Travel: Norfolk by boat? It's not a breeze

Cruising the Broads under sail seemed to be far easier than Jasper Winn had imagined. He shouldn't have been so smug...
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The Independent Travel
Quite suddenly, around midnight, I was surprised to find myself standing on the bottom of the Norfolk Broads, some 10ft under the water. It was cold and dark and I was well on my way to drowning. Because it was freezing even before I'd fallen overboard, I was wearing every item of clothing I'd brought for the two-day sail. Their combined waterlogged weight gave me all the properties of the mud-anchor I'd been on my way to the front of the boat to check.

It seemed that it was going to take a considerable amount of effort - a team of sea-shanty-driven, capstan-turning, jolly Jack Tars, perhaps - to haul me back to the surface. But, being a procrastinator when it comes to death, I gave not-drowning my best shot. A few seconds later I was sprawled in the well of the boat, uttering the kind of unintelligible, chatter-teethed oaths determined by cold, breathlessness and relief at being alive.

The door of the tiny cabin opened, releasing a meagre ration of light and heat, and The Princess, (we were following the time honoured tradition of using running-away-to-sea names), looked out. "You're so silly going swimming. It's too cold." She gave me the kind of look that demanded I explain my stupidity.

Hunter's Yard at Ludham still has every one of its original fleet of wooden sailing craft, built in the 1930s. Each lovingly restored, in sailing order and for hire. They come from a golden age of Broads sailing, redolent of simpler, more self-sufficient times. Polished-plank hulls, gaff rigs, ropes, cleats, self-setting jibs and the kind of assorted chandlery whose names would leave Call My Bluff panellists floundering.

I'd been worried about the sailing. The Hunter's Yard boats have as their USP the lack of an engine - having sailed yourself into trouble you have to sail yourself right out again. Or use the quant - a long punting pole wielded against the soft mud of the bottom like a knight's lance.

In theory the yard want to see able seamen heading out in their boats - experienced dinghy skippers are their idea of minimum competence. In theory I am a sailor, but a coastal sailor, where we have what's rightly called "sea room". I had assumed that the Broads would be broad - so was unprepared for far too many of the cuts, dykes and rivers having the dimensions and floor plan of supermarket aisles. I had to get the idea of steering the two-berth, 24ft Hustler-class boat, with its towering gable-end of canvas, in the tiny tacks of a wonky-wheeled shopping trolley, with all the attendant danger of hitting the land on either side.

Graham captained us from the yard's cut to Womack Water. As a man who spends four winter months repairing the damage done by summer sailors he had a vested interest in me getting the hang of Broads sailing. "These boats are designed for the local waters - they turn sharply so you can tack right to the bank."

He drove the boat towards the concrete staith (landing stage), and less than a coat of varnish from disaster pushed the tiller over. The boat spun round and we surged back towards the opposite bank. Handing over the helm he directed me close to land, hopped ashore and left us to fate. And my seamanship.

Our outward journey down the River Thurne was inept. Terrified of turning the boat into a land-yacht, I minced around in the middle of the navigation in short tacks that took us no appreciable distance against the wind. By the time we reached the cut to Thurne village, we felt as if we'd sailed a minor ocean, though had in reality covered three miles.

It was time to moor for lunch.

While The Princess galley-slaved - lading the original 1930s patterned china with 1990s-style bacon sandwiches - I made the kind of decisions that mark the natural sailor. I opened a bottle of wine and Arthur Ransome's Coot Club - whose end-page maps I was using to navigate. My first-time sailor, press-ganged from a tango class, felt a further dip in her confidence when she saw me conning sailing hints from a children's book.

But Ransome was my man - his boy sailors steered their boats as close to the banks as possible and coiled ropes as neatly as interior decorators. They were unbothered by the squalls and doldrums created by the trees and the houses lining the river (not, of course, something I'd come across in sea-sailing). The wine added confidence to my new found knowledge.

We hoisted sail again, a hand-blistering burst of rope hauling that, I was glad to find, exactly burnt off the calorific equivalent of two bacon butties. We cast off and suddenly were sailing properly. With a growing trust in the boat's abilities we zigged and zagged down the Thurne to its meeting with the Bure. To the southeast lay Yarmouth, but we were bound, starboard, for Ranworth Waters. We had the wind on our beam and were storming along in the stiff blow on a bow wave of foam. Sitting up on the coaming, spring sun in our eyes, the thrumming of the sail above us, we were as happy as the coots and grebes fossicking around in the reeds.

Ranworth Waters were expansive and we spent an exhilarating afternoon treating the boat like a dinghy, racing back and forth in undeclared competition with other sailing craft. Despite our boat's genteel china and fluttering cabin curtains, she was built for performance, rather as if a pop-top VW microbus was a serious contender for the Paris-Dakar Rally. The Princess demanded to take over the helm, and within minutes, (rather frightening and potentially very wet minutes), had the hang of it.

We stopped at Ranworth village for an ice cream, feeling the superiority and relief of successfully mooring under full sail beneath the critical gaze of the crews of the engine-driven, plastic boats. And we then spiralled up the 87 steps of St Helen's church tower to spy out a quiet anchoring ground in the far corner of the waters.

In the last dying sighs of the evening's breeze we floated to a halt in tranquil solitude and I dropped the mud anchor. Within minutes the aromas of a three-course Thai meal cooked on the double gas burner drifted across the waters while I busied myself making hot whiskeys. We sat bobbing gently in the dusk, planning our next days sail to Horning.

Much later The Princess ducked into the cabin to pile-up blankets against the now bitter cold. I roused myself into a final act of seamanship - "I'm just going to check that the mud anchor's holding," I called, setting off in the dark towards the bow. Seconds later I was on the bottom. Perhaps I should have recalled Arthur Ransome's words in Swallows and Amazons: "Better drowned than duffers; if not duffers won't drown."

My demi-dufferism would be advertised the next day by a washing line of drying clothes hung from boom, shrouds and cabin roof.

NORFOLK BROADS

HIRING A BOAT

Hunter's Yard, Horsefen Road, Ludham, Norfolk NR29 50G (tel: 01692 678263) hires out a 24ft Hustler-class, with two to three berths, from pounds 110 for a two-day break in low season. Larger boats are also available. No boats have engines. You must have one competent sailor in your group to be the skipper (serious dinghy skippers can quickly learn how to handle the boats) and a quick-witted crew is more than useful. The Broads offer safe sailing, but winds can be strong, and avoiding other traffic without an engine can be challenging.

WHAT TO TAKE

Life jackets and basic cooking and eating equipment are provided. Blankets and sheets are also available, but sleeping bags are recommended. Proper deck-shoes - to avoid marking wooden decks - are essential, as is wet weather gear, even in summer. Stores can be bought in bulk in Wroxham.

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