Jeddah – first impressions of a Red Sea wonder

The Red Sea city of Jeddah on the most western coastline of Saudi Arabia is an arresting, stunning sensory experience, and a truly outstanding place for international yachting. The vision to hold the America’s Cup Preliminary Regatta Jeddah, presented by NEOM, (to give it its full title) in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a marker of the future, a journey into a whole new chapter for the sport of sailing, marine activity and an utterly thrilling experience.

Jeddah is the gateway to the Holiest City in Islam, Mecca, which lies some 70 kilometres inland and, as such, it is one of the most religious places on earth. For international travellers, arriving into the hyper-efficiency of the King Abdulaziz International Airport is to step into serenity, reverence and a white-marbled exquisitely ornate, tradition-infused beauty, befitting of this Red Sea seaport’s importance to the ‘ihram’ clothed pilgrims.

Travelling briskly to the heart of the metropolis on almost clear, boulevard motorways, the architecture of this Arabian wonder teases with its fusion of cutting-edge modernity and ancient tradition. The ride into town is a sensory overload of difference to western cities. All too soon, we arrive at the Jeddah Yacht Club and Marina that sits at the northern end of the permanent Formula 1 racetrack that dominates the City, on the hairpin that leads back to the grandstands. Stepping out of air conditioning, what strikes is the heat – easily 30 degrees by noon and the mercury remains constant in this ever-temperate region.

It’s an arid heat with a tinge and hue of desert sand that hits you, but that’s nothing to the warmth of the local Saudi Arabian people. Truly some of the most welcoming, interested and interesting people on the face of the earth, their warmth and humility towards westerners is something hard to convey. Smile and they smile back with a radiance of gratitude and welcome, ask and they help like a family member. It truly is the unspoken and untold story of the country, something that no brochure or online opinion can convey, and it is deeply humbling.

The Jeddah Yacht Club, host for the America’s Cup Preliminary Regatta Jeddah, presented by NEOM, stands at the harbour entrance, as a 5,000 square metre mast-and-sail, steel and glass structure that takes yacht club design to the next level. At night the club is lit in sparkling diamonds and a striking red hue, visible for miles around, at the gateway to the simply vast 122,000 square metre marina that is bona fide world-class, surrounded by bustling restaurants of every cuisine.

The Jeddah Yacht Club and Marina is a forward-looking yacht club facility, a yachting campus almost, that plays host on a daily basis to that vital commodity for every sailing club the world over – youth. Young Saudi girls and boys are welcomed at its purpose-built Academy building, all eager to get afloat on the club’s RS Tera and RS Zest dinghies and are encouraged by a superb staff who are true inspirers and enablers of the next generation.

The America’s Cup is here to inspire and talking to the children, they are full of admiration for what they call the ‘big boats,’ marvelling at the speeds they’ve witnessed – one even gave me a full rendition of how boats can now ‘fly’ whilst another knew the names of every helmsman. Truly inspiring.

On the other side of the marina stands the ornate, all-white Al Rahmah Mosque, known as the ‘Floating Mosque’ as it was built out onto the reef shelf in 1985. Visiting the mosque, a short walk around the eastern edge and out towards the Fan Zone, is a sensory explosion with its ornate arches leading the faithful to the central auditorium with its blue dome and vast chandeliers – it is a deeply spiritual and calming place of worship as well as being a marvel of traditional design.

For the America’s Cup, with a large event land mass in and around the marina, space is of little concern. The six teams are housed in temporary but vast tents at the harbour entrance with a 200-ton crane servicing the daily action as AC40s get launched and retrieved alongside the team support RIBs. Efficiency is the by-word and there’s a ruthless efficiency throughout the operation, conducted in a true spirit of co-operation. The requirements of an event of this scale are met with an ease and gentle manner by the yard workers.

As is usual for a major sporting event, a TV village has sprung up, plus the finest media centre with a view over the racecourse is nearing completion, VIP hospitality areas are ever-present (and will be much needed) and the Event Village for the spectators, is a hive of activity as food and beverage stalls, interactive activations and an enormous main stage, the centrepiece, are all being built and installed at pace. Saudi Arabia has a young population, and their free-time entertainment are events like the America’s Cup and Formula 1 plus a host of other sporting and cultural entertainment spectacles throughout the calendar year. It is a breath-taking, fast-paced place to visit.

And what of the Red Sea? Well, it’s a stunning waterway and immensely deep with several hundred metres shelving off quickly just metres off the breakwater. Water temperature is high – it never dips below 30 degrees Celsius year-round but despite this being one of the busiest waterways in the world for commercial vessels, the shipping lanes are far off over the horizon and the yachting ‘playground’ in the immediate vicinity of Jeddah is clear.

The winds tend to filter down the Red Sea from the north with a touch of west in them and as the sea breeze rises in the afternoon, a refreshing, temperate wind does its very best to try and cool and soothe the land. For the America’s Cup Preliminary Regatta Jeddah, presented by NEOM, we are expecting the breeze to stay in the north, but swells are forecast which could add some spice to proceedings for the AC40s.

Back in Jeddah itself, it’s a city that would take weeks to explore such is its juxtaposition between the old and the new. Vast, air-conditioned malls cater for retail and western-style eateries, alongside more traditional fare, but a visit to the old town and the air is suddenly filled with spices emanating from market-holders in truly one of the most remarkable and visually stunning places on earth.

The Jeddah Corniche, the walkway all along the coast is where locals like to hang-out, meet with family and friends, eat, socialise and drink in the atmosphere. The spectacle of light is everywhere. Laser shows pepper the skies, amusement areas are lit with a warming intensity and seemingly every building comes alive, almost demanded, to light of all hues. Jeddah is stunning by day and simply spectacular by night.

Perhaps the most beautiful time of the day in Jeddah is around 5pm just before sun-down. The light changes into everything you read about Arabia in textbooks at school, that toasted, warm light that offers the briefest of hazes, as twinkles of a billion diamonds filters across the Red Sea and envelopes a busy city into a caramel vista of beauty. Then it’s gone. Disappearing over the horizon of the African sub-continent to the west, the sunset plunges Jeddah quickly into darkness only for the city to turn up the visual volume like nothing else as the sky-scrapers craze with patterned light, streetlights demark the thoroughfares and Jeddah is alive.

The phrase ‘mad dogs and (this) Englishmen, go out in the midday sun’ is apt. It’s the western explorer’s mistake but so beguiling is this Arabian wonder that it’s a mistake worth making. During the heat of the day, Jeddah is actually quiet. Office workers are ensconced within the air-conditioning of commerce, whilst the Arabian wise stay indoors leaving the freeways and byroads bereft of traffic. By sun-down it’s bustling, and families come en masse to the marina in their hundreds to be a part of the America’s Cup action and view something very new to the Kingdom.

The sailors are acclimatising and so are the Cup community that have begun descending on one of the most intriguing, beguiling, and fascinating places on the global map. Yachting has a new, world-class destination for high-performance racing and there’s an all-pervading sense that the America’s Cup Preliminary Regatta Jeddah, presented by NEOM, is just the start of something very exciting.

Magnus Wheatley

www.americascup.com

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