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.
For centuries the people of the Gulf barely eked an existence out of their brutally hot and dry environment, with fishing and pearl diving their only source of income. During the summer months, men would leave their desert oases to join the pearling fleet. That fleet, which numbered as many as 1,200 at its peak, consisted of several different styles of boat — Sam'ah, Shahouf, Bagarah and Jalboot in the local dialect — which, along with various types of fishing boat and the larger trans-ocean cargo boats, were known generically as dhows. Their design changed little over the ages and, in the mahmel boats that make up today's racing dhow fleet, we see a strong resemblance to the Jalboot. Built to a 200-year-old design, with their broad beam, shallow draft and lack of a weighted keel (the ballast being up to 50 sandbags plus the crew's weight) they are more like an 18-foot skiff than an America's Cup yacht. They carry a vast amount of sail — and, like the AC boats, have no engine.
After pearling in the Gulf was decimated by the advent of cultured pearls in the 1930s, the boats were left to languish.
By the mid-1980s there were a mere handful left — and the boats that served the pearl diving trade were on the verge of extinction. That's when Shaikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum stepped in, asking Dubai International Marine Club to begin promoting and organising dhow races in order to preserve the heritage. Under the leadership of its chairman Saeed Hareeb, DIMC set up races to encourage the building of new boats and established rules to ensure that the mahmel retain the traditional design: they must be built only of teak, the hull planks set edge-to-edge not overlapped, varnished not painted (traditionally the hulls were limed below the waterline to deter barnacles and the rest left untreated). The lateen rig (a type of sail), remained unchanged, although sails are now allowed to be polyester rather than cotton. In order to preserve the integrity of the tradition, and the oral history that goes with it, dhow racing is open only to Emiratis. Dhow-builders are busy again — the master carpenters, originally from India's Malabar coast (from where the teak originates) are handing down the skills to the next generation. At Al Bateen yard in Abu Dhabi, regarded as the best mahmel builder in the country, there is a backlog of orders. Until earlier this year the dhows took shape on the sand there, amid a thicket of palm trees — the boards hand-sawn and chiselled as they had been for centuries; now the yard has been moved to a new location to make way for redevelopment. Still there are no drawings or plans; the design exists only in the mind's eye of the builder.