Celebrating a tradition of the seas

The race over 51 nautical miles brings generations of families together, soaking in the spirit and atmosphere of a bygone era. An era that could have been lost forever.

Image Credit: Gulf News
Gulf News

Dubai: There will be a spectacle to behold as the fluttering sails of 99 traditional dhow boats dot the skyline and head towards the finish off the Dubai International Marine Club (DIMC) on Sunday afternoon — a befitting finale to the 2011-2012 watersport season.

In 1991 under the tutelage of then DIMC Managing Director Saeed Hareb, the "Al Gaffal", or the home-coming, was put in place in an attempt to revive a fading tradition.

Only 53 dhows, the smaller 43-foot type, participated. But as the years went by and the race opened to the bigger 60-foot dhows in 1993.

It caught the imagination of the sea-faring community as it gave them a glimpse of how their ancestors lived — as pearl merchants or fishermen — who made one last stop on the Sir Bu Nair island to enable their crew to rest and prepare their pearls for trading in the markets of Dubai.

However, pearl trading gradually died out and the boats were left unused and were not maintained. The special seafaring language that had filled the air also started fading into the background of modern times and the development of Dubai as a trading hub.

Troubled by this, Shaikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Deputy Ruler of Dubai and UAE Minister of Finance and Industry, took a personal interest in the revival of this final journey from Sir Bu Nair to Dubai. And thus "Al Gaffal" was born.

The race over 51 nautical miles brings generations of families together, soaking in the spirit and atmosphere of a bygone era. An era that could have been lost forever, had it not been for this unique re-creation. "For me, this is a race that is all about bonding," said Mohammad Hareb from the race organising committee.

"Though the race is meant to bring an end to our season, it gives me a feeling of euphoria and nostalgia because it transports us all back in time. It shows us over the course of the weekend what it must have been for our ancestors to spend months out at sea and then set the course for one final furlong to meet their loved ones back home," he explained.

Today, under the veil of modernisation, dhows have come to signify either a sunset dinner cruise or wooden boats that cram Dubai Creek, loading and unloading cargo meant for trading up and down the Arabian Gulf all the way to East Africa.

Sunday's race is a huge operation, with a range of government departments actively involved in the organising.

The government departments include Dubai and Sharjah Police, or the UAE Coastguard, paramedics, helicopters, catering, media or the latest in satellite communication.

Time has been a great leveller. Once estimated to be around 1,200 dhows actively involved in the trade, the "Al Gaffal" has managed to conserve at least a tenth of this number today. And now, after more than two decades of hosting the race, "legends" have been created.

Legends such as Barraq, who won in 1994, 1995 and then in 2001 and 2002; or Serdal who was victorious in 1996 and 1997, or Al Zeer, who took the title in 2003 and 2005 or Ghazi who won in 2004 and 2006.

And on Sunday afternoon, there will be one more winner added to this list of legends.

Bad weather forced the race to be moved from tomorrow to Sunday.


The hull of the dhow has to be 100 per cent wood, and it is also recommended that the main mast be made of wood, though the use of Kevlar and carbon fibre is also acceptable these days due to its better durability. The main mast in the centre is meant to propel the dhow while the second mast on the side is used to manoeuvre the boat.


The skipper's part is most crucial. Other than his superior knowledge of winds and weather conditions, he is meant to be like a hands-on general manager who has to be in complete control at all times.