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Sailing (mis)adventures on the Norfolk Broads

by Liz Potter 17 Feb 20:56 UTC
Sailing (mis)adventures on the Norfolk Broads © Liz Potter

The darkening skies were building behind us as we approached Hickling Broad on our final full day of sailing on 28-foot "Violet", a traditional Broads gaff-rigged wherry. The passage along Candle Dyke was narrow and the reed beds were swaying in the mud as we sped downwind under full sail towards our nights' resting berth off Hickling Yacht Club.

The dyke opened out briefly, giving us a tempting turning point to head into the wind and lower our sails ahead of the approaching storm. We had a short discussion about the risks of pushing on under full sail, but at better speed in the freshening wind, against lowering sails and motoring the final stretch but getting soaked in the squally downpour which was closing in behind us.

As racing dinghy sailors, our decision was unanimous and we opted for speed and sanctuary. Ten minutes later, the heavens opened as we made our final approaches. We stowed the sails amid the peals of thunder and lightning, searching for the jetty under the darkening skies.

A bright bolt of lightening illuminated a line of boats moored along a narrow jetty and in the torrents of rain, we could just make out the shapes of two people holding berthing lines.

They were our good friends Mike and Anne St Paer, who had arrived in their own boat earlier in the day. We secured Violet alongside and clambered under their welcoming awning to share steaming mugs of tea and cake and to swap tales of our adventures on the Broads that week.

As we told the story of our unfortunate and almost unbelievable incident, I finished with a doleful look at Anne and whispered, "We can't write that story down. We are competent and respected sailors at our club."

"Oh, but you must", urged Anne, eyes wide with surprise and mischief. "It's what Broads sailing is all about. These things happen to us all."

The rain hammered down on us that night and I lay awake in my slightly damp sleeping bag, remembering the start of the trip which had begun with so much excitement and anticipation just six days earlier...

I had booked the trip to celebrate our 33rd wedding anniversary and we arrived at Martham Boats to collect Violet on the afternoon of our anniversary. There followed a race to get to the pub at Horning for our dinner at 7pm. Luckily there was a fresh breeze blowing and we had both wind and tide behind us, so made good time for most of the journey.

As the evening approached, the wind dropped, but we persisted with the sails to limp into the pub staithe just on time.

There were many motor cruisers moored at the pub, some of which were due to leave very early the next morning, so we triple moored on the outside, promising to depart after our meal.

After the happy pub celebration came the first of our challenges, which was to find a parking spot for the night. We motored off to look for the little jetties around the corner, where we had happily camped a few years earlier, only to discover that the mud had encroached further and our stern was left jutting out mid-stream.

After some heavy reversing off the mud by torchlight, we found an obscure and stealthy parking spot beside some grand riverside houses. We hid the boat from view behind a large tree and decided to be away by dawn.

The following morning, we wound in our berthing lines, giggling like naughty school children and set off for a very ambitious sail to Great Yarmouth, where we were due to meet up with some friends, who were joining us on board for a few days on our passage to Oulton Broad.

The wind was fresh and building from the start and blowing from the East. This meant we had a lot of beating ahead, up the narrow waterways. We made good time, reaching the Stracey Arms for a brief 20 minute lunch stop and pressed on upwind for Great Yarmouth. Luckily the tide was with us, but the wind had increased, making for tiring sailing. Andrew took the helm as the mainsheet was heavy work, with no cleats to help.

The boat was heeling heavily, as we pressed on towards Great Yarmouth, as we did not want to stop and reef in the narrow channel.

Just short of Mautby Marsh Drainage Mill, we went aground on a rogue mudbank, some way off the reed beds. The engine was started up and thrown into reverse, but it spluttered and died. It was re-started and the same happened again. Andrew ran forwards to drop the sails only to discover that the main halyard had come off the cleat and gone overboard.

Even worse, it was wrapped around the propeller, which explained why the engine had cut out.

He jumped off the bow to try to push the boat through the tack and away from the bank, but the tide was ebbing and the boat was firmly stuck. So, there we were; stuck on the mud on an ebbing tide with no engine and a sail that couldn't come down.

Luckily a hire motor cruiser passed by and we hailed him over to get a tow off the mud. He obliged and we set off once more for our destination of Great Yarmouth, whilst discussing our situation. As it was now approaching 5pm and I suspected that the boat office might soon be closing for the day, I was finally allowed to call for help. The voice on the answer machine told me that the office closed at 4:30 and please call another time.

The next stage of our crisis management involved me rummaging below deck to seek out the hire boat manual, where I found the emergency number.

I called the number between tacks and was answered by the calm and friendly voice of Ian. He went on to tell me that there were no boat lifting or diving services in Great Yarmouth or elsewhere on the South Broads. He advised us that our best bet was to turn around and sail back to our lunch stop at the Stracey Arms, where he would meet us and try to assess the best option for our significant problem.

