Mark Lloyd / Oman Sail

Jump starting sailing in Oman

Oman Sail CEO David Graham updates us on the monster task they are undertaking

Wednesday March 7th 2012, Author: James Boyd, Location: Oman

If one drawback to sailing is that relatively few countries compete in it compared to mainstream sports, then the powers that be should be paying great attention to the initiative that has been underway for four years in Oman.

Oman Sail has been tasked by the Omani government to jump start sailing in their nation. They are ideally positioned to do this. Compared to other countries in the region, Oman has regions that are relatively lush or mountainous and, located on the southeast side of the Arabian Peninsula, the country has a coastline that faces the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. Not surprising given its geographic location at the top of the Indian Ocean, historically it has been a major seafaring nation, but until the Oman Sail initiative pleasure boating was nearly non-existent.

The drive to develop sailing comes at a time when the Omani government are investing in the development of new forms of trade to reduce the reliance of their economy on oil and one key aspect of this move is tourism - making use of their diverse and still relatively undeveloped coastline.

Three years ago David Graham took up his post as CEO of Oman Sail having previously run Laser both in the UK and North America. He was enticed into the job by silvery tongued Rod Carr. “Basically it was a very very unusual project and when I thought about the opportunities that were available in it and where I could take it and that it was an interesting job, basically I jumped at it,” says Graham, who moved to Oman full time with his wife and three children.

“I have been in sailing all my life in one way or another, but the sport of sailing - whether us sailors like it or not - is in decline. So if we could get this country up and running in the sport - that was a big attraction. In fact other countries are already approaching us to get it going in their countries too.”

Since Graham arrived the objectives of Oman Sail have been modified. Originally they had a maxi-trimaran built and had planned on starting and finishing a round the world multihull race in Oman and they had got a handful of Omani sailors involved in various aspects of this. Today their remit has developed beyond all recognition.

“One element of it is pushing the tourism side,” says Graham. “It is interesting using sailing because it is the right demographic: Oman is looking for wealthier tourists, the slightly more discerning traveller, and sailors are generally more wealthy. Then the other side is all socio-economic – skills transfer, employment, employability, and that runs right through our program. You won’t see a boat without an Omani on it and you won’t see a department in our company without an Omani in it.”

At present Oman Sail employs 165 people of which 85% are Omani, highlighting another remit for the company: job creation.

Oman is a small country with a population of the 3.2 million - similar that of Bristol. Around 800,000 are ex-pats. As Graham explains it: “It has a very young population and there are 50,000 young Omanis coming out of university each year looking to find employment, so we are getting support from ministries to make sure we can train people properly. It is all about getting jobs for Omanis. It is not a privately-owned company [Oman Sail], there are no ex-Pats earning millions of pounds out of it. It is basically an operation for the country, so we have a lot of locals working with us.”

To this end Oman Sail is to same extent itself taking the form of a mini-university. Graham provides an example: “There are not many accountants in Oman, so we have got a program where we are running an accountancy course to get ACCA accreditation, so we are making accountants in our accountancy department.” Elsewhere the marketing department is fully Omani, the operations departments is predominantly run by Omanis and in fact the only area where ex-pats are in the majority is in the technical areas and the management.

The area where they have created the most jobs is in sailing schools. At present they have set up three in Oman and there is a plan to launch four more over the next five years. This year one is opening at The Wave development just outside Muscat where the Extreme Sailing Series has just been held. Next year another is to opening down the coast in Sur, which Graham describes as a "state of the art sailing school". The training program being used, Graham, says is similar to the RYA’s and has been endorsed by ISAF.

In addition to offering employment, the sailing schools are also being set up to coax more Omanis out on the water. They have a very active ‘Try Sailing’ initiative under way and that in turn encourages Omanis to sign on for free sailing courses. “We have the aim to get 30,000 taught in five years,” says Graham. “We are two years in and have taught 7,000, but it will ramp up...”


Oman Sail are also involved in hosting international events. The Extreme Sailing Series coming to Muscat last week, its second visit in a three year deal. The Laser World Championship is scheduled to be held in nearby Mussanah in 2013 along with the ISAF Conference and Graham says they are talking to other dinghy classes and also to the Multi One Design class about hosting a stopover of their round the world race there over the winter of 2013-14.

They are also organising more local events in the region. The Extreme Sailing Series last week coincided with the end of the second annual Sail Arabia-The Tour. This event follows the model of the Tour de France a la Voile in that it coast hops around Arabia, starting in Bahrain and visiting Qatar and the UAE before passing through the Strait of Hormuz to get to the finish in Oman. This year’s race was contested by six teams including entries from Bahrain, Qatar, Ras Al Khaimah and Oman with the inclusion of the French crew on Team New Caledonia, which won last year’s Tour Voile.

