that nobody knew where the bungs were that could so easily have stemmed the flow. He drives home the point that it is these seemingly inconsequential things that can save your life while at sea.

It’s a point well taken and we finally get down to some serious study. We learn the fundamentals of navigation and tides, how to estimate our position, plot a course to steer, how to account for drift, calculate tide times, decipher the lights, shapes and colours that boats and buoys use to tell you what they are, whether you should avoid them and what to do in an emergency. Initially some of the information is difficult to grasp and with no respite from my own work during these five days my head feels painfully sore by the time I sit my exam. I’m convinced I’ve failed, but the following day, despite a few silly errors, I’ve passed and can step out of the office and onto the Fast 42 training yacht Ijuba, South African for Dove.

Learning the ropes
By this point I’ve heard so much about the dangers of the creek, particularly about the abras, that I’m both apprehensive yet morbidly keen to discover another part of Dubai’s crash culture. Abra hit and runs do take place and the driving style of these motorised park benches can only be described as blindfold kamikaze, especially during twilight rush hours. The RYA’s rules of the road that I’ve so carefully memorised are casually disregarded on entering a swarm of abras, as they must be if you want to come out the other side. Thankfully abras are surprisingly manoeuvrable and they narrowly avoid colliding with us at least 20 times on my first morning at the helm.

There is a tremendous feeling of peace sailing out of the creek for the first time, past familiar landmarks like the souks, Deira Gold Centre, the Heritage Village, passing new ones like the custom point and out beyond the first channel buoy. As the Grand Hyatt shrinks behind you, suddenly you realise that out there, past the city lights, is the sea and a whole new world to explore.

For the next six days of practical training the ever patient and mild-mannered sailing instructor Jim Brown, will teach us as much as he can about sailing from his years of experience on the Adriatic, Mediterranean and North Sea. I’ll share the helm with five other trainee sailors all with different reasons for being there. Penny a lecturer at Zayed University wants to eventually own her own yacht; Tom already does; Danielle is here for the experience; Jackie hopes to sail from Dubai to Australia; while Adrian has received a fantastic 60th birthday present from his wife, to qualify for his competent crew certificate and race in the Maktoum Offshore Sailing Trophy with Bluesail, aboard their 42-foot racing boat, the Vacheron Constantin Racing Yacht aka Grace. That beats a new set of golf clubs any day.

On our first day out it’s just Jackie, Jim and myself and I am reminded of my own reasons for taking the course. It’s for the moment when your sails are perfectly aligned, you steer as close to the wind as possible, the haunches of the vessel rise up and the entire yacht leans to one side as the wind squeezes you through its grip and the bow surges forward through the rising waves.

It’s guaranteed to slap an ear-to-ear grin on anyone’s face and whatever our academic reasons for being there over the next few days we all respond the same way and gurn maniacally into the wind.

Out of the classroom and finally let loose, Jim encourages us to understand our surroundings, “feel the wind on your face, don’t look at the controls,” he tells us. It is a gentle reminder that before bargain flights, internet booking and package holidays people saw the world from the sea.

The Doldrums
Rain in the UAE is usually unexpected and by the third day we’ve already had two days of gloomy damp weather, but as Adrian’s jersey proudly proclaims, ‘A bad day on the water beats a good day in the office.’ It’s a sentiment that I have to agree with, even after two days lurking off the Dubai shoreline in some of the worst weather the region has to offer I’m still quietly content.

If anything I’m happy for the unusual clouds and rain in the Dubai sky, as it gives my skin a chance to recover. When I returned to a dark apartment after my first sunny day of sailing, I caught sight of a sun burnt monstrosity in the mirror. The white patches where my sun glasses had been appeared to glow in the dark. According to TJ, Bluesail’s hard working office manager this is a classic sailor look. Whatever your skin tone, if there is one piece of advice I can give when sailing, wear sunscreen. It’s hard for clients to take a six foot, red and white panda man seriously during meetings.
By the fourth day, we’ve all taken the helm, pulled and winched until our limbs are sore, reefed sails and put our navigation skills to good use. Jim shows me how to use the techniques I’ve learnt in class to work out where we are, where we are heading and where we want to be. The realisation that my calculations are within metres of the GPS readings is thrilling and proves just how much is capable without the technical gizmos that we so rely on.

Night Sail
The dark waters ahead of us reveal little, save for the small identification lights of marker buoys to our port side, too far off shore to help us navigate our way past the four breakwaters of Port Rashid that lie, submerged in darkness, somewhere in front of us.
We know that the constantly changing shorelines of The World development are behind us and to our left. Dubai is to our right, but up ahead, out of the main shipping lanes, apart from a few crane lights in the distance there’s nothing that indicates how close the breakwaters actually are. It’s not until the silhouette of the first harbour wall becomes visible – a barely perceptible black shadow against an only slightly lighter background – that we realise we’re almost upon it. “Breakwater ahead…I think,” shouts a tentative voice, and the helm bears away from the wind keeping the ominous silhouette of Rashid to the right of us about one hundred yards to starboard. Only three more walls to go….

