In late 2011, the Sultanate of Oman expanded its Oman Sail program to include women. This year an all-women’s team, with four Omani sailors on board, including Raiya Al Habsi, 24, took part in February’s inaugural Sailing Arabia-the Tour, a series modeled after Europe’s Tour de France a la Voile. Also on board were a number of Western sailors, including British Vendée Globe veteran Dee Caffari and U.S. Volvo Ocean Race veteran Katie Pettibone. We caught up with Raiya Al Habsi to get her take on competitive sailing.
SAIL:How did you first learn about sailing?
RAH: The first time I heard about it was from my sister last July. There was an open day to try sailing, and my sister and I decided to go. I liked it. It is a unique sport. I had never sailed before and the moment I tried it, I was so happy.
SAIL:What other sports opportunities are there for Omani women?
RAH: There are many. Our country provides us with the opportunity to try everything. Women are now given almost the same chance as guys. I used to do volleyball, squash and swimming at school.
SAIL:How did you get to compete in Sail Arabia?
RAH: I worked hard to get into the race team, and we had to do tests. Thank God, I succeeded. Finally they announced the four girls, and I was one.
SAIL:What did you do on board during the race?
RAH: I had responsibility for the sails and spinnaker, depending on the wind. I helped get the spinnaker up and down and trim. The French lady Clare [Pruvot] taught me a lot.
SAIL:How did you find life offshore?
RAH: It was so unique. We saw many things, like dolphins. We didn’t sleep much, but if the wind died we might sleep for two hours. The longest leg was from Qatar to Abu Dhabi at 160 miles. I really enjoyed that leg.
SAIL:What did your family and friends think of this?
RAH: First of all they thought we were crazy. “Come on – are you going to spend two nights on the water?” Now they think, “This girl, she is serious,” and they are more proud of us and what we did. We came home without any broken arms, so they say, “OK, you are stronger than I was expecting.”
SAIL:Where does your sailing go from here?
RAH: My ambition is to do the Tour de France [a la Voile]. We want to see what other waters and other weather is like. If we work hard this year maybe we can watch the Tour Voile [in France] and see how the guys do it. It would be amazing if we can do Sail Arabia-The Tour again with the same ladies. I hope in the future for there to be more Omani girls doing this.
Read more about Oman Sail, plus video footage here.