Traditional mahmel rowing boats took to the water to race in a very modern setting but with a strong traditional feel recently in Ras Al Khaimah, the United Arab Emirates.

Commodore of the Ras Al Khaimah Sailing Association, RAKSA, Daniel Zeytoun Millie talked to World Rowing about the race at its origins.

World Rowing: What are the mahmel boats traditionally used for?

Daniel Zeytoun Millie: The 30’ mahmel carries 10 rowers and one sakounie (coxswain). The word mahmel derives from the Arabic verb hamala which means carry. Mahmel is actually a generic term, and there are actually quite a range of designs. The two competitive types, though, are the 30’ and 40’ hoori and the 33’ shahoof. The traditional purpose of the craft was as a water taxi and inshore fishing boat.
There are three racing categories for the UAE Mahmel:
1. The 30’ hoori, weighing not less than 450 kg,
2. The 40’ hoori, weighing not less than 670 kg, and
3. The 33’ shahoof, weighing not less than 450 kg.

WR:  Where did you get the idea to make it into a rowing race?

DZM: The idea is not mine at all. The sport has been going since the 1970s, principally as a way of maintaining the maritime traditions of the coastal peoples of the UAE. However, through my experience as the coach of the college crew, and now my heading the Ras Al Khaimah Sailing Association (RAKSA) as commodore I am in a position to introduce the sport to both expatriate and local males and females.
The sport is very enjoyable as the sensation of rowing a teak boat is quite something and there is also the element of culture: the sakounie uses the Arabic language only on the waters of Ras Al Khaimah with its history of sea faring and the remnants of old boats still lying around the shorelines of the khors (creeks). The sport is physically tough. Another fascinating aspect of the sport is the technical aspects of the mahmel and its oars. Special bindings are required. Boat owners have an intimate relationship with the boat builder, and so there is a great communal depth to the sport.
The heritage of Ras Al Khaimah rowing is very visible to us. Our hosting a heritage sport for the community of all people in our region is our Club’s way of contributing to the community. I see traditional rowing as an important boundary breaker. I am basing the competition on a corporate level. The sport entails costs, so basing the sport on organisations is one way of supporting the costs. Also, the sport has an important team building aspect, which also appeals to organisations.

WR: How many people were in each boat?

DZM: There were 10 rowers and a sakounie in each of the four boats that competed. Rowers were Emirati and expatriate, male and female. One interesting fact was that there was an Emirati female rower, wearing her traditional dress. I think this was a first.

WR: What does the sakounie do?

DZM: The sakounie helms the boat, encourages and ensures the rowers are in unison and rowing correctly. The sakounie is usually also the coach. The lighter the sakounie, the better.

WR:  On what body of water did you race?

DZM: We raced on Khor Al Mataf, the khor that runs from Al Ma’areedh to Al Rams.

WR: What were the water conditions like for the rowers?

DZM: Smooth. Rowing events are usually staged on the khors where the effect of swell is minimised. The craft, though, is designed to handle swell.

WR:  What was the distance for the race?

DZM: 2km. The usual length for the national level races is 4km.

WR: Do you know what nationalities were in the boats?

DZM: From all over the world and in terms of all the boats Indian would have been the biggest grouping. There were Emiratis’, Syrians, Iranians, Australians, Britons, Americans, Irish… it goes on. The winning RAKSA boat had four women and six men rowers.

WR: Is there any Olympic-type flat water rowing in Ras Al Khaimah?

DZM: No, there isn’t.