Night sailing is a different experience altogether, especially where dredgers have scooped up the sand required to create Dubai’s man made islands and headlands. In their wake they leave a disturbed sea bed which creates unexpected shallow points and peculiar patches of breaking waves where there shouldn’t be any and that provide unsettling depth readings that jump erratically from high to low.

In typical Dubai fashion, a buoy that marks the southern most point of the Palm Deira during the day tells unwary sailors that it marks the eastern most edge at night, with an incorrect light sequence that could prove costly to anyone making an unexpected landing on the Palm’s unfinished shore. For me night sailing is the most thrilling part of the course, where we have to be constantly alert and use all the skills that we have been taught.

After six days onboard, my logbook records that I’ve learned to navigate Dubai Creek, sailed to Ajman, moored at Mamzar, been around The World development and have experienced winds up to force five. Not bad for someone who just a few days earlier had the wobbliest of sea legs. With my day skipper certificate in hand I can now charter a yacht just about anywhere in the world, and I’m sure you’ll agree, the Mediterranean and Caribbean seem like nice places to plan ahead for. In the meantime I have the fjords, islands and waterways of the Gulf and the Arabian Sea still to discover.

Breakout#1: Anti-Nausea Thrills ~ How to find your sea legs

Many people who sail have partners who don’t, usually because of a fear of sea sickness, what many don’t realise is that it is easily treatable. Also known as mal de mer, sea-sickness certainly doesn’t mean you are a wimp, or unable to sail, it just means that it will take a while to find your sea legs.

Why it Happens
90% of people suffer from motion sickness at some time in their lives. It all starts with your inner ear, the balance centre; you are never really ‘sick’, just out of balance. This happens when your eyes can’t see what your ears are feeling, cabin walls will appear stationary to your eyes, while your ears tell you otherwise.
What to do
Avoid coffee, alcohol, orange juice and acidic or greasy foods before sailing and get plenty of rest as dehydration and tiredness are common causes.
Onboard triggers can include too much time spent below deck, staring at a fixed point such as a chart or book and looking through binoculars.
Steering the boat is an instant remedy. Try to stay low and towards the stern. Look at the horizon and try to get your balance. Drink fluids and nibble at something like dry crackers.
Ginger is reported to be an effective treatment and can be bought in a variety of forms that allow you to drink, suck or chew it. Acupressure wrist bands have also been found to help.
Over the counter remedies, usually Antihistamines are taken as a preventative the most common are Dramamine, Bonine, Scopace and the colourfully named Vomitor.

Breakout#2: What Next?

Once you know your way round a yacht without falling overboard, you’ll inevitably want to keep on sailing. For those with the money and time (lucky you), buy your own, find a berth at a marina, join one of the UAE’s many yacht clubs and sail at your leisure. Clubs also have lists for volunteer crews although there is usually a long wait.

Bluesail Dubai offer former students crew days at minimal cost and from May will provide a free day sail and BBQ every fortnight. They also offer mile building courses to Oman, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi.

Crewed or private chartering is another option although this can be quite pricey.

Bluesail Dubai (04 397 9730 )
Charlotte Anne Charters (09 222 3508)
Dusail (04 396 2353)
Yacht Solutions (04 348 6838)
El Mundo (04 343 4870)

Breakout#3: Learn to sail

Bluesail Dubai are the most highly qualified sailing school in the Middle East and can take you all the way from complete beginner to Coastal Skipper and Yachtmaster Offshore.

An official RYA training centre, they offer a wide range of training courses. The easiest way to get started is to take either a weekend taster session for 1900 AED or the five day competent crew course at 3000 AED.

Fast track courses reduce costs even further. The novice to day skipper course featured in this article takes 11 days and costs 5500 AED, the price of 1-2 nights in a local five-star hotel and can be arranged to suit your schedule.

If racing is your thing then Bluesail offer race training packages through, places for the Maktoum Trophy have already sold out but more challenges are on their way in the next few months.

Not just for grown ups:
The clubs and companies below offer a multitude of ways for you to get afloat from dinghy and keelboat courses to racing catamarans.

Jebel Ali Sailing Club (04 399 5444)
Dubai Offshore Sailing Club (04 394 1669)
UAQ Tourist Club (06 767 0000)
Abu Dhabi Catamaran Association (02 681 5566)
Abu Dhabi Sailing Club (02 673 1111)
UAE Marine Sailing Federation and the Dubai International Marine Club (04 399 4111 / 399 5777).organise races, events and training and are a merger between Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah maritime clubs and the Emirates Heritage Club.

Breakout#4: Competition Time

The UAE has the sea in its blood and there are more competitions and events going on than you can shake a round turn and two half hitches at. The Maktoum Offshore Sailing Trophy is one of the most internationally acclaimed and runs from the 9th March until the 5th May.
From Jumeirah to Abu Dhabi Traditional Dhow racing is another attention-grabbing activity with events all year round.

For full information of all the regattas, races and trophies taking place check the DIMC event calendar.

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