A beginner’s sailing trip on the Norfolk Broads – The Times | Gmx Pharm

TThere was no question in my mind that the only acceptable way to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday was by boating on the Norfolk Broads. For as long as I could remember, Dad remembered a childhood journey. At various points in my youth we wanted to go, but my mother resisted. “It will be like a caravan on the water,” she said. “I can’t think of anything worse.”

Yet eight decades on Earth must trump such resistance. Which is why we found ourselves at Herbert Woods’ shipyard in Potter Heigham on a promisingly sunny June morning, waiting like nervous blind dates to be introduced to our new Squeeze.

Squeeze, it turned out, was the key word. It may sound idiotic, in fact I like it Well, I’m being an idiot, but I hadn’t really thought about what skippering a 35 foot powerboat entails: namely, getting something pretty big through spaces that can be pretty small.

Our first lesson, led by the unflappable Dave, involved maneuvering out of the marina through a gap so narrow I had to hold my breath. When I say “us,” I really mean my father and brother-in-law. They were the ones submitting to Dave’s orders. The moment I saw what we were up against, I knew Skipper wasn’t for me. Happy birthday dad!

Anna Murphy with her father and nephews aboard Olympic Light


Luckily the men were there. And the women — my mom and sister — went even more into the 1950s over the next few days, spending their time on board doing activities like reheating Heinz tomato soup. (My advice: buy food before you go; frozen curry and fries were among the offerings at the local shop.)

Then there was the backseat skipper: “You’re too far to the left!” “Slow down!” It may seem like a miracle how warm family relations remained. But then I assume we know each other. Dad knew he had to overlook such dominance. And I knew not to take it personally that although my father never had my date of birth handy, to my amazement he could casually say when it was his first time in the Norfolk Broads. “It was June 11, 1953. Our boat was called Patricia.”

Ours was called Olympic Light and belongs to Herbert Woods’ Elite line. I won’t deny that it had a trailer feel to it, but it was quite a posh trailer with two showers, plenty of hot water and even a couple of TVs if you’re so inclined. There were two proper cabins – one in the stern for two, one in the bow for three, plus a perfectly acceptable fold-down bed in the master cabin which I claimed as my own every night and my four-year-old nephew claimed as his in the mornings.

Most wonderfully, this somewhat pooteric facility transported us into the ‘otherness’ of the Norfolk Broads. I know Norfolk, but I had never visited the Broads before, and soon I staggered at their beautiful strangeness. I realized that Norfolk was naturally flat and that the expanse of its skies is unmatched. But I had never encountered the surrealism of a view that includes both a land-locked foreground (a field with cows) and a trio of white sails moving westward in the far distance, apparently over land.

Olympic Light has two cabins and two showers

Olympic Light has two cabins and two showers


Then there was the wilderness of the less-visited Broads, expanses of water as wide as their name suggests created by medieval peat digging that were later inundated when sea levels rose. Likewise, some of the empty stretches of river that connect them feel far removed from modern life, as the flanking reed beds show no trace of humanity save the occasional windmill. (The windmills were used to power water pumps and grind corn.)

Even on the busy anniversary weekend when we made our trip, we were often alone with only the scenery and the occasional passing heron, cormorant or – a magical moment – the barn owl. It was busy too, especially in the late afternoon when you wanted to park in one of the many quaint villages with a pub – sorry Moor. When we attempted to dock at Ludham on our final night – by just 4pm – we were already late. Smug doesn’t come close to describing the look of those lying ashore now enjoying a drink out on their decks.

On our first evening, however, we had some beginner’s luck and found a place in Thurne that was waiting for us. At the Lion you can taste the excellent gins from Pell & Co. Just think of the 30 point turn required to get out of Thurne the next morning. Thank goodness there’s the “thruster,” the button you push to make the boat go sideways. An absolute stroke of luck.

“It didn’t make my docking skills seem too bad,” said Dad, who recalled very few mod-cons the first time around, not to mention “lacquered mahogany” instead of fiberglass. What remained beautifully unchanged, he said, was “drifting along the calm waterways and the open stretches and seeing the wildlife.”

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Thurne was our first exposure to boating etiquette, which oscillates between staring and caring. As we proceeded cautiously down the narrow Thurne Dyke, other boatmen made no attempt to hide the fact that we were now their entertainment. A couple sitting on the deck of the boat next to the gap we were aiming for crossed their arms at the same time as their eyes locked on them. However, once we were able to moor, people suddenly jumped off their boat to help with the ropes, reassuring us that our few bumps from fender to fender on the way down were par for the course. “There’s always bumper cars coming in here!”

The next morning I spotted another boat resident walking her dog in her dressing gown, so I decided it was fine to sit on deck in her pajamas until at least 11am. Maybe this boat life was something for me after all. However, my rope skills remained poor. And despite the life jacket, I was still too naïve to climb onto the roof of the boat and roll up the skylight cover. “Father?!”

Dad’s finest hour came as we faced the Jubilee Regatta on the Thurne, with dozens of sailboats ahead of us cruising from bank to bank. How on earth are we supposed to get through this crowd? Or, again, to be more precise, how was Dad – now known by the nickname Captain Peter – going to survive that crowd?

“Slow down and don’t panic,” someone called out to us from a boat tied to the shore. “A space will open. It always does.” He was right. It did. And my time with the Norfolk Broads gave me some freedom.

Anna Murphy was a guest of Herbert Woods. Seven night hire of the smallest elite fleet, the Prince of Light, which sleeps four, starts from £627 (herbertwoods.co.uk).

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