We had by now reached an appropriately named turning point called Scare Gap, which was to be the limit of our sailing journey for that day. We were faced with a two-hour run back against the tide in a race against the dwindling daylight.

The wind was still blowing a strong Force 4-5, gusting 6 and we were careering downwind under full sail. The river took a few bends, requiring us to gybe often. On one of these gybes, the boat lurched into a huge broach and promptly grounded side-on to the river on the same unmarked mudbank which we had visited earlier.

This time, we were held onto the bank by the strong wind, which was pinning our mainsail out, Andrew disembarked for a second time to try to push the bows around, but the boat was well and truly jammed.

It was getting late in the day and passing shipping was sparse by now. Most of the hire motor cruisers had finished for the day, so we were fortunate that one such craft was late and trying to get to Great Yarmouth before nightfall. We hailed him and he approached our stern. His young partner took the helm and approached us at some speed, whilst the Skipper stood on the bow to catch our lines.

There was a bump, which nearly knocked the skipper off his deck onto our transom, but made for an easy transfer of lines. They towed us off backwards, but he released us too early, only 10m from the bank. We needed to bear off some 90 degrees to clear the bank and had no momentum to do this. The boat sailed back onto the bank once more.

A second rescue attempt was made. This time, we took his forward lines on board. Their helm set off with an enthusiastic reverse speed, which had Andrew adding a quick half hitch onto his line, to hold the pressure. When we reached mid-channel, the knot was jammed so tight that I had to perform a small operation with a sharp knife to release us.

It was clear that the river was too narrow for two boats to manoeuvrer properly, as the motor boat had gone aground on the opposite bank now. On our release, we still didn't have enough momentum to avoid the bank and sailed straight back on it. The motorboat managed to get off the mud and set off for Great Yarmouth. We both waved and yelled frantically and he turned and took pity on us.

"One last try" he shouted angrily, as he approached us once more. On our last tow-off, we finally got enough way on to avoid the dreaded mud bank. With a muddy and cold Andrew crewing and me helming the boat very cautiously mid-river, we set off for our rendezvous with Ian.

Looking at the map, we could see that the final stretch of sailing towards Stracey Arms involved a beat, as the river turned very sharply.

After an hour of sailing, the wind was dropping and about 1km from our destination, just before our final upwind leg, I spotted a remote staithe on the opposite bank. I pointed it out to Andrew, half-joking, that it was where we would be spending the night.

By the time we turned the corner, the wind was light and we were punching a strong tide. As we were pushed towards the same bunch of reeds on three successive tacks, I called Ian to say that we weren't going to make it. I suggested that we meet at the remote staithe I'd spotted earlier, as there appeared to be vehicle access to it through the farm.

Once again, we turned the boat around and moved slowly down tide, trying to make a seaman-like landing under full sail, brushing softly against the overhanging trees as Andrew jumped ashore with the mooring lines.

At last I was ashore too, and off to track down the farmer to ask for retrospective permission to land and new permission for Ian to have access in his truck. All permission was hastily granted, perhaps because, over the hedge, I caught the farmer singing along to the radio in his underpants whilst tending to a barbecue in his garden.

I continued along the farm path until it reached the road and waited there for Ian, giving him the description of a desperate blonde woman in shorts and crocs, dancing about in a crazy way, as the Broads mosquitoes had arrived in their thousands for a feast.

Ian had a long road trip from South of the River Bure to the North bank, via Acle Bridge. He arrived with his son in the passenger seat of his pickup and had a kayak in the open back. He acknowledged me with a pitiful smile and I pointed him towards the farm.

He set off in a cloud of dust and splattered mosquitoes, whilst I jigged and windmilled my way back along the track.

As I reached Violet's awkward landing spot, I saw Ian's plan unfold. He had attached a pulley from his tow hitch onto her jib halyard and cranked the boat over onto the landward side, exposing her prop. He then launched the kayak, untangled the main halyard from the prop and they were packed up and gone, like Batman and Robin, in about twenty minutes.

The sun had set, and darkness surrounded us. It was now 8pm and it had been a very long day. Andrew and I shared a small cold pork pie for supper, to celebrate surviving the first day of our 34th year of marriage. We retired to our berths, which were wet where the boat had been submerged.

The following morning, we set off once more for Great Yarmouth and pulled in at the Yacht Station. The only berth left was one immediately behind our second rescuer of the day before. We took over a peace offering of wine and chocolates, asking which way they were heading, so that we could go in the opposite direction.

The rest of our journey wasn't without the occasional mud landings, but we took great care to secure all lines on a regular basis and can look back upon our trip with a degree of humour not felt at the time.

As with all extreme challenges that sailing brings, they tend to mature into great adventures with the passage of time.

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