(MENAFN - Muscat Daily) With a business studies degree and the requisite steady bank job in hand, Raiya al Habsi looked to have her path all charted out.
A customer service assistant, she expected to handle irate customers and attend to their sundry worries.
A wholly respectable line of work, Raiya knew. But for someone who thrives on being challenged day in, day out, it was increasingly difficult to reconcile herself with the monotony of it all. She sensed that a course correction was in order.
That opportunity came in 2011 when Oman Sail launched its Women's Sailing Programme, offering the chance of a lifetime to young Omani women to make a name for themselves in the sport. Raiya was among the 40 women chosen to undertake the rigorous skills-training course. It came as no small surprise for Raiya who had to, quite literally, learn the ropes.
''My first thought was, 'Oh my God, I'm going to cross the ocean'. ''I live near the sea, but had gone only for fun. Other than a few cruises with my family, I didn't have any background about being in the water. And I certainly had no sailing experience,'' said Raiya, who proved a quick study, qualifying first to be a sailing instructor and then making the cut for the women's race team.
''What's good in sailing is that there is no routine at all. What I learnt yesterday is different from what I'll learn tomorrow. Everyday is a new challenge when I'm on the boat,'' she said. ''What you learn depends on the wind. And the wind changes everyday.'' It was the ideal fit for the intense, highly-motivated 25 year old, who in a little under two years has carved out a space for herself on the national scene.
Her resume already bears such heady distinctions as being part of the Omani women's team in Sailing Arabia “ The Tour and going to the J/80 world championships in Marseille, France.
Then, only a few months ago, Raiya created history by becoming the first Omani woman to complete the iconic Rolex Fastnet off-shore race, on Oman's flagship trimaran, the MOD70 Oman Air-Musandam“ helping the team finish first in their class. A dizzying body of work and accomplished at breakneck speed. And it hasn't gone unnoticed.
In light of her achievements over the past year, the International Sailing Federation (ISAF), the sport's governing body, has nominated Raiya for the coveted ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year award. She becomes the first Arab woman nominated for the Award, which lists among its recipients Olympic stars and legends of the sport.
Not half bad for a self-described 'beginner' who only a few short years ago didn't know a jib from a jibe. ''When I received the letter telling me to prepare, it was a big surprise.
Because all the nominees have a long history of sailing. Some have spent whole careers to the sport. And I have only two years. ''It is a great treasure for me. I would have been happy just to be able to go there (the awards ceremony) as a guest. But to be nominated, to be held to that calibre and go representing my country is an honour.''
''Think of it like the FIFA World Cup. Football may be on a larger scale, but being considered for this award is almost the equivalent of Ali al Habsi being nominated for the best goalkeeper of the year,'' said Mohammed al Eissa, Oman Sail's regional PR manager. Regardless of the scale, the recognition is of the same global standard.
''Sailing is one of the only sports where men and women compete against each other in the same race. Unlike other sports, there's no women's cup and men's cup. ''That rush of competition. It teaches you discipline, harmony and humility.'' There's plenty of that in Raiya, who is quick to give credit where it's due, emphasising the roles played by her family, her teammates and mentor, the recordsetting sailor, Dee Caffari.
''The first time I went to the race team, I was shocked to have the chance to be part of an allwomen's team and to get to sail with Dee Caffari. You watch a professional like her and see how she works and you want to do the same thing. When you see the boat moving, you feel happy because it's the result of your hard work.
''And the whole day she keeps you thinking, 'How am I going to improve?' 'Why are these other boats going fast and mine isn't?' Dee was Raiya's chaperone on the gruelling 40-hour Rolex Fastnet race. Raiya was the boat's designated 'trimmer' “ a ''very critical position since the entire boat depended on my being able to feel the wind and feel the speed''. Trimming the sails isn't 'an exact science'. ''A lot of it has to do with your feelings. The experience of having done it many times helps.'' ''She (Dee) taught me that you have to keep your concentration throughout. You always have something to do. If you go to sleep (it's an overnight race) and make a mistake, it can affect the entire boat.''
Despite the pressure though, ''overnights are a lot of fun because you have to keep warm and tell stories and keep motivating each other until the race is over''.
And Raiya always has plenty of stories to recount. There's the time the women's team went to the J/80 worlds and ''it was unseasonably cold “ even for the Europeans, and we were coming from a desert country “ for June in France. But we survived.'' Though they had misgivings about Raiya's sailing career at first, her family, especially her niece and nephew, love hearing the stories.
''My family was just surprised at first, because it was something new for me. I'd never shown much interest before. The good thing is my family trusts me and knows what I'm doing. They are proud of me, for sure. All of them support me and when I travel, I get SMSes every morning wishing the team good luck and to do well. They follow the races and cheer for me all the time.''
Chances are their cheering-on will get just a bit louder (and from a lot nearer) come November, when the ISAF awards are scheduled to be held “ for the first time “ in Muscat. There's guaranteed to be plenty of hometown support for Raiya as she endeavours to be the first Omani to win the prestigious award. ''I'm pretty nervous just to be considered. So it'll be good to have the hometown factor working for me.''
Dee Caffari, Record breaking sailor
Raiya can hold her head up high'
I am immensely proud of what she has achieved and having this recognition allows her, her friends and family see the huge effect she is having in the world of sailing. We have pushed perceptions of Arab women far beyond what we thought possible a few years ago and the support we have from the GCC states and worldwide is great. Raiya can hold her head up high and consider herself a woman who is changing perceptions, pushing boundaries and making history. To have recognition at this level from your peers is a huge honour.
Oman Sail believed they could make a difference for the women of Oman and this has been shown on numerous occasions, but now has reached a world stage. I congratulate the company for having this vision and believing in the girls. I congratulate the girls on overcoming the barriers and hurdles placed before them to prove to the world they could sail at the highest level.
With Raiya's nomination, they can now believe in themselves all the more and push a little bit harder to make it to the next level achieving constant improvement. I feel honoured and proud to have played a small part in their success and I have no doubt that all the girls will help pave the w