Peter Burling, Team New Zealand and how a rookie became a silver medallist in Chechnya’s first-ever sailing regatta

Peter Burling, Team New Zealand and how a rookie became a silver medallist in Chechnya’s first-ever sailing regatta

Being a New Zealander in Chechyna in 2017 had currency. Amanda Saxton writesabout how she ended up at the republic’s first-ever regatta – and won a silver medal, despite never having sailed before.

America’s Cup fever is running high, with Emirates Team New Zealand on the cusp of triumph or defeat. But all the sailing chat takes me back to 2017, when one plucky little republic made its bid to join the international yacht racing scene.

This is the story of how I, then a 27-year-old Kiwi lass, came to compete in Chechnya’s first sailing regatta. Team New Zealand had just won the 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda. Skipper Peter Burling’s reputation was in my gardening-gloved hands. I’d never sailed before. And soldiers prowled the shores of Lake Kezenoyam.

Why me? The newly minted Chechen Sailing Federation (CSF) wanted to be international. To net one of Burling’s countrymen for its inaugural regatta in July. They chose me because I had a Russian friend who was friends with a friend of the federation’s founder. When they got in touch, I had just two qualms. Both were easily resolved. If I got myself to and from Moscow, the CSF would cover my expenses from there. And they’d splice me into a team of experienced sailors able to get even an imbecile skiff-savvy.

Most of my Russian friends were aghast. Chechnya is dangerous! But the fact I already planned to visit the Western Sahara that July shows I’m not one to baulk at relatively recent warzones or separatist rebels.

The CSF’s only advice before I flew: buy a pair of rubber gardening gloves. These were cheaper than proper sailing ones but just as good, they promised. I also packed a small red notebook and wrote in it like crazy, making this telling possible.

Grozny’s rebuild was slow. There was no money. Relations between Russia and Chechnya stayed tense as Chechen rebels bombed Russian schools and transport hubs. But with the rise of Ramzan Kadyrov — who wore a sky-blue tracksuit in his first televised meeting with Putin — the flow of Kremlin roubles into Chechnya gained momentum. My tax-paying sailor buddies get tetchy thinking about the vast sums absorbed by a region with no industry, little employment, and lots of resentment. Up on the skyscraper’s roof, one tells me they have to accept it because the alternative is war.

She quotes murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya: “The Kremlin fostered a baby dragon, which it has to keep feeding to keep from setting everything on fire.”

Politkovskaya was shot dead in 2006. Chechens are widely acknowledged to have carried out the hit, which many believe Kadyrov ordered.

Whatever murk lies beneath, the current political climate benefits Chechnya. Our guide points fondly to a picture of Kadyrov and Putin taking up the entire side of a building. She admits, however, that the skyscraper we stand atop is almost empty. So are the handful of others that flank it. The towers are more symbolic than practical. Phoenixes from the ashes? The wavy-haired sailor has a less romantic take: “Kadyrov builds them to show Russians he has us by balls.”

That night, after dark, intrepid sailors venture out to a water and light show. Neon rainbows illuminate the nearby mosque and skyscrapers. Giant plumes of water, shot through with purple and pink light, move in time with power ballads. Chechens of all ages lap up the booming Mariah Carey. Stout babushkas hold babies aloft and couples boogie with abandon. A gaggle of young men with arms entwined sway together to a Celine Dion number. Everyone wants a selfie with everyone else. Cheers rang out: “Spasibo, Grozny!” Such brazen bonhomie makes even the surliest Russian sailor smile.

I can’t help but note that if Chechnya wasn’t notorious for detaining and beating homosexuals, you’d be forgiven for mistakening the show for a gay pride event. The playlist is entirely LGBT icons and allies. When Dana International’s 1998 Eurovision winning song, Diva, starts playing, a sailor sidles over and says in disbelief, “They definitely had the choice of a billion other songs.” Dana International is a transgender pop star from Israel.

I take a taxi back to the hotel after the show and chat with my driver. His English is good, from years living in Germany. I ask why he came back. He tells me that one day he was overcome by the feeling he belonged in Chechnya. I write down his political synopsis in my notebook: “Twenty years ago, we were like wild animals. Chechens are good warriors. Russians too. Very strong conflict.

“But Russia’s national question has changed. It is not about one nationality, it is about one country. Now we respect each other. We thought this was impossible. Even if Putin is not God, he is a good manager.

“And Chechens changed too. They understand they need new technology, new education. And that this can come only from Russians.”

The next morning we set off for Lake Kezenoyam. We’ll be there three nights. The 100km journey takes our convoy more than three hours. Outside Grozny, the mist grows so thick our police escorts’ flashing lights are the only things visible. This is a tad terrifying: Chechen roads hug mountainsides. Each time the mist thins, we gape at the steepness of cliffs our vans are skirting. We pass hills of shocking green. Braided rivers. Pale gold mosques resplendent between apple trees and tumbledown shacks. Huddles of soldiers with machine guns and babushkas in aprons, looking at ease in inactivity. Every so often we spy a cemetery full of narrow pillars engraved with Arabic script, or a vast pile of watermelons.

