“You can feel incredible emotions on a sailing boat”: the lawyer and yachtsman Roman Khodykin on how to tame the British seascape

“You can feel incredible emotions on a sailing boat”: the lawyer and yachtsman Roman Khodykin on how to tame the British seascape

A yacht is an enduring symbol of a luxurious lifestyle. However, in Britain this is not just a pleasure for the elite; many middle-class people can also afford the experience of being at one to one with the ocean. Kommersant UK talked to Roman Khodykin, who is a partner at the law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner and visiting professor at Queen Mary University. He told us about his long-standing hobby of sailing. In our interview, he discusses how to get a yachting licence, how much buying a yacht will set you back and, once you have one, what shores it’s best to set sail to.

Roman, when did your interest in sailing begin?   

I’ve had the hobby since I was twelve. Back then, I lived in Irkutsk. I started sailing on the Irkutsk Reservoir and Lake Baikal. At the time, I had the dream of becoming the captain of an ocean-going ship, but alas, for that job you need 20/20 vision, and I’ve worn glasses since I was 15. The path to nautical college was closed to me, so I got into law, but the sea stayed in my soul. I still go sailing regularly. While I was in Irkutsk I also started ice boating, that’s an especially interesting type of sailing; your boat is mounted on runners to skate on ice. In Siberia the summer season is very short, only three months, as it’s still cold in May and it’s already cold in September, so to prolong it, we sailed ice yachts in the winter. In 2001 I moved to Moscow, started a PhD at MGIMO, the University of International Relations, and I kept on ice yachting while I was there. Eventually, I started going to sailing championships abroad. In 2012, I moved to England. Here I work as a lawyer specialising in international law and arbitration. 

Do you have your own sailboat, or do you rent one? 

I have a small, single-handed, Finn class dinghy. They were used in the Olympic Games from 1954 to 2021. By the way, sailing was first included in the Olympics way back in 1900. When I moved to Britain, first of all I rented the Finn for a year, and then I bought her for my own, and I still sail her and use her to take part in various regattas and competitions. A Finn is a small, one-person boat, without a cabin. She’s quite seaworthy. She can sail at wind speeds of up to 25 knots. You have to be able to handle her so she doesn’t capsize, and if that does end up happening, you have to be able to right her. Finns are used for short-distance races, of which there may be two or three in a day during the competition. This class of dinghies is well-known in Russia; there has been a long series of Finn sailors, including Valentin Mankin, the most successful Soviet yachtsman ever, who won his first Olympic medal in 1968 in a Finn class dinghy at Acapulco.  

Is there any connection between your profession and sailing?  

Sailing really helps me relax; I am an international lawyer and I have difficulty switching off after work, even at home, or when jogging, I’m always thinking about my cases. The only place where I can really switch off is on a boat. So it’s absolutely vital to me so I can recover spiritually, forget about work and clear my mind. And there’s another thing. The most famous sailing regatta in the world, America’s Cup, is older than the modern Olympic games. It is named after the schooner which first won the competition in 1851. This contest has its own court of arbitration. I haven’t been part of it yet, but I’ve written several articles about it. What’s more, my special area of expertise is international arbitration and I’ve arbitrated in two cases related to sailing.  

You have said that yachting helps you to unwind after work. What do you feel when you are steering a sailing ship? 

I feel all kinds of emotions when I’m sailing. The sea gives you an incredible feeling of freedom, as there are no roads, traffic lights or pedestrian crossings. When a yacht gains speed and planes on the waves, you can feel all kinds of things, it’s only really comparable to an orgasm…and it is also a great source of pleasure and satisfaction when the ship is sailing just how you want her to, especially if you are leading in a race. The good thing about sailing is that there is an unlimited field for self-improvement, you can work on your steering technique, learn about meteorology and how to get everything set up just right. All the time, you’re constantly analysing things and considering what else can be improved so that you can win the next race. There is a good reason why they call sailing waterborne chess; as well as the physical challenges it’s important to be able to predict how to beat your opponents and assess the weather conditions at sea. 

