'We've come a long way in a very short period of time,' said Sid BENSALAH, the regatta chairman and sailing manager at Dubai International Marine Club which is now seeing the benefits of the youth sailing programme it launched five years ago.
One of the products of the programme, Yousef Bin LAHEJ, last year became the first UAE national to qualify for an Olympic sailing event and is now skippering a UAE crew in the newly-launched Maktoum Sailing Trophy. Another, Adel KHALED, won the Laser 4.7 title at the 1993 European Championships and goes into next week's Dubai Junior Regatta aiming to improve on his fourth place overall last year.
When Bensalah arrived in Dubai in 1998 as coach of the Algerian team during the ISAF World Championship, he was hugely impressed by the facilities he found, by the development taking place in Dubai, and by the plans unveiled to him by DIMC managing director and regatta chief executive, Saeed Hareb.
'DIMC had been established by the Government to promote water sports and at the same time promote Dubai, and the UAE as a whole, as a tourist destination, and this has been a very successful project,' said Bensalah. 'When Saeed asked me to come here and help launch the youth sailing programme we started from zero because there was no national team and virtually no young nationals taking part in the sport. After establishing a national team we worked with Rashid School and Jebel Ali Primary School to introduce sailing into their sports programmes.'
With more schools soon to follow suit, more than 600 children are now being introduced to sailing on an annual basis in the UAE while the Dubai Junior Regatta and the UAE team's calendar of international events serve as added attractions.
In readiness for next week, the UAE team is being put through its paces at a training clinic at DIMC this week by top Italian coaches, Marcello TURCHI and Raymondo TONELLI. 'The team are all young, and the young learn easily so they are making progress,' said Turchi, who has coached five world championship winning teams and is in charge of the 13-strong UAE Optimist squad. 'We have to ensure that sailing is fun, because if they don't enjoy it they'll loose interest, never improve, and eventually drop out of the sport.'
That's a philosophy shared by Italian Olympic sailing coach Tonelli, who has taken the eight members of the UAE's Laser 4.7 team under his wing. 'It's important not to put too much pressure on kids,' he said. 'They must know the rules and they have to work hard, but they must also be allowed to have some fun as well.'
Taking place under the patronage of H.H.Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Chairman of Emirates, the Dubai Junior Regatta is organised by Dubai International Marine Club in conjunction with the UAE Marine Sports Federation and ISAF. The event is co-sponsored by Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort and Marina, the official hotel, Trek, Rudy Project, Al Boom Marine, Dubai's Victory Team Dboats, Speedboat Dubai LLC and El Mundo.
At this week's clinic for the UAE team, morning sessions focus on mechanical preparation of boats while afternoons concentrate on start and race tactics. Each day is topped of by a briefing and video analysis to iron out mistakes.
'We're using the clinic to see where they stand, what they lack, and prepare them for the event, and for future competition,'said Tonelli. 'Sailing is a little like Formula One racing. To be successful you have to have the right set-up, the right preparation, your body and your mind have to be right, and you have to cope with different conditions.'
Allowing the best young talent from the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait and Qatar to take on the sport's top teenagers worldwide, the Dubai Junior Regatta starts officially when teams from around the world arrive to begin practice on Sunday (January 23).
The race programme commences three days later and there will be separate courses for the Optimist and Laser 4.7 events, with 14 races in all.