The temperature has plummeted by the time we reach the lake. It is almost the height of Mt Tongariro, used by Soviet rowers to strengthen their lungs. I check into my specially resurrected Soviet-era hotel room, which sadly does not have hot water, then go for a stroll. There is a small store selling biscuits and fridge magnets. A dining hall whose specially imported staff camp in the nearby forest when not preparing us borscht and fatty shashlik. Steep green mountains scarred by countless small landslides hem the turquoise lake. Bobbing baby yachts are tied to a temporary marina.

And then it is time for the folk dancing. Chechens, it turns out, take this seriously. Women in white hijabs and frock-coated men prance, spin and clap each other on, ceremonial daggers at the ready. Their elated faces move me. The dancers are so determined to showcase, so brilliantly, this side of Chechnya’s culture. A lot of Chechens are desperate to bust stereotypes. This, the founder of CSF tells me, was his motivation for the event.

Hasan Khadzhiev is an ethnic Chechen who made his fortune, more or less, in Europe. A sailing junkie, he vowed to bring the sport to Chechnya. Khadzhiev says he hopes to make Chechnya “a diamond in the international tourism scene”. Convincing the likes of us sporty jetsetters — well-placed to promote his beloved republic — to give Chechnya a chance was his first challenge.

The second was to get the Government on board.

Khadzhiev named his sailing competition’s trophy after Kadyrov’s dead dad: it is the Super Cup Akhmatova. Kadyrov, in return, agreed to supply him with 1500 armed soldiers. “You don’t see them, but they are protecting us like we are G7 summit,” Khadzhiev says merrily.

The first race in the competition starts that afternoon. The pro team assigned to me quickly establishes I am the regatta’s equivalent of a Grozny skyscraper: of little practical use, there for cheap prestige that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Everyone seems fine with that. At least I give them the right to call themselves “Team New Zealand”. Russians are absurdists at heart.

Fog swamps the lake and we can’t see other boats unless we’re about to crash into them. Rousing cries of “Thank you, Ramzan!” ring out across the water, however, so we jo-in the refrain. A little ode to our guide in Grozny. We spend a good part of three days like this, with sudden and stunning flashes of sunshine.

When not on the water, the sailors discuss tactics, peer at the fog and lament the amount of Russian blood soaked into surrounding hills. I, instead, go roaming.

A man lets me ride his black horse into the forest for a while, in exchange for a few rubles. I befriend one of the folk dancers, who looks like a wise but wary fawn. Asked what it meant to be a Chechen, he replies, “If someone is good to me, I am sure to be three times better to him.”
I also meet Abdullah Bokov, a tour guide, in a cafe down the road. He is shepherding a pair of alarmingly obese Americans through the Caucasus.

I tell him about our guide in Grozny, and her over-the-top love for Kadyrov. He says it is rare for Chechens to feel that way because most see him as an embarrassing thug.
He suggests she might be an actor, or highly proficient in the Orwellian concept of doublethink. This describes the Soviet hangover of holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously, one for at home and one for in public. Bokov says the practice is alive and well in modern Chechnya.

He suspects Kadyrov’s presidency was due to another Soviet hangover: the Kremlin’s fear of strong regional leaders with genuine grassroots support, which is what fragmented the USSR. According to Bokov, Kadyrov is Putin’s puppet and not his pet dragon.

Rumours that Kadyrov might swing by after the races and present the Super Cup Ahkmat have swirled since we arrived. On prizegiving morning, swarms of soldiers home in on us from the hills. A cobwebby wooden hut is scrubbed clean and made cosy with oriental carpets, cushions, and woodburners. I ask if it was being turned into a strongman sanctum. “We think so, but he is, how you say, a man of mystery,” is the reply.

More soldiers roll up, waving Ahkmat Kadyrov flags. And here he is.

Ramzan Kadyrov in jeans and a camo jacket. For a man said to wield death squads, his goofy grin is quite uncanny.

He is a man of contrasts. A few months earlier, Kadyrov sweetly urged his Instagram followers to help find his missing cat. “We are seriously worried,” he posted. “Thanks in advance.” The internet exploded with mocking responses and comedian John Oliver started a campaign to #FindKadyrovsCat. Since then, Kadyrov has been sanctioned by the US for alleged human rights abuses and kicked off social media.

That day, he doubles the prize money on an oversized cheque with permanent marker and artistic licence. After presenting “Super Cup Ahkmat” to the winning team, he reminds people that Chechen men are the world’s most virile.

Team New Zealand doesn’t win in Chechnya that day. But, to my astonishment, we come second! I hadn’t actually realised we were doing okay out there in the fog. Standing on the podium with my silver medal and electric kettle, I wish Peter Burling could see me.
After the prizegiving, an exhilarated Khadzhiev thanks everyone for their support. “Nobody was kidnapped, there was no sexual harassment, nobody got killed!” he laughs. “Let’s give big thank you to the security guys!”

Hopefully Emirates Team New Zealand does better than silver in Auckland next week. But if the America’s Cup ends on the same happy note as Chechnya’s first international sailing regatta, hurrah.

We drive back to Grozny the next day, make an exciting celebrity appearance on a Chechen panel show, farewell each other, and disperse. I give the new kettle away in Moscow and leave Russia for Laayoune (via Spain) with a head cold, my medal and a large Akhmat Kadyrov flag.

Today, the flag serves as the door to my kitchen. I still cannot sail.

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