Lines in the Sand

by Alistair Wasey

A week on the Norfolk Broads Part 3

(Part 1 - Part2)

For those of us who have shared in Arthur Ransome's idyllic writings on the Norfolk Broads, this rather special area of the English countryside requires little by way of introduction. For any who have not (and I urge you to rectify matters!) the Broads are tucked away on the East coast in an area known as East Anglia, a name which traces it's route to the Dark Ages of British History when Germanic races colonised our fertile isle. It is a curiously impermanent landscape, being interchangably river delta and dry land before the hands of man and the sea currents formed the current system of rivers and broads running between fertile marsh lands.

The following has been adapted from the log I recorded during my week. My partners on this trip were my two good friends James, a student at Cambridge University, and his partner Laura, also a student, but at Durham University.

Wednesday 30th June

After James and Laura had retired to their bunk I found I was strangely wakeful and restless. I took a walk along the river bank in the hope of wearing myself out, to no avail. I turned in at 23:00 in the hope that an attitude of repose would encourage a restful interval of sleep. A book called "The Norfolk Broads" written by William Dutt around the turn of last century had waxed lyrical on the subject of the Norfolk Night, and I have to agree with him that it certainly has a charm all it's own, though somewhat different a century later. However, overhead there still shone the eons-old moon and strange sounds dopplered past the boat as night fowl went about their noisy business. A bat had been one of the last things I had seen before entering the forepeak, and when I rose again around 4am, I watched for some time his aerial acrobatics. In the grey pre-dawn light I watched a greebe feeding it's offspring, thus explaining the curious beeps that had entertained my wakeful night. Now that I wished to be awake to enjoy this magical dawn time, I was overtaken by the wings of sleep and dozed fitfully until 8am.

The crew emerged almost as tired as I, and together we trudged off the staithe to the local stores through unpleasant weather of wind and fitful rain. We motored out of Thurne Dyke into a fresh wind, which contrived always to blow from bang on the nose. We had not raised sail in the dyke as we were on the lee shore, and once in the main channel the wind was too strong to trust our feeble single rond anchor; even had we succeeded in finding a suitable section of bank. Under bare poles the engine struggled onwards, stopping almost dead in the stronger gusts, eventually reaching Fleet Dyke around mid-day. The map showed safe moorings apparently continuously from the mouth of the Dyke to South Walsham Broad at it's end. I hoped to land at the mouth of the dyke, raise reefed sail, and sail on, but as we drove further down the dyke, it became clear that this plan simply was not an option. We finally moored at the mouth of South Walsham Dyke and ate lunch and decided to wait out the tide and weather, expecting it to ease in the afternoon. I walked into South Walsham, an interesting walk through tree-roofed lanes and along a path which ran arrow-straight through a corn field over which hung enormous blue dragonflies engaged in their lethal pursuit of bothersome insects. In the churchyard appeared to stand two churches, both over the fallen stones of an older foundation, the whole having achieved mention in Dutt's tome. A lapsed Anglican, I enjoyed a few moment's meditation amidst the fragrant herb garden soaking in the hazy sun before returning, feeling the day waning and Ranworth, my intended destination, still far away.

The map shows all our journeys, Wednesday being green, Thursday peach and Friday violet. I'm sure that William Dutt would agree that although we didn't go far, we did experience much of the essence of Broadland.
(click to enlarge)

On returning to the boat, I struggled to inspire the crew to action, and eventually made ready for sail and topped off the fuel tank while they went for a short walk. We started the engine as security, but intended a rather more seamanlike exit. With all sail aloft, we stood warps in hand. At the signal, I coiled the bow warp, and shoved the bow off. The jib was backed as I sprinted back to the cockpit over the cabin roof. With James at the tiller, the bow came round, the jib was sheeted in properly, and a short tack was made across the Dyke before spinning the boat round and running off downwind. It took less time and effort than to write this and went superbly. However, the wind blowing through the trees was light and shifting giving James no end of headaches as gybe followed gybe. One nasty gybe on the front of a sharp gust ended with the dinghy clipping a moored yacht. Apologies were hailed across the water, but did little to placate the disgusted eye of the owner.

I took over before reaching the main channel, worried about the wind and traffic to be expected. On exiting the dyke it became clear very quickly that I had mucked up my tides. There was still a strong ebb running, over which it was difficult to make headway despite the still fresh wind. We tacked to and fro making a boat length or less depending on how the wind had shifted between tacks, and what traffic we had to avoid. Most of the drivers of the enormous stinkpotters were, to their credit, very understanding of my self-inflicted predicament, giving plenty of room and patience and smiling indulgently at our hasty thanks. We hung on, praying for the change of the tide, but as the tide weakened so did the wind. By dead water we had passed Ant mouth, perhaps four hundred yards up river, and I was becoming frustrated with the wind as James tried to keep things calm on board. A change of helmsman quickly reversed the situation until James agreed that the only way we were going to reach our destination by nightfall was with the assistance of the engine.

