Sailing on the Broads (the traditional way)

Motor boats are eroding the banks of the Norfolk Broads. Nerys Lloyd-Pierce and friends hired a more environment-friendly craft - and wouldn't have missed being cold and wet for anyone. Michael Green (below), meanwhile, has a cautionary tale from the good ship, Quiet Dawn
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The Independent Travel
"Do I really have to tack up that ditch?" Crossing Ludham bridge by car offered us a sneak preview of the unfeasibly skinny sliver of water we would be sailing up later that weekend. It came as a culture shock to our boating pal Josie, whose twelve years of crewing charter boats in the Caribbean was no preparation for the confines of the Norfolk Broads. A mental calculation revealed that the waterway in front of her was little more than half-a-boat length larger than the 28-foot gaff-rigged sloop we were about to board.

Hunter's Yard, which snugly hugs the duck- and coot-littered waters of Womack dyke, is home to the Norfolk Heritage Fleet Trust, the last surviving cluster of charter yachts on the Broads to remain unaltered since they were built in the 1930s. For the privilege of sailing a craft which owes more to Swallows and Amazons than Hoseasons or Thomson, you can forget the take-it-as-read niceties of contemporary sailing like engine, fridge, shower and illumination at the flick of a switch. Think instead in terms of gimbal oil lamps and candles, boiling up water for a strip wash and, when the wind fails, propelling the vessel by means of a cumbersome pole called a "quant" which bears comparison to a related implement used for punting.

Since Percy Hunter and his sons built the fleet more than half a century ago, these boats have endured just one small concession to modernity; each one has now had its volatile Primus stove replaced with a gas cooker.

Lullaby, sleekly resplendent in plum-coloured varnish, was to be our home for the next four days. Along with her two sister yachts Lustre and Luna, she is the largest of the Hunter Fleet, with accommodation for four people in two cosy wood-lined cabins. In terms of up-to-date amenities Lullaby and her fellow vessels might be considered spartan, but that does not mean that those sailing her are going to be slumming it. An investigation of the storage lockers revealed Willow patterned crockery fit for afternoon tea at the vicarage. There were cups and saucers, no less, and civilised accoutrements like a tea pot, milk jug, sugar bowl and egg cups.

Nosing our way out of Womack dyke with the help of the boatyard's cheerful and tactfully informative Graham Cooper, we let the wind whisk into the mainsail and shunt us at a sprightly pace down towards the river Thurne. A surprisingly vivid early evening sun slunk out from behind a shield of cloud, sending a tangerine glow over the water and casting a henna tint on the reed banks. We planned on making the most of it, according to Graham the weather forecast predicted the first rain for two-and-a- half months.

Sure enough his prophecy was fulfilled the following morning when we woke to the relentless sploshing of rain on the boat's protective tarpaulin.

Given the relatively sedate pace offered by an engine-free mode of transport we decided to limit our exploration of Norfolk's 200 miles of navigable waterway to the northern broads linked by the rivers Thurne, Bure and Ant, thus sampling a microcosmic bite of this extensive and uniquely beautiful wetland.

What we know as "broads" are in fact shallow lakes created between the 9th and 13th century when medieval man was busy digging out peat to use as fuel for heating and cooking. As water levels rose, the diggings became flooded and the broads were formed. From the 17th century, Norfolk's water system became increasingly important as a means of transporting locally produced wares. Every marshland village was in possession of a staithe or quay where the purpose-built single-sailed "wherries" could collect cargoes of corn from the region's ubiquitous windmills (most of which now lie picturesquely derelict), along with coal, reed and sedge. Now, of course, the holiday industry, which took off in the latter part of the 19th century, has superseded traditional enterprises, although Norfolk reed for thatching is still a prized commodity.

When Percy Hunter began hiring out Lullaby before the Second World War, her kind would have outnumbered motor cruisers by ten to one. Now, as the millennium approaches, there is a motor boat for every quarter of a mile of broadland waterway.

