Travel: Action stations: to the water-gun: David Lister's children discovered the 'super-soaker 500' had a range that took in both banks of the Norfolk Broads during a family week afloat

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The Independent Travel
I HAD been wary of going on a boating holiday since seeing Alan Ayckbourn's dark comedy, Way Upstream. In that play, an innocent hired cruiser journey turns into a surreal nightmare when a handsome stranger comes on board to lend a hand and ends up displacing the skipper, beating up his friend, seducing one of the women and making another walk the plank.

Now if Ayckbourn had included children, he might have had some real drama: a hire boat having a prang seven minutes out of harbour with an over-confident 14- year-old at the wheel - and bumping not into a bank but against a gleaming, newly polished boat whose owner was just hanging up a For Sale sign.

Nor could Ayckbourn have anticipated the invention of the 'super-soaker 500', a machine-gun-shaped water-pistol with a range that could take in both banks of a Norfolk Broad and all the anglers thereon. If only Ayckbourn had made a couple of little ones walk the plank, the play would be doing a roaring trade in East Anglia.

None of this makes the holiday sound successful; but, in fact, it was, even if success in such circumstances comes with an insurance claim from a traumatised boat owner.

Holidays are no easy matter for a family with such lengthy breaks between children that the first was born under a Labour government and the last just before John Major took the helm. Sara is 14, Mark 10 and Ellen two. Fourteen-year-olds enjoy discos, 10-year- olds loathe them and two-year-olds aren't allowed in. The same applies to Punch and Judy, only the other way round.

A boat, something we had never tried before, seemed to suit all of us, particularly as Sara brought along Laura, a schoolfriend, so that they could jump ashore in the evenings, and sunbathe on the boat's roof together during the day. For the younger children there would be the excitement of the boat itself, the picnics, the adventure of the cramped sleeping conditions, and, as there were moorings at Great Yarmouth, a day or two on the beach.

Everybody was excited. Anticipating that their enthusiasm might wear off, I decided on the Norfolk Broads, which are lock-free, rather than a river or canal, because the novelty of working locks can wear off pretty quickly.

Boating holidays may not be all that cheap, but they are popular. Booking a few weeks in advance for a school holiday week in the summer, I managed to secure the last suitable boat on the Broads. The boat belonged to Blakes, one of the two major Broads operators. One bonus, however, was the discount that came with the late booking.

Maps were studied as was the Blakes guide to the Broads and the by-laws, knowledge of which was to prove unexpectedly useful later. And in a rare burst of pre- holiday ego massage, the family bought me a hat with the word Skipper emblazoned across it.

Blakes has 33 bases at boatyards all along the Broads. Our boat, Tranquil Breeze - inappropriately named for a family vessel - was moored at Martham Ferry. A few minutes' instruction from friendly staff and we were free to go.

It is, when you think about it - and I have thought about it since - curious that boatyards are prepared to entrust highly expensive, beautiful craft to people who have never had charge of one before, and until five minutes before casting off, did not possess even the most rudimentary knowledge of how the things work.

Several firms, Blakes included, charge higher deposits for parties of the same sex, and some will only let their boats out to families. The assumption that this means less likelihood of damage, pranks and general stupidity is not necessarily a valid one.

We were only a few minutes out of Martham Ferry when Sara grabbed the wheel and, as if the boat had power steering, we steered a diagonal course, scraping a moored craft before she negotiated the turn. It was a scrape we had totally forgotten a week later when we returned the boat and found an insurance claim awaiting us.

It was here that my perusal of the Broadland Code came in handy. The boat owner had given vent to his feelings as we sailed away. As I was keeping a low profile at the time, my wife, who was sitting in the well of the boat reading, received the brunt of this. Bad language on the Broads is against the code, I remembered; and declaring that this breach of etiquette had caused her psychological damage might have saved me at least some of my deposit, though my daughter's 30-second introduction to navigation did end up costing about pounds 50.

Thankfully, life afloat proved less eventful after that incident. The Broads are as beautiful as the brochures claim and extremely varied in their size, character and 'busyness'.

We were fortunate to have glorious weather. Sitting either at the wheel, in the well, or on the roof, following a flock of birds through countryside dotted with windmills proved uplifting.

For nature enthusiasts, there are centres for study of the Broads and their wildlife. But there was plenty, too, for families such as ours with more worldly interests.

In our week we managed to see powerboat-racing on Oulton Broad (seek advice on mooring - we saw one unfortunate neighbour find that the water had gone down by midnight to reveal a spike through his boat), visit riverside pubs with playgrounds attached for mid-morning snacks, and spend two days at a seaside resort.

For a family that might tire of a full week aboard, Great Yarmouth was a godsend. The port- authority moorings, which cost a small charge, are next to a cafe, pub and shop (to the delight of my daughter and her friend, the pub had nightly karaoke), and only a short walk from the seafront, pleasant beach and all the attendant amusements.

We stayed two days before attempting to leave - I say attempting because it was at this point that we learnt another boating lesson. Because the boat had been moored for two nights, the battery had run flat. I phoned the boatyard and wondered what we would do for the five hours that it had taken us to get from Martham to Great Yarmouth. But within 20 minutes the maintenance man had arrived. Sailing on the Broads, it is easy to believe you have travelled a great distance. By road, however, the journey is frequently only a few miles.

All the family wants to do another Broads trip this year; and the different locations of the boatyards means it is possible to go twice and not cover the same places at all.

It is, largely, a peaceful holiday. You are not allowed to bring electrical equipment on board, so ghetto-blasters don't surface, and, although the boats all have television, I shouldn't bank on the reception being up to much.

It is fun. The children love steering the boat and also enjoy the social life at night, either in the bankside pubs or in boat-hopping parties, especially at Great Yarmouth.

But if the days were a delight, the nights were not, at least for this writer. While there are plenty of moorings along the Broads, and Blakes has some for its customers at boatyards, the actual 'parking' was a skill I never managed without a few bumps. And I never quite became used to other boats mooring alongside, hitching their ropes to our boat and jumping across us (though that was one social aspect the children adored).

And, at 6ft 2in, I was several inches longer than the cabin beds. By the end of the week I had learnt to sleep with my knees in the air. But worse things happen at sea.

The boat hired by the Listers sleeps between four and seven in three cabins and costs pounds 515 to hire for a week, with a discount for late booking. Blakes offers special packages in the spring and autumn. Phone 0603 782911.

(Photographs omitted)

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