Under the engine we quickly gained a little more purpose to our movements, although only a little more actual progress. As the sun began it's decline, it cast a golden light over the reeds quietening from their daytime whispering, and over the sails as they were taken in. One foot on the tiller, arm hooked over the boom, I surveyed the landscape and map, hastily calculating how soon we might be tied up. Between two glances a surprising change had taken place on the bow. Where before I had a tall, blonde bowsprit I now had a pair of legs and a loud bang. I was gripped by a terrible fear of what might have happened, miles from anywhere, in a slow moving boat with a good friend having just fallen head-first through the forehatch. It was a long time before, much to my relief, my shouts achieved a response. I called Laura on deck and it wasn't long before James had emerged again laughing, unharmed except for a hurt foot but having given all of us a terrible shock. From that moment on the forehatch was replaced with great care.

We entered Ranworth Dam at 17.45, and had tied up at the staithe by 18.00, taking the last available spot. We were guided to our mooring (hidden at the back, tucked in a corner) by a friendly stinkpotter. We had a pleasent carbonara with tuna and pasta for Dinner, James retiring to his bunk immediately afterwards. Abandoning Laura I took the dinghy out. The log reads: "Very pleasant sailing small boat again. Can sail on beam-ends with an easy conscience. Poor sail shape and set (may need to adjust boom arrangement) made up for by enjoyably sail." I thrashed the boat around the small Malthouse broad as fast as I could get an 8 foot tub with a heavy steel centreboard to go. The old adage that the amount of fun had in a boat is inversely proportional to it's size was proved true. Regrettably, with a good wind blowing and a large wake curling from the forefoot I changed course back to the staithe to rig the awnings and do the washing up. When I returned to the water, the wind was failing with only an occasional fresh gust stirring the water. "Pleasurably challenging. Able to sail very close to wildlife without disturbing." I discovered a tiny drain on the far side of the broad and sailed the boat in. The bush covered headlands cut off the wind and I paddled a little way in, disturbing something large and shy on the bank. I headed back out and resumed sailing in time to see two stink potters come in and commence racing around the broad looking for a suitable mooring for the night. Eventually they moored in front of us, blocking us. However, in the gathering gloom of dusk I managed to sneak the dinghy in before the final hulk slotted into position barricading our exit. A pub trip was mooted and warmly agreed upon. On return the mooring ropes and awnings were adjusted before turing in at 11:50. The final log comment reads "Bar. 29.5. Adjacent stink potters kicking up almighty row. Hope for better sleep."

Thursday 1st July

"8:00. Very good night's sleep. Barometer still on 29.5. Wind unchanged. Showers threatened later." We were all slow getting going that morning, despite a scrambled egg on toast breakfast. I felt very dry and my nose, which had been threatening to revolt for the past two days now began to seriously bother me. The water was topped off, before a perambulation was made through Ranworth Nature Reserve. This was a rewarding trip as it brought home some realities as to the fragile nature of the broads environment and the effect we visitors were having on it. I also had not realised how impermanent the broads were in terms of the natural environment. Within twenty years open water could become scrubland if the right conditions were met.

A steersman's eye view of the landscape. It's moods
would ebb and flow almost with the changing times,
being both hostile, bleak and grey and warmly
endearing within the space of a few short hours.
(click to enlarge)

We left the staithe at 14:15 and anchored in the open water. The mainsheet blocks were up to their usual tricks, and we began sailing around the mooring rather than lying comfortably to it as we raised sail. Despite the difficulties we were under sail again and drifting lazily through Ranworth Dam to the open river. We were bothered by occasional gusts, but for the most part the boat trickled along barely making a wake. Once in the open river we commenced a glorious down-wind romp. James made an excellent job of the difficult course requiring a gybe on almost every corner in a pleasant breeze. We estimated from comparing our speed to the motorboats that we must have been getting near a speed of six miles per hour on some reaches. This was truly enjoyable sailing with a bright sun beating down, the miles that had been so hard-won so few hours ago reeling effortlessly under our keel as we swept through the wide marsh-lands.

We rounded Thurne mouth and instantly lost speed as the wind swung closer on the bow and the tide started flowing against rather than with us. After two unpleasent gybes off the mouth of Womack Water, I planned an adventurous landing with the wind on the beam. We very nearly overshot the mooring as I hadn't explained to the crew as fully as I should have done what I wanted. Still, the only damage was to my pride and crew relations. The cruiser ahead of us gave me a disapproving look, but forbore from obvious comment. With the sails dropped we motored on to Womack Staithe performing an interesting reverse parking manoeuver before fussing for five minutes over our precise mooring position. James and Laura disappeared into Ludham for food while I tidied round on deck before diving head first into the cabin as a ferocious shower soaked the boat. I had considered getting wet and putting the awning up, but as it leaked horrendously anyway, I decided discretion was the better part of valour.