Do English yachtsmen have their own jargon?  

Pretty much everything sailors say is jargon. Sailing is one of many sports where even the basic terminology is technical; you steer with a tiller, not a steering wheel, for example. Russian sailing terms are predominantly Dutch in origin, thanks to Peter the Great, who studied navigation in Holland. The English have their own nautical terms. 
It is curious that the British use these nautical terms in everyday expressions and idioms. This reflects the great maritime history of the country. Let’s take the well-known Russian saying ‘the train has left’, which means that you’re too late to do something. The English equivalent is ‘this ship has sailed’. Another popular English expression used when you are asked to publicly affirm your intentions is ‘you should nail your colours to the mast’ The history of this expression is that during naval battles off the coast of Britain if a vessel surrendered, her flag was lowered. If a flag fell from a mast, but the captain decided not to surrender, he gave the order to affix the flag to the ship’s rigging to show that he was continuing the fight. Many English people don’t even know the origin of this expression, but they regularly use it in their everyday life. 

Where in Britain do people tend to go sailing? 

Practically everywhere, including Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Wight. That’s the great thing about this country. Britain has always been, and always will be, a great maritime power, and the British usually top the medal table in sailing (with the exception of their disappointing performance at the London Olympics). Sailing is massively popular in England, you can do it on a little reservoir or on the open sea. Overall, the largest number of places for yachting are concentrated along the south coast (in Southampton, Devon, etc).

The Olympic Sailing Centre that was built in Weymouth has become a Mecca for many, as during the 2012 Olympics that’s where the competitions were held. It’s still open and it’s convenient to do training there, so we sometimes go to Weymouth.    
According to Statista, in 2017 there were 82,000 motorboats in Britain. In 2018, about 3.9 million Britons (7.3% of the adult population) either participated in water sports or spent their leisure time on the water.  
The Royal Yachting Association had 277,000 members in 2018, including yachters, windsurfers and the captains of pleasure boats.  

Where do you particularly like to go sailing, in Britain and in other countries?   

In Britain, I like to go to Weymouth, as I’ve mentioned, or to Hayling Island. There are several yacht clubs there, but only one is accessible at low tide. You can’t get out of the others until the tide comes in. The coast near Dover is beautiful and also in Cornwall, and on the Isle of Wight. There are lots of seals on the coast next to the yacht club there, from time to time they come out of the water right next to us, and sometimes we have dolphins for company. But England is quite a cold country for yachting, you can’t swim everywhere, not even in summer. That’s why many people prefer to go to the Mediterranean; to Greece, Croatia or France. Personally, I like to go to races in Barbados. Marseilles in France is also nice. In Russia, I like Saint Petersburg and lake Baikal. I used to go to Anapa, back in the day yachting used to be very popular there. 

Is sailing more popular in Britain than in Russia?

Yes, in the Russian Federation, there are far fewer yachting clubs. They are mostly concentrated in the capitals; in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. In England, every little pond has one or two sailing clubs. Compare this with Russia; on four-hundred miles long Baikal which is the deepest lake in the world there are only two permanent yacht clubs. The area with the most clubs in Moscow, even though there is no sea. This is most of all because there has always been money there and serious competition, which has given rise to many great medal-winning sailors such as Viktor Potapov from Dolgoprudny (Moscow Region). 

You say that the Brits tend to get first place in sailing competitions. In your view, why is this? 

