Charles Stock & Shoal Waters

Magic of the Broads

Boats July 1986

As the blaze of light that was the gas rig support vessel slipped between the piers followed obediently by the pinpoint lights of the pilot vessel, I pointed the bowsprit of my gaff cutter Shoal Waters towards the harbour entrance once more. The westerly wind (probably the offshore breeze after a scorching day) made it a dead beat into the harbour (I have no engine). A couple of tacks between the tall pierheads soon told me that the rich, peaty waters of Broadland were still pouring out into the North Sea so I dropped back into the darkness again to spend another twenty or thirty minutes jilling about off the Yarmouth shoreline. Of course the safe and sensible way to get from the Thames Estuary to the Norfolk Broads is in through Lowestoft which is a broad wide harbour with very little tide in the entrance, plenty of room inside to anchor, a spacious yacht basin and access to Oulton broad through Mutford lock two miles further up the harbour. The only snags here are money and time. The lock is expensive and they require forty eight hours notice to open up other than on Wednesday afternoons! Bearing in mind the barrage of pious claptrap which is hurled at yachtsmen these days on the subject of safety, I find it very difficult to understand why the local docks board is allowed to take this attitude which is clearly a negation of safety. In contrast, Allington lock on the Medway, Teddington lock on the Thames and Heybridge lock on my beloved river Blackwater at Maldon, present no problems to the cruising yachtsman.

A cheap holiday

Like many yachtsmen I have a very limited amount of money to spend on my sailing! The maximum possible proportion of that money goes on the boat herself and her equipment. Although Shoal Waters is only sixteen feet long, I carry five headsails, as well as a topsail, a spare mainsail, watersail, and a storm trysail rigged ready on its own gaff. My very reason for being here was to get the boat from the Thames estuary onto the Broads so that my wife and I, with our two teenage children, could enjoy a very cheap holiday by cruising the Broads and pitching a tent each night on the bank to provide a couple of extra berths. I therefore, as a matter of principle, avoid charges wherever possible – even when this entails some sacrifice of safety – so Yarmouth it had to be.

At 22.45 hrs I tried my luck again and this time beat smartly between the piers and turned North through the three miles of busy jetties, now with, of course, a beam wind blowing sporadically over the buildings on the steep Gorleston shore. It had been a long day as I had left my mooring at Heybridge at 1800hrs the previous evening straight from the office, snatched a few hours’ sleep when the wind died away off Colne point, and then sailed northwards along the Essex and Suffolk coast as a nice breeze built up slowly from the South. I have never actually stopped in Yarmouth Harbour before, although I have passed through it many times: I was toying with the idea of lowering mast and gear to pass under Southtown bridge and the bridges onto the North Broads, but sensibly decided that this was far too hazardous and difficult an operation to undertake in the dark in my present state. The weariness of the afternoon off Aldeburgh and Southwold had long gone and I was now in that strange almost hypnotic state when I feel can just sail on and on for ever and ever.

Overnight in Yarmouth

There is no yacht basin at Yarmouth although a few private and pleasure craft do lay along the western shore using an ingenious system of moorings that holds them away from the jetty, a very necessary precaution in the strong tides and regular wash from passing ships. About a mile and a half from the harbour entrance I spotted a small dredger on the western bank and moored alongside her for the night. This would relieve me of any worries about rise and fall of the tide within the harbour while I was asleep. In fact it turned out to be a very quiet night indeed and I slept like a log.

Saturday morning came in overcast with a light drizzle but a promise of brighter times and strong westerly winds later in the day. The tide was still sluicing down the harbour when I turned out at about eight o’clock and of course there was no question of my moving on until the flood set in. This gave me a chance to wander round old Gorleston. The houses and buildings rise steeply from the long wharves, interspersed with a maze of narrow stepped alleyways which lead to a main road running parallel to the river from the harbour entrance to Southtown bridge (this, apart from the ferry at Reedham, is the only way by which vehicles can cross from one side of the river to the other between the sea and Norwich). The area has certainly seen better days. As I picked up a loaf of bread and a few other basic items, I noticed three second-hand clothing shops, an unheard of trade in my own area. Back at the water’s edge the old wharves and jetties were green with grass and in places actually collapsing into the river. All the trade seems to be concentrated on the Eastern shore these days. I was mystified by a number of bent and twisted keelbands laying among the masses of rubbish and marine garbage. For a moment I wondered if this indicated that some ancient Viking boat burning ceremony lived on here, but was horrified to learn later that these remains were in fact of local craft burnt after being crushed by gas rig support craft manoeuvring to and from their berths! I reflected on my peaceful nights sleep; did someone say ignorance is bliss?

