My weekend: Richard Butcher

Times Online, June 15, 2007

John Updike once said that “writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea.” There are plenty of people who would agree with this view but not that many who can empathise with it on more than a metaphorical level. Richard Butcher, the head of dispute resolution at Payne Hicks Beach, is someone who knows more about the allure of sailing than the man on the Clapham omnibus. Indeed, it is possible that he knows more about sailing per se than just about anyone.

Butcher might not have Updike’s command of language but he is eminently well qualified to discuss the differences between life on shore and at sea. He was educated at Torquay Boys Grammar School and life in south Devon enabled him to start sailing in the waters of the English Riviera at the age of 10. From the moment he set foot in a dinghy, he was smitten. His teenage years were spent largely on the water and his choice of university – Southampton – ensured easy access to the ocean.

Allied with his devotion to sailing was a powerful competitive streak, and before long Butcher had become a British champion. “I won the Fireball class in 1972,” he recalls, adding that he won again the following year. His proficiency in two-man dinghy racing did not go unnoticed –Butcher was soon asked to represent his country. “I ended up winning five British dinghy sailing championships by 1979 and competed in the pre-Olympics.”

But then Butcher had to make a choice. “I would have loved to represent Britain in the Olympics but I was in the middle of my training contract and I would have had to take 13 weeks off to compete. This was back in the days when there was no sponsorship – in fact, no money at all in sailing. It just wasn’t an option..” In the event, Russia’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan saw the United States boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games – and British sailing team followed suit. Asked if this sweetened the blow of his own agonising decision to commit to the law, Butcher is unequivocal: “No. The team trained and worked so hard and shouldn’t have become a pawn in international politics. And while I’ve got over it now, I would have loved nothing better than to bring home a gold medal.”

Despite his disappointment, sailing has remained a lifelong passion. He has carved out a successful practice in which he represents a who’s who of the sailing industry from world-class competitors such as Dame Ellen MacArthur and 2004 Olympics double gold medallist Ben Ainslie to a number of well-known marine businesses. His intricate understanding of competitive sailing gives him possibly a unique ability to comprehend its legal issues. As he puts it: “I know what it takes for my clients to be successful and as such have a tremendous respect for them. Hopefully they respect me for what I bring to the table, too.”

Respect clearly flows both ways insofar as Ellen MacArthur is concerned. She appointed Butcher a trustee of the charity she created to help children suffering from leukaemia and other serious illnesses. Sailing with such children is “intensely rewarding and fulfilling,” according to Butcher: “It’s difficult to explain quite what the kids have been through and the effect on their families – it’s heart-rending. But when we take them out sailing we get a wonderful response. The look on their faces is fantastic.”

As for the allure of sailing itself: “It’s being in the open air, the physicality, the need to be pretty fit, the tactical challenges – all of these things make it exhilarating but then on top of that you’ve got the constantly changing weather, wind and waves. It’s a real buzz.”

Updike might have put it differently, but for Richard Butcher being a lawyer is as to sailing? well, pretty much the same thing.

Richard will be competing in the JP Morgan Round the Island Race, around the Isle of Wight on 23 June, with 10 children in remission from leukaemia and cancer. For more information see www.ellenmacarthurtrust.org