Sir Bu Naair. The highlight of this year’s 60ft traditional dhow sailing will take place on Saturday May 17th with the hosting of the 24th Edition of the Al Gaffal, a 50 nautical mile race from Sir Bu Naair Island to Mina Seyahi. The race, one of the biggest in the world will see one hundred odd 60ft dhows competing for the much sort after title and prize.
Over 100, 60ft Dhows have registered for the race and will hoist their sails early on Saturday morning on the start line at Sir Bu Naair Island and will head easterly for 23 nautical miles to a check point at Moon Island before turning south easterly to the finish line off Mina Seyahi. Since the announcement of the first race by HH Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum in 1991 as an attempt to revive the seafaring heritage of the UAE the race has grown in to an operation involving over 3,000 people. It is a race which everyone looks forward to. ‘It symbolizes the end of the season; it is a celebration of all the races throughout the year and a culmination of bringing everyone together in a sea of culture and tradition’ said Saeed Harib, Vice President DIMC.
The dhow carries the exotic and mysterious heritage of traditions dating back to the pearl merchants and Sir Bu Naair Island represents a strategic point for the sailors as it was used as a stopover by the pearl diving dhows on route home to Dubai after their long trips at sea.
Sir Bu Naair Island first found ‘fame’ because of the route of the pearl divers which was named ‘Al Gaffal’ meaning ‘closure’ and this inspired HH Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s announcement of the annual race.
Dubai International Marine Club (DIMC) took its role to keep the roots of the previous generations very seriously and organised the first race on May 23rd 1991. That year saw a fleet of 53 dhows, in various lengths and designs. The vessels were not all designed for a long distance race and didn’t reflect the exact design of the traditional dhows of the past but the race represented the beginning of a new era for dhow sailing in the Emirates. Investment and research became part of a project aiming to discover how to improve the dhows and enable them to become safer and more sea-worthy and suitable for the long distance race.
H.H. Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum wanted the dhows used for the race to be replicas of the past, genuine dhows used for the ancestral pearl diving trade to remind the present and future generations of the traditional route ‘Al Gaffal’ and the heritage which surrounds it.
The second race on May 22nd 1992 saw many changes to the dhows, the hulls, sails and also the sailing techniques used by the sailors. However, the changes were yet to meet the high expectations of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who wanted this new sport to reflect and celebrate the true heritage of the UAE.
On reviewing the information collected over the races, H.H. Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum decided to make the ‘Al Gaffal’ race exclusively for 60ft Dhows. He appointed Dubai International Marine Club (DIMC) to define the new technical rules and regulations of the boats and supervise the building of the dhows.
DIMC set a deadline of two years (1992 – 1994) for competitors to build their new 60ft racing dhows under the new regulations, but to the great surprise of the Organizers 16 new regulation specific dhows emerged in the racing fleet of May 26th 1993. The new rules called for among other things a standard boat of 60ft bearing two sails.
In the transition year of 1993, 43ft and 60ft boats raced alongside each other from Sir Bu Naair, with race results being awarded separately. The longer 60ft boats had an advantage over the smaller boats and proved to be more sea-worthy and faster in long distance races. H.H. Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum and H.H. Sheikh Mohamed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum followed the progress closely. What H.H. Sheikh Hamdan initially had predicted, proved to be right and the 60ft standard boats showed extra safety, higher speeds and greater long distance endurance.
The development of the ‘Al Gaffal’ race took place in three stages:
In 1991, there were no 60ft Dhows, mainly a variety of smaller boats.
In 1992, 60ft dhows competed alongside 43ft Dhows.
From 1994 to date, exclusively only 60ft dhows have sailed in the annual ‘Al Gaffal’ race.
The development of this race forced the division of the Traditional Dhow Sailing Championships into three categories:
The 22ft Championship
The 43ft Championship
The 60ft Championship
In 1994, with the support and guidance of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, DIMC succeeded in structuring and standardizing the race as well as reviving the traditions of dhow sailing activities within the UAE and began its own tradition of closing the season the same as the forefathers with the ‘Al Gaffal’.
The race this Saturday in all its simplicity and authenticity which represents so much of this countries rich heritage will be another breathtaking sight as the dhows appear over the horizon off Mina Seyahi with their white sails dotted as far as the eye can see heading home in much the same way as their ancestors.
Technical details and Rules
60 feet traditional dhow sailing
This fleet of dhows were earlier used as fishing vessels for pearl diving. They are 60 feet in length and are made from solid wood. They could have up to 20 crewmembers aboard. At the end of the sailing season in Dubai as many as 100 dhows participate in the Al Gaffal (the return) Sir Bu Naair race which is supported by HH Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Finance Minister and Deputy Ruler of Dubai.
Details about the 60ft Dhow:
Length – 60 feet wood only
Width – 14 feet
Depth – 4.6 feet
Weight – open
Mandatory – 2 oars per boat
Dhagal – main mast – wood, kevlar, composite or aluminium – 38 feet
Dastoor – bowsprit – wood, kevlar, composite or aluminium – 38 feet
Farman – sail spar – wood, kevlar, composite or aluminium – 65 feet
2nd sail boom (called khailame with sail)
Dhagal – main mast – wood, kevlar, composite or aluminium not more
than 32 feet
Farman – sail spar – wood, kevlar, composite or aluminium not more than 55
Design of the boat and the sail has to be traditional. Material for the sail is
All crew members have to be UAE nationals.
Number of crew is not less than 10.
Boat number should be displayed in English on both sides of the boat
towards the bow and on the sail according to specifications.
Start Signal: Orange Flare
Life jackets have to be worn by each crew member when necessary, not
For communication a mobile phone or radio that is registered with the
registration office at DIMC.
2 suitably sized anchors with 150 meters minimum rope with a life buoy.
First aid kit.
28 feet support boat.
Rules of the race:
Starting procedures apply.
Crossing the start line.
During the race:
If a sailor should fall off the boat while racing, it is mandatory that the boat
stop and help him. A yellow flag should be raised as a notice to others.
Failing to help a fellow crew member may result in a disqualification. The
fallen crew may not return to the same boat for continuance of the race but
may join the support boat.
The first 3 winners must be at the podium within 15 minutes of the
completion of the race.
Red Flag – cancellation of the race.
Any damage to crew, boat or equipment is the sole responsibility of the
owner/ crew/ skipper.
Ballast and garbage are not to be thrown into the sea. Ballast sand
however, may be emptied and the bag retained on the boat.