Add fifty years of communism to a country so remote from the sea that most of the countries that surround it are themselves landlocked, and it becomes difficult to imagine a place less suited to yachting.

Rudolph Holy, President Czech Yacht Club, Prague

Even when the Czech Yacht Club was founded on the Vltava river in Prague in 1893, its prospects weren’t good since sport was frowned upon in the Austro-Hungarian Empire which considered it ungentlemanly. But members soon learnt to keep their heads down (a lesson that later came in very useful), and by 1912 they had outgrown their original houseboat, and embarked upon the construction of a magnificent all-wooden clubhouse which, at the time, was considered daringly modern.

This substantial building, less than a mile from Prague’s centre and completely frozen in during the winter, remains virtually unchanged today. Situated on a lagoon running off the main river, it is bypassed by the main road and appears in every sense a backwater. Even after ninety years, the chairs in the bar are the original bentwood Thonet seats, which still carry the maker’s label underneath them. The original electric lighting runs throughout the building and must have been considered lavish when first installed. There is no heating; instead the large committee and ceremonial rooms all have great open fireplaces. During the summer, the Club’s social centre is its huge glazed dining room which overlooks the river and runs almost the entire length of the clubhouse. Its rows of tables can seat a hundred and fifty people.

Rudolph Holy, President Czech Yacht Club, Prague

The Club’s traditions are deeply ingrained. Exploring further into the depths of the building, there is a labyrinth of dark, wood-panelled changing rooms where some of the lockers have been passed down through three generations. Over the years, the club’s blue blazers and formal ceremonials and have always been considered very important as an example to younger members. But Rudolph Holy, its 84-year-old President, emphasises that this is only one side of it. All members have to be prepared to roll up their sleeves whenever necessary – which is often, since there are no marine trades or businesses in Prague. During the communist era it was just about possible to obtain dinghies (they sail mainly Optimists, Cadets, and Fireballs), but yachts were another matter. If someone wanted a cruiser, and no member had one for sale, he had to build it himself – a process that usually took many years. Outside, little has changed from the club’s original construction. The two electrically operated boat trolleys are still in working order, and lift boats up to one of the three levels of storage rails that run into the boathouses. More recently, the high-tide mark of the floods of 2002 is clearly visible along the base of the wooden cladding.

Thirty kilometres upriver of Prague is the Slapy dam, where the Club now has a summer base, and this used to be the limit of the their activities. But following the collapse of communism, members have slowly been extending their range, and several boats are now berthed abroad, in Italy and Germany. Annual regattas are organised with yacht clubs in Berlin, as well as with Croatia’s oldest Yacht Club, PLAV on the island of Krk. But being based in Prague doesn’t deter Club boats from venturing abroad. Every year, one member takes down his mast and motors the 450-odd miles downriver to Hamburg, to spend the summer cruising the North Sea and the Baltic, before returning in the autumn to lay up at the clubhouse.

Czech Yacht Club, Prague

On the top floor of the building there is a row of visitors’ cabins available to members or guests, each with a tiny balcony overlooking the river. Rudolph Holy, after showing me his own boat, which he finished building seven years ago, took me up to see his own snug cabin. The walls were covered with ensigns from around the world, including the Red Ensign – and every one of them he had to make himself.