Spent the weekend helping out with managing the racing at Dubai Offshore Sailing Club (DOSC). The event was the 4th round of the UAE National Championships, two days of dinghy racing. For the sake of readers not familiar with the magic art of dinghy racing I’ll start with Saturday and then go back to Friday for reasons that I hope become obvious as I write. The aim of our volunteering is that we want to be back on the water as soon as possible and helping out at DOSC can bump you up the waiting list of of membership applicants whilst from our perspectve it would help us get to know a few people here.

The Start
Waking up on Saturday morning was hard, Kevin arrived on a slightly delayed flight from the UK at just after 1am so we’d had about five hours sleep. Arriving at DOSC in time to get a coffee and collect our lunch pack we joined the race team briefing. Today’s task was to be part of the committee boat crew. The boat in question is a broad dory with a pair of huge outboard engines providing a flat, relatively stable platform from which to start the races even in the strong breeze that was kicking up a choppy sea. Four races in all, five starts per race for the different groups of boats.

Sailing dinghies come in all shapes and sizes and boats of an identical design are termed a class. Here in Dubai the classes were Optimists – the largest class with around 30 entries, Laser 4.7s – the next largest group, Laser Radials, standard Lasers, Catarmerans and an Open dinghy class for everything else with just two boats a trimaran and a two handed monhull. Lasers look like windsurfer boards with a shallow cockpit and a single unsupported mast, the difference betwen them being mainly related to the size of the sail and the age of the single crew. Radials and 4.7s are sailed by teenagers, the Standard with its larger sail requires a modicum of bodyweight, so is usually sailed by (heavier) adults. Optimists are tiny bathtubs whose helms must be under 13 and are mostly under 10, they zip around like a cloud of tiny gnats apparently fearless even in the waves and stiff wind that was blowing. They treat capsizes as part of the fun and often have to be entreated by their coaches to leave the water when close to exhaustion!

For piccies see here

Laying the Course
So the day began. For the committee boat the technical part is setting the course correctly with an upwind start so, having anchored a mere five minutes north of the harbour in the partial lee of man-made islands of The World to the west of us, the measuring began. Suze (a sailing instructor here who we know from Bahrain) stood in the bow measuring wind angles and the outer buoy was laid so that the start line between boat and bouy was as close to right angles to the wind as possible. Then the buoy layers headed off upwind on the course given by Race Officer Joel (DOSC’s Sailing Manager) to lay the windward marks, a nearer one for the small Optimists, the further one for everyone else. Then they completed laying other buoys to provide a selection of triangular and sausage shaped courses. Every boat would sail a triangle and a number of sausages but depending on size and therefore speed the combination was varied by class.

Racing yachts and dinghies like cricket is a gentlemans sport with rules that seem archaic and meaningless to the untutored eye while the actual racing is not a prime candidate as a spectator sport unless viewed from another boat moving around the course. Like a good novel a race has three principle parts the Start, the actual race and the Finish with rules that govern each. The Committee Boat is primarily concerned with the Start and controls everything with flags back up by optional sound signals.

Tasks were allocated Joel was in overall control, Kevin had the watch, Marie (an Indian national looking for work as a lawyer) and Susie were to manage the flags, Suze to record the actual starters (the boats being identified by numbers on their sails) together with race start times and Kevin 2 (an Amercian employed by one of the UAE newspapers) had the video camera to record the starts to ensure we identified correctly any boats over the line before the start. The bouy laying boat assumed a position at the outer end of the line to assist in the latter task too.

Flags Explained
With the orange flag up indentifying ourselves as the Committe Boat and already surrounded by a flock of Oppies we raised the red and white triangular AP (officially the signal flag called the Answering Pennant form the days when flags were used by HM’s Navy to communicate between ships) to indicate a postponement together with two horn blasts. We would not start dead on the 11am indicated in the sailing instructions issued to the sailors before we left the shore. When all was ready with flags untied for a quick hoist, Kevin took up the watch counting down to a convenient time of 4 minutes past the hour. Down came the AP with a blast of the horn. The oppies began to converge on us expectantly. One minute later as the AP came down up went their white class flag with its Q logo, thirty or so oppies surged away dodging and weaving around their fellows to find the best spots on the line. Another 50 seconds and Kevin started his count down again 10, 9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 go, up went the square Preparatory flag with its blue boarder and white central square (representing the letter “P”), Joel simultaneously sounding the horn, Kevin 2 taking his place behind Joel looking down the line.

The youngsters careering about in the hectic seas peered over their shoulders at us and those who hadn’t already done so at the class flag hoist, set their watches as the “P” went up. Three minutes later and one minute before their start Maria took  the “P” down at Kevin’s time signal. Then “thirty seconds” Kevin called, Susie undid the class flag string whilst Maria readied the yellow class flag of the next set of starters, the Laser 4.7s.  5,4,3,2,1, Go coincided with a  flag down, and a flag up. The oppies zipped away cleanly not a single recall (for a boat over the line) necessary, they were beating (sails hauled right in and sailing as close to the wind as possible), mostly heading south-ish at 30 degrees or so to the line away from us. Meanwhile we went through the same sequence another four times starting the 4.7s then the Radials followed by the few Standard Lasers and finally the combined Cats and Open boats.  We hadn’t time to watch the melee of boats heading up the course.

