By day, the operation was a model of efficiency, and it was a privilege of arriving early to witness the mammoth commitment of resources and incredible co-ordination that brought the regatta facilities to fruition. An army of local volunteers, the very lifeblood of any regatta worldwide, oiled the wheels of efficiency and did so in the most gentle of Arabian manners. The America’s Cup branding, meanwhile, was everywhere – even far downtown on the outskirts of this bustling metropolis on vast screens set to the sides of the motorways, in alleyways, shopping malls and walkways. Jeddah fully embraced the event and, undoubtedly, caught a healthy dose of Cup fever.
It was the ‘art of the possible’ in action and the overall result was a triumph. By night, the venue shone like nothing before with spotlights crazing the night sky all around the beautiful marina as the angular architecture of the Jeddah Yacht Club at the harbour entrance opposite the ornate and historic Al Rahmah or ‘Floating Mosque’ lit up in a million twinkling lights. They do night light well in Saudi Arabia and the visual delight was nothing but a continuous feast of class and enlightening exuberance.
The city and its leaders put on a spectacle that was ultimately bold and foresightful with an underlying goal of inspiring the next generation through their ambitious Academy programme at the Jeddah Yacht Club. It did that with aplomb and it was encouraging to see all the teams get involved with representatives and sailors meeting the children, holding talks, getting out on the water to impart tips and connect with the next generation of young girls and boys of the Kingdom as they take to sailing, many for the very first time.
What made it though, were the Saudi people, some of the most hospitable, friendly, polite, cheerful, and welcoming people on earth with a warmth that touched everyone who attended. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was too much trouble and their interest in this westernised sporting event was one of genuine fascination. They are getting used to football, motorsport, golf, tennis, athletics and every flavour of combat sports but the chance to see apex sailing was genuinely applauded.
We were welcomed to the Kingdom with open arms and hearts and enjoyed un-paralleled hospitality in this beautiful, historic city that easily but respectfully fuses tradition with modernity. We were graced with the presence of His Royal Highness Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal, the visionary Minister of Sport for the Kingdom whilst Hassan Alkabbani, the President of the Saudi Sailing Federation was an ever-present around the venue and hosted the most generous of welcome banquets at his private residence. Samia Bagdady, the enigmatic star and focal-point of Saudi sailing, alongside being the CEO of the Saudi Sailing Federation, brought a sense of determination and real class to promote sailing in the Kingdom – Samia is a deeply impressive individual.
A genuinely curious Saudi public took the America’s Cup to their hearts with some 33,000 individuals registering for tickets to attend the Fan Zone and Race Village stretching onto the vast expanse of the waterfront Jeddah Corniche ribbon that was the beating heart of the event.
To walk through during an evening was to see joy on display with families immersing themselves in the Cup, the sailors, the history, and the majesty of the most prestigious event in sailing coming to the Kingdom. As a westerner it was here where the welcome was warmest with cheerful locals stopping to say hello, asking where we came from and more often than not, to tell a story of their time in your country. They took the time to give of their best with upmost respect and it’s something hard to forget.
And what of the Red Sea itself – a vast untapped waterway bristling with sea-life and primed for activation by the global sailing community. Incredibly warm thermals floated down from Egypt in the north-west and Sudan to the immediate west to deliver divine sailing conditions from the books of fiction or fantasy and created a nautical playground unparalleled anywhere in the world. It was stunning, sheer and utter other-worldliness with sunsets that defined beauty and sunrises that captured an Arabian spirit of hope that were simply too good to miss.
Highlights were many, too many for here, but a visit to the ancient, 1,400-year-old town of Al Balad, down to the south of Jeddah city was a sensory trip into the past, of an Arabia of everything you ever imagined or have seen on the silver screen. The smell of spices filled the air whilst the wholesalers plied their trade in lavish upholstery amidst now-protected architecture and building practices of a bygone age. The area is set for renovation – not to new, but back to centuries-old glories of tradition and craftsmanship. It is, as with everything in the Kingdom, ambitious in its ideas and design and the restoration vision will, undoubtedly, be achieved.
What was activated off the water, was matched on it, with the professional sailors putting on one heck of a show in World Sailing’s rightful ‘Boat of the Year’ – the AC40. The memory of the final two race days, where the AC40s were unleashed in 16-20 knots of solid Red Sea breeze is something that the entire sailing world needs to pay attention to. This is the future of the sport globally, and on a shifting, competitive, landscape the America’s Cup claimed its rightful top billing.
Credit to the sailors, their professionalism and sports-craft was exemplary and off the water, bar none, they were from top to bottom, supreme ambassadors for all that is good in the sport. The camaraderie dockside and at the various locations that were taken over for the event created a strong bond of community, strangers thrown together in an untapped, buoyant, optimistic land, and it was electric to be a part of it.
After eight fleet races and a desperately close Grand Final, Emirates Team New Zealand emerged as winners. It was a popular win and reward for a tight-knit programme from a team that leaves very little to chance.
In victory they were gracious, receiving the trophy with humility but a deep-rooted sense of a job well done. Their narrow loss in the first Preliminary Regatta back in September in Vilanova was avenged, but the Defenders of the America’s Cup are all too well aware that the Challengers, from all angles, are coming up fast.
Leaving the country from the stunning King Abdulaziz airport, there’s a strong urge to return. A country so welcoming and so warm, in so many more ways than mere temperature, it’s a bucket-list destination, a must-do, and a life-enhancing experience that is both humbling and inspiring that challenges perception, belief and understanding. It’s a visionary place with a firm idea of its future and what is possible but retains concrete foundations in faith and humanity.
A new global destination for sailing has been created on the Red Sea. You simply have to see it to believe it.