Muscat: The five pioneering women who flew the flag for Oman Sail in the Kingdom Match Race 2012 in Bahrain were described as 'diamonds of the regatta' for setting shining examples in the sport and the region.
Oman Sail's crew of Raja Al Owaisi (skipper) Raiya Al Habsi, Ibtisam Al Salmi and Tahira Al Yahyaee and Intisar Al Toobi were prominent at the annual event not just for being the only women's team in a field of 11 but also as the youngest sailors on the water, coming in at a massive 70kgs under the crew weight limit.
All five are members of Oman Sail's dynamic women's sailing programme which was launched in October 2011 to encourage more women in Oman to go sailing as part of a wider plan to bring Oman's rich maritime history and traditions back into everyday lifestyles.
Having never match-raced before, the girls were also among the most inexperienced crews but used the five day event held at the Bahrain Sailing Club near Al Jazayer Beach in Zallaq, as training ground for future events in 2013, the breezy conditions with gusts of up to 30 knots proving to be an extremely tough test for the women.
Putting the women into unfamiliar environments, where they benefit from being challenged under the safe guidance of coaches and experts with responsibility for their development, is a key part of the programme and prepares them for careers and directions designed to benefit both them and Oman. From the outset, the management team at Oman Sail invested a huge amount of time into working out what kind of people they wanted to get involved in the programme passion and commitment were top of the list of requirements and how to attract them.
Creating an environment in which women who wanted to try sailing could feel comfortable and grow in confidence was seen as pivotal to the programme so special changing rooms and training areas were designated at sailing schools while the importance of engaging family support was also identified as crucial to its success which led to a big emphasis on nurturing relationships with parents and siblings to pave the way for more enthusiastic participation.
Some of the world's leading female sailors including British yachstwoman Dee Caffari and Olympic gold medallist Shirley Robertson were brought in to inspire and instruct while pathways were marked out to give a clear picture how dreams and ambitions could be realised.
The match racing team in Bahrain provided a small glimpse of progress so far prompting Shaikh Khalifa bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, Chairman of the Bahrain Watersports Federation to celebrate them as the 'diamonds' of the competition during his commentary of the event, while the Jury and other teams praised them for their commitment and fearlessness in the challenging conditions.
"There was quite a lot of surprise and excitement surrounding the Oman Sail Women's Team," explained Oman Sail women's coach Sarah Hornby.
"It has never been seen out here before and women have never match raced in this part of the world.
"We were welcomed warmly and even though our lack of experience in the J24s was evident on the water, the umpires and committee were very patient and encouraging.
"It was exactly what we needed and hopefully it will inspire other women to compete. We would like to generate support from other GCC countries so they can implement programmes and offer more competitions."
The girls recently sailed in Muscat Regatta together, winning the inshore race and coming fourth in the offshore event under the watchful eye of skipper Dee Caffari, the British yachtswoman.
Match racing, where two boats go head to head in a game of strategy and high intensity requires a different tactical approach and according to Hornby, Oman Sail's women were quick to pick up the rudiments.
"This is a totally different style of racing to what they are used to — they have to be aggressive and attack the other boat," she said.
"On the first day they were quite hesitant and held back a little but by the end, they were really going for it. We also managed to avoid collisions, which was good.
"Their attitude was fearless - their biggest challenge was the fact they are so small and they were completely new to the J24s. But they managed the boat well despite that so they can compete with the boys and there was a marked improvement over the four days.They loved it - they have already asked me to find the next match racing event. They seem to really enjoy the pace of this kind of racing and all the highs and lows that go with it."
Oman Sail Women's Team, which now features a squad of seven Omani women, will next compete in the EFG Bank Sailing Arabia - The Tour in February while Hornby and Shatha Al-Zadjali, who is managing the women's team project, are seeking J80 match racing regattas in Europe next year where skills can be honed and experienced gained.