I think it is because they put a lot of effort into improving their kit. They’re always doing tests to see which sails are better and which mast is more suitable for this or that model.  
Sailing was very strong in the USSR, mainly thanks to all the different republics. Back then there were a lot of strong sailors from Russia, Ukraine and Estonia. They performed very well at the Olympics and they won medals. From the moment of the collapse of the USSR, the situation for sailing in Russia began to get worse. At Atlanta in 1992 Russia got a silver medal (Georgi Shayduko’s crew took the silver in the Soling class), after that, my compatriots didn’t get a single medal until 2016 when Stefaniya Elfutina won bronze in windsurfing. At the Tokyo Olympics Russia was left behind again. England is a great maritime country, the Brits know and understand this sport, they have grown up with it and absorbed its lore since childhood. For example, my son is training to sail here and since he was little, coaches have explained to him things like the tides, the way a mast bends, the weather at sea and many other nautical topics. Nobody told me about any of these things in Irkutsk.   

Yachting, together with golf, are held to be typical hobbies for the wealthy. Is this true in Britain?  

I think so. Overall, I wouldn’t say that the hobby is only for the wealthy, but it definitely is for the quite well-off.  By the way, at one time they wanted to exclude sailing from the Olympics because it’s supposedly an elite sport which is only for rich white people, but in the end, fortunately, it didn’t happen. In Britain, there are charities which try to bring children from disadvantaged families into the sport. The thing is that in Britain, there is virtually no funding of children’s sports, except for national teams. Everything is organised by parents. The funding only really appears when teenagers get into the Olympic cycle.  

And as for buying one…is it easy to buy a yacht in Britain? What’s the price range? 

In England, there are very few mooring places available at marinas. Simply buying a boat isn’t enough, you have to know where you’re going to keep her. There are some especially popular yacht clubs such as Lymington and Parkstone, where the waiting time to get a mooring is no less than three years! You also have to be clear about why you want a yacht; whether it’s for racing and taking part in competitions or just for your own leisure. Racing yachts are much more expensive as they have special sails for squeezing the highest possible speed out of the wind, and the boats themselves are made differently; they are lighter and faster. Approximate prices for yachts begin at £10,000 for a small, second-hand boat. There is no upper price limit. A large, well-built yacht with three cabins, two toilets and eight berths can cost from £100,000 to £200,000. This is not to mention the superyachts beloved of the oligarchs, the prices of which can reach millions of pounds.    

How often do women take part in sailing competitions? 

It’s not a rarity, women participate very actively in yachting contests and win trophies alongside the men. For example, in the children’s Optimist class, a girl called Lila Edwards gets all the first prizes. The renowned British sailor Ellen MacArthur set a world record in 2004 when she circumnavigated the globe single-handed. Another thing which is happening is that the International Olympic Committee and the World Sailing Federation are currently pushing for gender equality. They have changed the Olympic programme so that equal numbers of men and women take part in it. For example, in the 470 class, the two sexes used to compete separately, but now they’ve made a mixed class and the crews are made up of men and women. 

How can you get a yachting licence in Britain? 

The Royal Yachting Association deals with this, they organise many courses up and down the country. You can find your closest yacht club by a postcode search and apply for a course. When I worked in a large law firm, we put our names on a list and when we had enough people who wanted to get a yachting licence the management invited a sailing instructor to the office. There are two parts of the course; theory and practice. Theory is taught in an office and then you go away for a few days to do the practice. This is to reinforce what you have learnt and get your licence. English yachting certification is highly valued and recognised practically everywhere. Although there are countries, such as France, where a licence isn’t even needed to hire a yacht. For many years, I used to go to Marseille. When I showed them my licence they didn’t even use to look at it; they just asked me a few questions, that’s how they check if you really are capable of handling a vessel.  

Do they teach future sailors anything special in Britain that maybe they don’t learn about in other countries?  

The main thing is here in England, they study the tides in British coastal waters. On the Mediterranean, for instance, there are practically no tides and you just have to learn how to handle the yacht. The tides around Britain are more serious, however. To help you to understand, the first time I took a sailing boat out in England the tide had only just started coming in, and when I came back  I just couldn’t find the yacht club because the setting had changed so much. The water had risen by about 13 feet (four metres), and everything that had been on the coastline was underwater. So when I started heading back to shore I couldn’t recognise anything at first. I’d gone out along a channel, and when I came back, there was just water as far as the eye could see. I went back and forth for a while. I only found the way in when I noticed the navigation signs. 

