As Oman Sail celebrates the highlight of its European season at Cowes Week and gears up for the Artemis Challenge on Thursday and the Sevenstar Round Britain and Ireland race at the weekend, the team took a step back to reflect on the journey so far…
The Oman Sail vision of using the power of sport to promote the country, to contribute to its economy and to drive the personal development of its people is ambitious but in the six years since the Sultan of Oman gave the programme his blessing, it has gathered pace at a breathtaking level and with investment, energy and meticulous planning is making a major impact on the sport worldwide.
2014 Cowes Week - © Lloyd Images
For example, in the past 12 months, 27 athletes from Oman Sail, including 11 youngsters under 16 years of age, have represented their country in international regattas and competitions. Six of these have competed in Olympic class regattas or Extreme Sailing Series events and a further ten sailors, male and female have been earning their spurs among international fleets in M34, MOD70 and J80 events, mainly in Europe.
This week, in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, three Omani sailors will set off on the Sevenstar Round Britain and Ireland Race, representing 50% of the crew on the Oman Sail flagship MOD70 Musandam-Oman Sail. They are up against some of the best sailors in the world but have a very good chance of taking line honours. They are favourites too for line honours in the Artemis Challenge around the Isle of Wight on Thursday.
These athletes represent the tip of an iceberg for Oman and if the plan continues to evolve with such astounding results, there will be an Omani national competing at Olympic level by 2020 and perhaps even a team of Omanis competing in a professional round the world race.
Sarah Ayton, the British double Olympic gold medallist who races on Oman Sail’s Extreme 40 The Wave, Muscat attributes her success in part to competing on a world class circuit at a young age.
'It is vital for these sailors to compete at international level because there is a lot of learning to be done – even when you compete at the Olympic Games, the winners are not necessarily the best sailors but the ones with the best support infrastructure and that is what Oman Sail has grasped so they will definitely achieve results,' she said.
'All it takes is for one driven individual then anything becomes possible,' she added.
Extreme Sailing Series 2014, Act 4 - St Petersburg. The Wave, Muscat tactician Sarah Ayton (GBR) - © Lloyd Images
'Oman Sail has now introduced 16,500 children to sailing compared to 200 in 2008 and the goal is 70,000 by 2020 so I think it is a case of watch this space.'
Behind the scenes, the story is equally impressive. To achieve such ambitious ideals, a major recruitment drive had to be undertaken to put expertise in place and in 2008, 32% of Oman Sail’s start up team of 68 people, mainly coaches, managers and specialist staff, came from overseas.
Today, staff numbers have increased to 196 and the proportion of Omanis has risen to 81%. In 2008 there were 12 internationally qualified sailing instructors, all male. At the last count in 2013, there were 68 total, of which 53 are male and 15 female.
2014 Cowes Week - © Lloyd Images
The Oman Sail HQ is based in Muscat but its sailing hubs are now spread across the country with sailors, instructors and race officials working out of four sailing schools at Mussanah, Muscat, the original one at Bandar Al Rowdha and the latest one in Sur. Another four will be built over the next six years.
The vision for Oman as a hive of sailing activity is starting to materialise and Mohsin Al Busaidi, the former Navy officer who was one of Oman Sail’s original seven recruits and became the first Arab to sail around the world non-stop, is well aware that Oman’s sporting and cultural landscape is changing.
'Oman Sail has made a massive difference to my life,' said Al Busaidi who is now in charge of the offshore and women’s programmes.
'The project always had very clear goals and six years later they are still clear which makes it much easier for the kids to achieve their aims if they work hard. Our women’s programme has been especially successful. It has not been easy for young girls in the past to go sailing in Oman but many of them have grasped the opportunity with Oman Sail and it is making a difference to how Oman is seen. Women have equal opportunities to be sailors, instructors or whatever role they choose. That was our goal and we are achieving it.'
Musandam-Oman Sail will race the Artemis Challenge tomorrow and the Sevenstar Round Britain and Ireland at the weekend.
Damian Foxall (IRL) on Oman Sail's MOD70 Musandam during Kiel week 2014, 22-06-2014, Kiel - Germany - Sander van der Borch