Winds of change: dhow sailing

The maritime industry played a vital role in Dubai’s evolution, and the traditional sailing boats that were key to its expansion are making a comeback. Vision reports

On the banks of the Dubai Creek, the ancient commercial artery that runs through the city, the sleek glass and steel towers have competition on the horizon. Here, the towering white sails that flex in the breeze multiply in numbers every month. Dhows, the voluptuous vessels that once swarmed across the Middle East, are making a 21st-century comeback.  

Dhow sailing, which has strong traditions in trading, fishing and pearl diving, had become almost extinct in the UAE after decades of modernisation. However, it is now catching a fresh wind among Emiratis, particularly the younger generation, who are taking the boats’ iconic design and adapting it with modern materials to build competitive racing craft.

“I feel very proud when I see all those white sails speeding across the water, but it’s not just about racing – it’s about connecting with our heritage, too,” says Saeed Hareb, Chairman of the UAE Marine Sports Federation and Vice President of the Dubai International Marine Club (DIMC). “Dhow sailing is in our blood: it is a crucial part of our history, and it is good to see it becoming a part of our future. The number of craft entering races is increasing every year, and these are often being crewed by two or three generations of the same family: grandfathers, fathers, uncles, sons and cousins. It’s a wonderful sight.”

For centuries, Arab dhows were central to the pearling industry, which once thrived in the Gulf’s warm, shallow waters. Some 4,500 boats and as many as 74,000 men operated at the industry’s peak in the early 1900s, but an economic slump in the 1930s and the development of the cultured pearl industry in Japan left many abandoned. 

Pearl fishing has declined, but the dhows have returned, as a new generation of Emiratis take up the tiller.

Modern design

The traditional cotton used for sails has been replaced with fabrics that are stronger and lighter, such as nylon and polyester. The teak used for the hull has made way for Meranti wood, making the modern vessels about two-thirds lighter and considerably faster. But the iconic shape – particularly the instantly recognisable triangular sails – remains. It’s an image indelibly linked with Dubai, thanks to the high-flying Burj Al Arab, one of the world’s most luxurious hotels, with its billowing dhow-sail silhouette that rises 321m above the sea.
“The boats are handmade and built locally, often by their crews,” says Ali Juma Bin Ghulaita, acting CEO of the DIMC. “It takes up to six months to put one together, with timber from the coastal region of Kerala in India, or Africa and the Far East.”

Add carbon fibre masts and booms to the traditional design and the result is a fleet of craft that can glide across the waters of the Gulf at impressive speeds of more than 15 knots, or nearly 20mph.

During traditional pearl hunts dhows used to race to reach the richest pearl-hunting areas first, the crews eager to reap the financial rewards from finding a top-quality pearl. Today, that competition has evolved into a series of races with equally rich prizes at stake. Most notable among these is the “Al Gaffal” (meaning “Return”), which has doubled in size to more than 100 boats since it began in 1991.

Long tradition

The DIMC says it has introduced more than 1,000 locals to the sport of sailing in recent years. “Dhow sailing is an integral part of the UAE’s culture and heritage,” says Bin Ghulaita. “Our ancestors sustained themselves for generations by braving the high seas through whatever weather, pearl diving and fishing. It’s our aim to keep that tradition alive among today’s generation.”

Hareb also points to the revival of traditional rowing – in 30ft boats with 11-man crews – as another maritime activity enjoying a resurgence.

It’s a situation welcomed by Nasser Juma of the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, which organises the annual Dubai Marine and Heritage Festival.  

“We’re confident that the comeback of traditional pastimes like dhow sailing will prove an exciting new experience for athletes and enthusiasts alike, while bringing the UAE’s competitive spirit and forte to the forefront,” Juma says.
It’s a perspective shared by all involved – drawing inspiration from the past to build a stronger future in the emirate, partly through a resurgent seafaring heritage. “We are looking at the younger generation to push these traditions further now,” says Hareb. “As the towers build up, so should the sails.”