What is the entry price to rent a small boat for the day in Britain? 
You can rent a small dinghy for about 80 pounds a day. In theory, pretty much anyone can just hire a vessel, but this is up to the yacht club. They may ask you about your qualifications at first, or quiz you on how to handle the boat. But there’s no rule saying you need to bring a certificate or a medical certificate. It goes without saying that club members get priority when renting boats; when I was a student in England and I went to ask for a boat to hire, they told me I could have whatever was left after members had had their choice. 

How do they choose names for yachts in England, what traditions exist? 

As a rule, the English often choose word games and jokey names. They generally have a more ironic approach than in other countries. They might name a yacht the Fat Lady, for example. In Russia yachts usually have simple and serious names such as Ekaterina or Blues. They don’t use any jokes in their names. 

Speaking of jokes, I’ve got one here. In his book, Buying a Yacht (New or Second-hand), Barry Pickthall wrote that “yacht length should equal your age”. This means that at 50, the length of your yacht should ideally be 50 feet (about 15 metres). What do you say to that?  

Yachting is multifaceted, so it’s important to understand the different reasons why people get into it. Of course, that quote is a bit silly, but it may be applicable to those for whom a yacht is primarily a confirmation of their status. It’s these people who like to compare sizes. There are many sailing lovers, including quite wealthy ones, who just enjoy being out on the water. They don’t particularly worry about the length of their yachts. I know the owner of a large cruising yacht in Moscow. He comes into harbour on her, anchors her and gets into a little racing dinghy. He says he gets more of a kick out sailing a small boat.  

Have you ever been in dangerous weather conditions out on your yacht?

Yes, of course. There is a reason why in Russian we have the expression ‘If you haven’t been to sea, you haven’t learned how to pray from the bottom of your heart’. In storms everyone starts to pray, even inveterate atheists. Even though storms at sea are a common occurrence, it’s always very frightening to be out on the water in one. Sailors are, as a rule, ready for varying weather conditions. We race our Finn sailing boats at wind speeds of up to 25 knots (about 40 ft/s). We’re rarely caught in storms, usually races are simply cancelled if wind speeds get up to 30 knots. Big ocean-going yachts can go out in all weathers. Every yacht has its own limit, some models have special storm sails. However, good seamanship is essential. Since childhood, we’ve been told what to do in strong winds. For instance, you should reduce the area of the sail (this is called reefing). This is the most important security measure. 

In cases of bad weather, you have to be physically strong to handle a sailing boat. Overall, how important is physical fitness to sailing? 

It actually depends on the type of craft. There are dinghies which you need to lean out from when they’re heeling. If you don’t, they’ll capsize; you have to hang your whole body overboard to keep the boat steady. You need lots of strength to do that, of course. In all Olympic competitions, Finn class sailboats are captained by strong healthy men, as you need a lot of strength to steer them. There are classes of yacht that don’t require special physical preparation to sail. In England, unlike Russia, there are very many different classes of yacht, and everyone can find one which is suitable for their level of physical fitness. 

What clothes are most suitable for yachting?

You have to dress to avoid getting wet or cold. On a small boat, mobility is also important; you have to be able to jump from one side of the boat to the other. Sailors wear special neoprene suits to preserve their body heat when they get wet. On big yachts, as a rule, the most important clothes are waterproof coats and trousers and waterproof boots. For going to sea in the winter, we usually wear drysuits which don’t let water get in. Many different brands make clothes for yachts, for example, Musto, Hally Hansen, Gill, Zhik and Henry Lloyd.

Do you have any upcoming yacht touring planned?  

I’m going to Barcelona for the European Championship. In January next year, I’d like to go to Miami for the Finn class Gold Cup.

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