Sunday, May 15, 2011

Dhows: the traditional wooden Arabian vessels

For a while now I’ve wanted to write a post about the beautiful dhows – the traditional wooden Arabian trading and working vessels – I often see cruising by.
Unfortunately, apart from the fact that dhows were mostly used in the past for fishing and pearl diving, I don’t really know much else about them.
So, to better understand the current role of dhows here in the country and the enchantment behind the dhow races that take place along the UAE coast, I decided to interview Erika Lessmann, a good friend of mine who is also a very experienced sailor and the Captain of a Swan Club 42 run by Abu Dhabi Charters (

Why are dhows so important here in the UAE?
Well, before the discovery of oil, dhows were used for fishing, transportation of merchandise and pearl diving and trade – the basis for UAE economy back then. Today dhows are a part of the UAE culture, its history and heritage and can be found in various shapes and sizes, built according to purpose. They can still be used for fishing and transportation, but can also be a stylish cruising yacht or, the most beautiful of all, the racing dhows, maintained by the families and indirectly sponsored by the government as an attempt to preserve tradition.
Are the present dhows any different from the ones used for fishing and pearl diving years ago?
Dhows keep the traditional lines and still have a very primitive side, especially if you look at them from the outside. However, many improvements can be perceived. Fishing dhows have engines and no longer use sails anymore. Racing dhows are now made of some sophisticated materials, such as carbon fiber mast and booms and additional equipment. When built for pleasure, for some wealthy people, they are restructured to accommodate all the luxury, modern technologies and amenities – although the hull maintains the characteristics of the traditional dhow, like the ‘saveiros’ in Brazil.
When and where do dhow races take place here in the UAE?
Usually the dhow race season goes from November through May, with the main sailing events happening along the coasts of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. There are dhows of 20, 40 and 60 feet and for each one of them there are a series of races with cash prizes.
What is the range of the cash prizes involved?
It varies a lot. The race that happened in Dubai on May 11 paid AED 120,000 (approximately USD 33,000) to the dhow that came in first. But others, like the Sir Bu Nuair Dhow Race, the biggest in distance and number of participants, offer up to AED 10 million (around USD 3 million) in cash prizes.
Who can participate in dhow races?
Enrollment is open only for locals and GCC citizens - and it is certainly only for men. I was never able to get hold of the rules and regulations as they are only in Arabic, but I know they are very strict. Participants have to abide to several regulations regarding the design of the boat, the materials used and so on. In addition, the families of dhow sailors are historical and very well known. There is a lot of hierarchy and tradition maintained with great pride by all.
Have you ever had the chance to sail a dhow?
Yes and I must say it is amazing. The huge sails, the way the vessels are maneuvered at sea, the rituals involved… These boats only sail in a specific wind direction and have to be towed against the wind to the racing course. They do not have a keel therefore cannot sail upwind. It’s a sight for the eyes.
What do you offer with your Swan Club 42 – which is not a dhow, but also an amazing boat?
Sailing trips for a minimum of four and a maximum of eight guests. Usually the trips take three to four hours and can be booked for mornings, evenings or sunset – a great way to finish the day and enjoy the Abu Dhabi skyline. Racing, corporate trips, only women, special gifts… there are many options for you to choose from. It is an unforgettable experience. To book, you can email or call +971 50 612 9445.

Note: Erika Lessmann was recently interviewed by The National, a local newspaper. Click here and check out this great video: about the joys of sailing in Abu Dhabi. The pictures below are also a courtesy of Erika.

1 comment:

  1. Mari: it is always a pleasure to read your blog. Congratulations.