Photos © Mark Lloyd / www.lloydimages.com
Under clear blue skies and in the shadow of some of the UAE's best known landmarks, eight boats played a cat and mouse game over three in-port races for the latest leg of EFG Bank Sailing Arabia – The Tour, the Gulf region's only long distance offshore sailing race. By the end of the morning, the competition was on a knife edge, and an exciting leg lies ahead as the EFG Bank Sailing Arabia The Tour prepares to set sail for Dubai on Sunday. With light but constant winds, and in front of spectators on the water and on the Corniche, the racing was intense and the lighter boats had a field day, with EU student team Messe Frankfurt scoring a win in the first race over crews with many years of racing experience. Veteran Bertrand Pacé showed the value of his experience by clawing back a great result to finish equal first for the series with Marcel Herrera and Team Messe Frankfurt.
Just a quarter point separates the two leaders of EFG Bank Sailing Arabia – The Tour after the second round of in-port racing today. Three races were held in the lagoon between the state of the art facility of Abu Dhabi Yacht and Sailing Club and the world famous Corniche opposite.
The biggest surprise was that a student team should prove dominant today. The University of Plymouth crew on Messe Frankfurt won the first race and came home third in the latter two. Points-wise this left them joint winner of the day alongside substantially more experienced Frenchman and former America's Cup helm Bertrand Pacé and his AISM crew.
However the outcome was of less surprise to Messe Frankfurt's German skipper Marcel Herrera: "We had local knowledge: I've lived here for 13 years and I used to sail here. So we won the first race because we knew where to go while the other teams were watching. From there it went a bit downhill, but the whole team did quite well - we didn't make too many big mistakes. We are all buzzing."
All of the Messe Frankfurt crew are students and yet today they proved an equal match for some of the top names in yacht racing like Pacé and his pro crew or Sidney Gavignet and his team on EFG Bank (Monaco). While it can be intimidating sailing against America's Cup helmsmen and round the world race sailors twice their age, Herrera explained: "We won the first race, so our chins were up and we are looking to do a bit more. They have more experience on the boat, but we are mixing it up with them."
Herrera praised the team work on board and the skipper of Messe Frankfurt's inshore helmsman Matt Rainback.
From his side, Pacé's day on AISM was one of successful damage limitation. "In the first race we decided to go to the left, but the right was much better so we lost a lot, but we managed to keep in contact, and finished fourth. In the third I was a bit early, so I was obliged to turn back, but it was okay."
After today's racing AISM is now on 8.5 points in the overall results, just 0.25 behind the Cedric Pouligny-steered BAE Systems. "That is very close, but the offshores will decide who wins this event," advised Pacé.
There were mixed feelings on board EFG Bank (Monaco) today after she posted a pair of fifths but ended the day with a win, her first of the event to date. Skipper Sidney Gavignet admitted that he didn't have a clear enough plan in the first two starts and they weren't fully confident on judging the downwind sailing. "Today in the lighter winds the fleet was more compact but you paid for your mistakes. It was not an easy day."
Familiar with racing in Abu Dhabi is Gavignet's no 2, British former Volvo Ocean Race skipper Neal McDonald, who was here just over a year ago aboard Telefonica, at the time leading the fully crewed round the world race. "We didn't go too badly, we just never really got out of the blocks well and I didn't feel I did a good job. I threw away several places downwind, which is upsetting when you try so hard to get them," McDonald said.
Showing a considerable upturn in their performance since the in-port races in Doha was Dee Caffari's all-female team on Al-Thuraya Bank Muscat, which posted a 4-5 in today's latter two races.
"It was a huge improvement and I'm really pleased that we are in amongst it," agreed Caffari adding of her crew: "We talked a lot about the manoeuvres that were letting them down, and they have really upped their game, so I am really proud of them today. We turn at the marks now, which is always good especially when you are restricted by depth! We made a few changes and I think that's improved it."
The Al-Thuraya Bank Muscat all-female crew includes four 'pros' and four young aspirant Omani sailors. Omani bowman Raiya Al Habsi was delighted by her team's performance: "I am so happy with my work. I am more comfortable because we had some issues and we corrected them. I have learned about 100 things today! It was a big achievement for us to get a fourth and a fifth. It was very nice."
The action continues tomorrow as EFG Bank Sailing Arabia – The Tour continues with the short 78 mile offshore leg from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, which could see the young German skipper causing a major upset in the rankings. But with world class sailors like Sidney Gavignet, Dee Caffari and Bertrand Pacé still in the race, it will be a tough ask from the students.