Shabab Oman: Taking the ‘Youth of Oman’ to sea, and to the world

RAY PETERSEN –

The name Shabab Oman is synonymous with elegance and tradition, and has represented the Sultanate with incredible dignity for what, in April of this year, will be forty years. The current vessel bearing the name, which means Youth of Oman, is an 87 metre steel-hulled clipper, but the original 44 metre wooden-hulled barquentine, constructed in the Banffshire, Scotland shipyard of Heard and McKenzie in 1971, has a long, notable and meritorious record of service and achievement to be proud of.
The Sultanate has come a long way since the merchant ship Al Sultanah, bearing the Personal Secretary of the then ruler, Sayyid Said bin Sultan, as his emissary to the United States in 1840. Ahmad bin Na’aman Al Kaabi must have cut an exotic figure as he stepped from his vessel, declaring it sovereign Omani territory, and the first official diplomatic and trade link between the emerging global powerhouse, and the comparatively tiny Middle Eastern nation.
The concept of sailing training vessels, for maritime training, is not new. In fact, since time immemorial young sailors, many not yet in their teens, scurried around the rigging of tall-masted naval and merchant vessels, learning and living at sea, while they learned the necessary skills to keep themselves alive, and to bring their ships safely home. One only has to think of such sea-going legends as ‘Mutiny on the Bounty,’ ‘Moby Dick,’ ‘The Heart of the Sea,’ and ‘Master and Commander,’ brought to life in cinemas during recent decades, to understand the sometimes tenuous hold on life, and the emphasis on survival aboard the tall ships of the day. Many would have uttered the last lines of the sailor’s prayer, “No matter where I roam, please listen when I’m lonely, and return me safely home.”
In 1977, recognizing the need to challenge the youth of the Sultanate, and to equip them with the skills of their forefathers, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said initiated the purchase of the Captain Scott, which was named after the ill-fated Antarctic Explorer, Robert Falcon Scott. Fittingly renamed, the vessel was refurbished and commissioned in the Royal Navy of Oman in 1979, and provided yeoman service as a training, leadership, and diplomatic identity for the next 34 years, with thousands of young Omanis learning those traditional sea-going skills, gaining confidence and character, and all the time representing their nation in a manner few can ever aspire to.
The American maritime link with Oman was to be revived in 1986, when the Shabab Oman sailed into Newport, Rhode Island, USA. One can only imagine the sight, on the 4th of July, as the magnificent white-hulled Shabab Oman, under full sail, the crossed swords and khanjar a stark red contrast to the white sails, her traditionally garbed crew lining the rails, as she took centre-stage in the ‘Parade of Sail.” As noted in ‘The Voyages of Shabab Oman,’ by Commander Nigel Bruen MBE, “Most prominent among them was Shabab Oman, due to the dramatic sail insignia,….. with all sail set and making an impressive bow wave.”
The journey had been made to take part in the 100th anniversary celebration of the Statue of Liberty, the iconic gift from the Republic of France, to its republican allies, in recognition of its independence. Twenty tall ships from seventeen different nations participated in the 4th of July celebrations, with the Omani ship reportedly taking centre-stage due to her size and appearance. President Ronald Reagan, who had himself invited the Omani participation, applauded the Omani presence and expressed the hope that, “the occasion comes soon when we can see Omani sails again gracing our ports and harbors.”
The tall ship also represented the Sultanate at the Australian Bicentennial celebrations during the 1987-88 southern hemisphere summer, making landfall in Darwin, in the North, then south across the famous Great Barrier Reef to Brisbane on the East coast, the further down the east coast to Hobart, capital of the island state of Tasmania, and finally under the spectacular Sydney Harbor Bridge for the Australia Day celebrations on January 26th, to the backdrop of the iconic Sydney Opera House.
A trip to Rouen, in France, to commemorate the French Revolution beckoned in 1989, and an eventful route through the Suez Canal, and the Mediterranean Sea, and even up the River Thames to London, saw the ship arrive in perfect time just prior to Bastille Day, the 14th of July. Including the return journey, this trip clocked up some 25,000kms, 16 countries, and hosted in excess of 100,000 visitors on board.
A 1992 Transatlantic journey, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America, a D-Day commemoration in France, in 1994, and participation in the Cutty Sark Tall-Ship Racing in St Petersburg during 1996, ensured little rest for Captain Christopher Biggins, her extremely well-respected captain from 1987 to 2009, and his Omani crew, along with Japan 1997, the United Kingdom in 2001, Europe 2005 and again in 2008, and numerous Middle Eastern, African and Asian voyages have followed, until Shabab Oman was withdrawn from service in 2014.
The voyages of Shabab Oman are chronicled by retired Commander Nigel Bruen MBE, and confirm that whether diplomatic, humanitarian, celebratory, or simply for crew training, Shabab Oman has proven an inspired choice as a national flag-bearer. She has twice been awarded the Cutty Sark Trophy, a silver model of the famous clipper. This trophy goes not to the race winner but to the vessel, which has done the most to help foster international understanding and friendship during the races. It is awarded on the vote of the captains and crews of all the vessels in the fleet, and in doing so she appropriately reflected the initiatives and ambitions, initiatives, of Sultan Qaboos, all those years ago.