The motor boats are Norfolk's salvation and her nemesis. While the tourists pour money into the coffers, the wash from their boats is responsible for one of the Broads' most serious problems - bank erosion.

The "Electric Eel" boat trips, operated by the conservation-minded Broads Authority from How Hill Staithe (a similar trip runs from Hickling Broad), alert visitors to the environmental issues facing the broads while giving a fascinating insight into its ecology - on a warm day in early June, for instance, there is a sporting chance of spotting the gloriously exotic swallow-tail butterfly.

Pam Scott, warden with the authority, says that semi-educational excursions of this nature are extremely important.

"Putting speed limits on the rivers isn't enough because people don't always stick to them. But by explaining that high speeds create more wash and wreck the banks, people can see that there is a logical reason for the restrictions," she explains.

Another serious issue is water quality. A hundred years ago all the broads were, as the locals eloquently put it, "gin clear". Now only a few such as Martham can boast the water clarity of a century ago and the abundance of aquatic life associated with it.

Today's soupy consistency is caused by green algae which thrive on nutrients such as nitrates and phosphates and soon stifle any other plant life. Although the limpid conditions enjoyed in the last century cannot be recreated, a long-term project is in place to improve water quality, the successful progress of which is being celebrated by the tentative return of the otter population.

Loss of habitat is a prominent factor in the decline of a number of species, but none has suffered more than the bittern. Although the population is thought to have stabilised, a bird which needs 50 acres of reed bed per individual before it will consider breeding is inevitably going to have a tough time in the face of ever-shrinking marshland. As with many rare birds, egg hunting is a major threat too; during our visit local wardens were keeping a beady eye out for a gang tipped to be operating in the vicinity.

By the end of Saturday, the second relentlessly wet day, damp was starting to worm its way through to morale. Accompanied by a respectable breeze earlier on we had made exhilarating progress; banks had approached with alarming velocity on the diagonal tilt of each tack, testing the skill and concentration of the person on the helm. Now, with the wind diminished to a whisper, each slothful tack resulted in an agonisingly inert attempt at forward propulsion.

Drenched and chilled we dropped the mast in order to negotiate the low- slung Ludham Bridge before opting to moor up for the night. With the tarpaulin shelter extracted from the fore-hatch and installed over the cock-pit, we were able to light the gas cooker and make a brew, revelling in the humid fug created in the process. Gradually warmth returned to cold and crampy fingers and our sense of humour resurfaced at the same time.

At the pub that night we dried soggy socks and gloves on the radiator. Two sets of couples at a nearby table expressed astonishment at our bedraggled appearance. Having been cocooned in the wheelhouse of their vessel while the rain fell outside, they naturally assumed we would have been doing the same thing. Cries of disbelief issued forth when we described the nature of our vessel.

"Did you realise you were getting a boat like that before you came?" squeaked one of the brace of studiously coiffured females.

Well, yes, we did, as it happens. And when the sun gave us benediction on Sunday we vowed we'd be back. And Josie, latterly of the Caribbean? She gave it her seal of approval too.

Norfolk Heritage Fleet Trust: 01692 678263

FACT FILE

Booking

Hunter's fleet boats: Hunter's Yard, Horsefen Rd, Ludham, Norfolk NR29 5QG Tel: 01692 678263. Sailing experience a must.

Cost

A four-berth boat like Lullaby costs pounds 395 per week peak season (July/August) and pounds 380 per week off-peak. Three-berth boats cost pounds 340 per week peak season and pounds 320 off-peak. Two-berth boats cost pounds 295 per week peak season, pounds 280 off-peak. Day-boats can be hired for pounds 40 per day/pounds 175 per week.

Instruction

Hunter's Yard will be running a Royal Yachting Association (RYA) recommended level 2 Keel Boat Sailing course in September costing pounds 180 per week.

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