“Three reasons Sail Arabia-The Tour was great,” says Graham. “Firstly the states could race each other, so you will churn out better sailors at the end of the day. Secondly all of the states it stopped in have a tourism strategy and they have a delightful coastline, so we can use that as a platform to speak about their country. Finally it is a pan-GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] sports property that stops in those states within two weeks and there isn’t another one of those. We think that because all of those countries are interesting to companies economically, that we’ll have a financially interesting rights situation for that regatta in years to come.”

With the Tour Voile adopting the M34 last year, so a lot of Farr 30s are up for sale and many have ended up in the region. “For 300,000 Euros you can buy 10!” says Graham. “I think the hull is ahead of its time. The Tour de France a la Voile made a big mistake going to the M34. The Farr 30 is a boat that just does what it says it is going to do, whereas the M34 is a boat full of compromises. I don’t think it will last very long that boat.” They should know - Oman Sail has fielded an entry in the last two Tour Voiles and is to do so again this year.

Oman Sail also runs Massanah Race Week for dinghy classes and Graham anticipates that when this takes place next week they’ll have somewhere between 150-200 dinghy sailors taking part. The event is to be sailed in Lasers, Laser Radials and Hobie 16s along with an ‘open catamaran’ class.

“The third one which we haven’t done yet is a beach event, a ‘Raid’, for about a week on beach catamarans going to the islands, camping out, etc,” says Graham.

Omani Olympians

Longer term Graham has designs on the Olympic Games and already they have set up a youth program with sailors coming in to train every week. While this is a case of sowing the seeds at present, in years to come the top sailors from this program will become the first Omani Olympic sailors. “The Olympic disciplines we are focussing on are catamaran, Laser, Laser Radial, RS:X Men and Women.” The aim is to send the first Omani sailing team to the Olympic Games in these classes in 2020 with the hope that come 2024 “we are going to do quite well in the Olympics - that’s the plan.”

In October last year they launched a ladies program and after a selection process they chose a group of 30 women to be taught to become sailing instructors. Of these four ended up as part of Dee Caffari’s crew on Al ThurayaBankMuscat in Sail Arabia–The Tour, alongside pros such as Christine Briand, Emma Westmacott and Katie Pettibone.


While Oman Sail started life as an initiative by the government with full funding provided for the first three years, since then national funding has scaled back and Oman Sail is having to get more money from the private sector. “We are about 30% private money and 70% government money right now,” says Graham. “But our sponsorship is going very well, relatively speaking. This year will be our best year with sponsorship - we’ll probably get around 5 million Euros in deals this year.”

Among the sponsorships that Oman Sail manage are that of their two Extreme 40s, The Wave, Muscat and Oman Air. “Oman Air and The Wave have paid their way and we are just running it for them. To be honest we were only planning to have one boat for this year, but it really worked for the Oman Air brand last year and they said ‘let’s continue with the Extreme Sailing Series’.”


Meanwhile due to be launched imminently is the Oman Sail MOD70 trimaran. This will be skippered by Sidney Gavignet who raced the Oman Air maxi trimaran in the 2010 Route du Rhum. This time their new MOD70 will be Oman branded. “It’s going back to our roots,” says Graham. “The government is our biggest sponsor and part of our core objective is to push tourism, so best not forget that...”

Among the MOD70's six crew will be two Omanis. “We are pushing the boundaries on that a bit, because those boats are on the edge,” says Graham. Brian Thompson is also due to be part of the crew.

“It is an interesting class,” says Graham of the Swiss-originated one design 70ft tris. “The way in is relatively inexpensive. The boats are 3.5 million Euros, so it is manageable and you don’t need an army logistically. We are spending about 3 million Euros on it a year.”

Going commercial

In addition to all its other activity, Oman Sail is in the early throws of developing its own commercial sector. They run the marina in Mussanah and have a charter business with a number of boats now available in which to visit Oman’s diverse and for westerners largely unexplored coastline and its uninhabited off-lying islands. “It is a lovely product. You are by yourself on golden beaches and turquoise seas,” enthuses Graham.

And while the sailing schools may offer free tuition to young Omanis, they are also set to be run commercially. “There are a lot of ex-Pats here and wealthy families who want to learn privately,” says Graham.

More is in the pipeline with Oman Sail set to get into the boatbuilding business with a line of boats believed to have been penned by Jo Richards, who worked with Graham at Laser. “We are not ready to announce anything yet but next time you visit we’ll be manufacturing boats,” he says.

“In 2024 if there is an Omani in the Olympics on the podium with a medal around their neck in a boat that was built in Oman – that would be a dream come true.”


Latest Comments

  • hspedding 08/03/2012 - 13:06

    Just to clarify that Sail Arabia - The Tour was contested this year by nine Farr 30's and Courrier Dunkerque came from France having won the Tour de France a la Voile last year and won convincingly.

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