While James and Laura were gone I scribbled my name and email address on the back of a business card I had from my band and dug a fiver out of my slightly damp wallet. I had come to the conclusion that my sleepless night had been due at least partly to the young lady at the chandlery, and if I was honest with myself, the decision to overnight in Ludham had not been an entirely cold blooded decision. James and Laura arrived back before I plucked up my courage and before I had fully secreted the evidence of my intentions. I was unceremoniously kicked out and told not to come back until I'd spoken to her. I groomed myself as well as possible given so many days in a boat without a shower and blustered my way embarrassedly into the office. "She is extremely attractive when slightly embarrassed... Have threatened to return anyway. We shall see what happens."

Having made as dignified an exit as a bright red face would allow, the evening stretched forward with nothing to do but see if the fish were biting. The awnings were rigged and I retired to a nearby bench to nominally read a book, while paying far more attention to the Chandlery door. After a very palatable chilli con carne (with extra chilli, James' theory being that hot food helped to get rid of colds), I returned to my bench, slowly accumulating layers of clothing as low flying jets shot into the cloud strewn sunset and the cold began to come down. The fish were biting, our next door neighbour losing two fly-casts in our rigging, but the women weren't. At 22:00, after another pleasant lemon tea, and with the last notes of the log recorded I turned in, out of sorts with women.

Friday 2nd July

As so often happens, it is only at the very end of a holiday that one really settles into one's surroundings. After another excellent night's sleep I was up at 8:30, although the crew were again slow getting going. While getting the awnings down, the boat threw up another short coming. The shackle which doubled for the forward awning and the foot of the jib stuck. We all had a go at it, but had to admit to defeat and beg a pair of pliers at the chandlery, which did at least give the bonus of meeting the Chandler's daughter again. It seemed incredible to send out boats that lacked even the most rudimentary of tool kits. Something as simple as a stuck shackle could happen at any time, and in an out-of-the-way creek could be a real nightmare.

Exquisite craft like this one caught in Friday's calm were a constant pleasure.

(click to enlarge)

With barely a ripple on the surface of the water, we left Womack Water. I was feeling really miserable by this time (like all men, the merest cold takes on the severity of a mortal sickness if there's any chance of some sympathy!), and James and Laura still weren't sleeping, so a communal and not terribly difficult decision was made to have a gentle motor in the flat calm back through Potter Heigham up to Martham. We calculated that we could be home by 9pm, and as we had to be out of the boat at 9am the following morning anyway, we didn't see that we lost much by curtailing the holiday. Laura stayed in bed as we nosed our way lazily upstream through a hazy sunshine, with barely another boat disturbing the morning peace. It was pleasant to lounge around on deck swabbing mud from the decks where the anchor had come aboard, tidying the ropes around the mast, taking a last few photos.

"Wind rising approaching Potter. Moored and dropped mast without incident. Passed through bridges, moored and raised mast. Feel bloody awful." So awful indeed that my appetite which outside rowing circles is legendary, had abandoned me. I struggled through beans on toast on the bank and thought of warm showers, copious hot chocolate and comfortable beds.

Onwards and upwards we sped with a gentle chugging, a light exhaust following our every move until at last we hove in sight of Martham's huddled bankside form. James executed a neat turn to land upwind, but the manoeuver ended in rather botched fashion as a Martham's employee gave awful instructions as to how he wanted us to moor. Still, with rather less elegance than we had hoped for, we arrived back, moored to the end of the cruiser fleet and started to unpack the boat.

The speed with which the boat was unpacked was astounding, but I already knew that James and Laura had taken less well to the boating lark than I had, and we were on the road at 14:30. We had a strange weather on the run home. Blinding sunlight alternated with some of the worst showers I have ever had the misfortune to drive through, massive drops near-obliterating the road despite the best efforts of the South Korean wiper motors, and in many ways adequately reflecting my own moods about the holiday. I had most certainly bitten off more than I was capable of. Not having sailed a boat for two years, then jumping into a heavy 30 footer on tiny rivers was one hell of a baptism of fire. My natural over-caution and apprehension had been adequately assisted by the poor maintenance of the boat. However, we had some glorious sails, and saw places that were beautiful and wild in a raw way which is difficult to find on such an over-populated island. By the time I got home at 21:00 I knew that I would be going back. Maybe not with Marthams, but I'd be going back.

Back in potter again on the way home, without
even the energy to moor the dinghy properly!
(click to enlarge)

And the chandler's daughter? Two days after I got home, an email appeared from Deena thanking me for the drink and apologising for having been so suprised. Next time I'm down there I guess I'll have to buy the drink for her...

Take Care

Alistair Wasey