A mysterious tide

Now came another little mystery. It had been 22.45hrs before I had any flood tide into the harbour the previous evening and yet by 10.30hrs the tide was flooding strongly past my overnight mooring. I got underway and made short work of the mile or so to Southtown bridge. It does open at times but I am not certain under what circumstances. I anchored below the bridge, lowered my gear, got the anchor and using an oar as a paddle to maintain steerage way, moved swiftly underneath the bridge and past the old warehouses to the junction with the river Bure which is the gateway to the North Broads. The River Bure is very narrow here, compared with the Yare and even the Bure itself further North. There are two fixed bridges over the first few hundred yards and Yarmouth yacht station, normally crowded with motor cruisers is on the Eastern shore. (From now on I will use the local language in which a yacht is a sailing boat and a cruiser always a motor boat.) It can be a very busy place from Sunday to Friday but as most of the hire craft change crews on Saturday, I found it pretty quiet. A Broads yacht with her mast down was paddling and poking her way along the western bank having left too late for the ebb tide to help her to the junction of the rivers which is the recommended practice for sailing craft. Above the last bridge I anchored and raised the mast. A couple of hire yachts at the yacht station (this section above the bridges is reserved for yachts) gazed wide-eyed at this curious practice and in particular, at my anchor and chain for they are only equipped with a piece of line and a mud weight.

Topsail country

The Norfolk Broads is topsail country ‘par excellence’ but with the regular need to lower the mast for bridges one must simplify the gear as much as possible, particularly when singlehanded as I cannot lift the mast and untangle any ropes which catch on cleats and fittings at the same time. I therefore lashed the tack of the topsail to the throat end of the gaff and the clew to the peak so that when hoisting the combined topsail and mainsail I had three halyards, namely the topsail halyard, the peak and the throat halyards, saving the need for a topsail sheet and down haul.

Then away into Broadland in my own vessel for the first time for nine years. I had a fair wind for the first mile or so past the mudflats and the Smith’s Potato factory but then the river turns westerly and it is a beat most of the way to Acle. The growing flood tide enhanced the very modest windward performance of my tiny cruiser and I rapidly settled into Broads-style short tacking without changing from one side of the cockpit to the other each time when coming about.

The rather bleak lower reaches of the Bure, reminiscent of the Crouch below Burnham, gradually gives way to true Broadland scenery: green grass right to the water’s edge instead of saltings, often with a delightful fringe of reeds that rustled cheerfully in the rising westerly wind. My delight at being back in Broadland again was perfected by a succession of traditional Broads yachts wearing the burgee of the Yare Valley Cruising Club running downstream. I later learned that this was in fact a week’s cruise in company to the South Broads but for me their cheery waves were a wonderful welcome back. Three miles out of Yarmouth at Mautby farm is the first windmill (they are really wind pumps), and I began to wallow in the magic and nostalgia of the area, oblivious to the splatter of rain that drove me into my oilskins.

Of course my problems were far from solved. The holiday was two weeks ahead and I had merely brought the boat up to the Broads this weekend because the weather had been favourable. The trip North from Harwich to Yarmouth is almost impossible for a small boat in adverse conditions.

Friendly boatyards

There are plenty of yards on the Broads which will look after a boat for a few days but of course Saturday is their busy day and I felt rather guilty about worrying them although in fact, cheerful and helpful agreeability is the outstanding characteristic of the Norfolk people in this area. At the first yard I came to, Eastwicks, about half a mile below Acle bridge, Mr Berry looked up from a cantankerous engine due to take a hire party out for a week’s cruise in two hours time and fixed me up with a comfortable berth alongside a new wooden staging at the head of the half mile Acle dyke. After an overnight visit to South Walsham Broad and a look into Womack water in the bright sunshine on Sunday morning I took the ebb tide through Acle Bridge and moored up just after lunch. On route I met the river officer and paid my dues, just a few pounds for a small sailing boat without an engine. I had intended to make enquiries about public transport for the journey home but somehow never got round to doing so. Luck was on my side and I was pleasantly surprised to find that a train from Acle station just twenty minutes walk away, would get me home to Chelmsford in 2 hours 21 minutes. Quicker than the boat trip but not quite so much fun! And I still had the holiday in prospect.