Time to Watch the Sailing
The high tech cats and the single trimaran choose to hang around a few hundred yards off our stern behind us before their start. It was odd going through the process without actually seeing the boats it was intended for, leaving the crew and helm of the sole Kestrel with a bright yellow hull to plough up and down the line alone. As their class flags came down the multihulls with their almost transparent sails came whistling through. The Kestrel pulled in her sails and headed on a course as close as possible to the wind slicing through the now sizeable waves at perhaps 40 degrees to the wind. It would take them several changes of direction (tacks) sailing around twice the actual distance before they reached their target and could ease the sails to reach to the next mark of their first triangle. Meanwhile on board we helped Suze complete the paperwork, with start times and fleet numbers before relaxing for the next hour or so. We could watch, chat and potentially eat our lunches before race one was complete then we would run through the starting process all over again. Joel occasionally dealt with infringements into the course area by boats minding visiting Oppie competitors.

Four races later we were exhausted but happy, not a single hitch on the committee boat and only a few individual recalls of overeager Oppies who all returned to cross the line correctly or took their penalty so we didn’t need recourse to disqualifications. One or two boats approached us after completing one or other race to lodge a protest against a boat they felt had infringed the rules in some way. The crew was instructed to fill in a form once ashore, we informed the Race Office and ultimately Joel convened a Protest Committee including Kevin to hear three protests none of which impacted the results and two of which involved the same two Oppie helms – young pirates in the making! We ended the day with the prize giving (first, second and third in each class) and a BBQ of burgers and sausages.

The Finish
Back to Friday, overall a much windier day. Kevin was somewhere in the air between Las Vegas, Gatwick and ultimately Dubai. After a 10am briefing of the sailors and then the race management volunteers (race officers and safety boats) with one last dash to the loos, three of us headed for a tiny 22 foot yacht (a J22) which was to form one end of the finish line. Joel provided directions over the VHF radio and we dropped two small fortress anchors, later we added a slightly larger one from one of the safety boats to prevent us dragging further towards the beach in the rough seas! An outer bouy was laid to mark the other end of the line. The J22 was bobbing up and down some 50 metres from start line, almost at right angles to it and not far off the stone reef protecting the beach. All three of us lined up part of the boat with buildings ashore to check if we wer moving, a precaution which became a feature of our day!

Boom off and stowed below to make space on deck we hoisted a blue flag on the mast to mark the actual end of the line, Alistair, sailing instructor James (coincidentally also a Harris) and I settled down with horn and clipboards to await the first finishers. Alistair called out sail numbers and boat class as they approached then sounded the horn as boats crossed the line. James and Susie each recorded the time to the nearest second for each competitor to ensure we captured everyone. The boats arrived in batches and at times it was quite hectic with the horn sounding almost continuously. Some boats failed to cross the actual line, passing the wrong side of the outer end – their helms would be cross to find they’d scored a Did Not Finish (DNF) but after eight races could discard their two worst scores.

In fact once the first boat’s time was recorded for a class with the exception of the open & cat classes only the position of the finisher was needed. Twenty minutes was added to the time of the first finisher to compute the time limit for each class, any boats crossing the line after that would be said to be out of time and score a DNF. We relayed these time limits as they were established to the Committee Boat so Joel could judge when to start the next race. For the open boats and the cats each boat’s time would be needed to calculate on handicap their actual finishing position. The handicap attempts to level out the differences between the boats to enable different boats to race each other – another apparently mysterious art which works surprisingly well!

The little J22 had to re-anchor after race one as it had dragged dangerously near to the rocks extending the finish line to a ridiculous length. Through the day the numbers of competitors diminished as the wind ground down the stamina of the young helms and capsizes resulted in mechanical failure for other boats. Eventually half the orginal fleet of about sixty boats remained so the finishing task became easier. For the final race with a slight change in wind direction we moved to use the end of the start as our own outer distance anchoring at 90 degrees to the start line. Alistair was feeling the pain of hauling up anchors by the time we were done plus he’d had to hold onto all three on the tiny unguarded foredeck on his own whilst we motored into position each time as Susie & James’ weight was needed in the cockpit to keep the outboard in the water in the bumpy seas!

By 4 pm everyone had finished. It was time to hoist all three anchors once more (we felt sympathy for Alistair but he did volunteer to heave on the lines one final time), stow them below and head in. The wind had eased only a tad so the little outboard struggled to keep the boat making way towards the harbour as waves broke over our seaward side. Everyone got a thorough soaking and by the time we were tied up the chilly breeze ensured discomfort all round. A quick check with the race office to confirm tomorrow and I was in the car with the aircon off to drive home for a hot shower and a long evening at home before heading to the airport. 

So there you have it – volunteering as a race officer is as important to ensure a successful race series as having enthustiastic competitors to take part and (almost) as enjoyable.