An old gaffer, the whores of Babylon, and a quiche

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My old headmaster was, as they say, a character. Known as "Dogs", Mr Akers ran a boys’ comprehensive as if it were a grammar school, mortor boards and capes were de rigeur... and to say I didn't particularly enjoy my time there is a classic case of British understatement. Many are the stories told about Akers, and I had a chance to reminisce about them and learn some new ones this weekend. 

Every Easter the school organised a sailing trip on the Norfolk Broads and chartered a fleet of rather charming traditional wooden Broads sailing boats. I went on this trip only once, with my chum Julian, a chap in the lower 6th who skippered (Paul) and teacher called Angela - I can’t remember her surname. 

Some 30 years later, Paul, Julian and I met up at Hunter’s Boatyard (www.huntersyard.co.uk) in Ludham on Saturday morning. This time I had Ben my younger son (13), Julian his elder son Jeremy (7) and Paul's entire family (wife Zoe, William and Alastair - oh and the dog!). 

Zoe drove their wee motorboat, Paul hopped around on all three boats that made up our modest flotilla. Julian, Ben, Jeremy and I loaded our gear into Wood Sorrel - just next to her was Wood Rose, the yacht I'd sailed on as a kid all those years ago! Astonishing to see here still working and in great condition. In the boatyard was a beautiful new boat taking shape - a Millennium project that's so far taken 5 years....

And then we were away - a shove into calm water with the gaff and jib raised - gently drifting downstream in the sun. With no engine, and very light airs, it wasn't long before we were practicing the quaint art of quanting; all the boats come equipped with a vital piece of equipment for navigating the Broads called a quant pole. Almost as long as the boat, the quant pole is dropped vertically into the water as near to the bows as possible, then, shoving against the pole’s bulbous top, the shover (in this instance a handy 13 year old crew member) walks down the side deck to the aft deck - thus propelling the boat forwards. The pole is then plucked free of the sticky bottom and the exercise repeated and faint echoes of Akers shouting “Quant like a man, boy!” are heard among the reeds. Of course, the rules of the road changed as we had become a powered vessel, though this fine point was probably lost on all the Hoseasoners.

The first and major obstacles were the two low bridges at Potters Higham. The first is a classic stone built hump-back bridge with the central arch offering about 6ft of headroom - clearly not tall enough for a fully rigged sailing boat - unless the mast is dropped. So, a welcome break from the quanting as we tied up and did exactly that – the mast being hinged in a tabernacle and weighted at the base. The boys thought this was great fun, Julian and I recalled how we did this on the move last time, the fixing bar at the base of the mast wouldn't come out, we were approaching this bridge and a major disaster rather rapidly - then with a desperate heave out came the bar and down went the mast and whoosh - we shot through the short low tunnel, just in the nick of time! 

With the benefit of experience, we were much more controlled and sedate.

Much more wind the other side, and a delightful sail across Hinckling Broad, both boys took turns at steering - a reach and down wind, some gybing. A well marked channel down to the moorings at the far side of the lake and a very amusing dinner for 11 in the pub. Later, the two boys experienced their first night on a yacht. With the coachroof raised and the boom tent on, there's quite a bit of room on board, and very snug and atmospheric it is too, with the traditional oil lamp glowing.

A fry up breakfast cooked and eaten al fresco - astonishing weather for the time of year. It was mostly wet and windy that Easter in 1980-whenever-it-was. We were in company this time too - Paul's brother Ian and Andy Griffiths, both Akers’ acolytes, and his 6 year old daughter Jennifer were on Wood Anemone - so needless to say a “match race” was promptly organised. Now it may be that Wood Anemone got line honours on both occasions, but fine interpretation of the racing rules ensured that they were disqualified each time too!

Back across Hinkling broad and into the river. Tack, tack, tack, tack - be nice if we had a depth gauge, said Julian. Of course, just as he said that we discovered exactly how shallow the water is outside of the marked channel, and also just how deep the mud is as the quant pole sunk into it without helping one jot to extricate us from our muddy lee shore. 

Just as we hit on the idea of using the kedge - a dumpy lump of concrete, Paul turned up on the motor launch and pulled us free. My son is somewhat dyslexic and he sometimes gets words confused - it was with great delight I heard him explaining later that we'd tried to pull ourselves free by throwing the quiche overboard and hauling on that!

After lunch we went back through the bridges, re-hoisted the mast and bimbled back, tack, tack, tack - interspersed with quant, quant, quant. Finally the right hand turn taking us back to Hunter’s heaved into view and we were on a beam reach then a reach, on a dying breeze, but with enough momentum to keep gliding along, slicing through the deep black mirror; momentum that took us nicely alongside having dropped the sails neatly on deck - the boys by now working well as crew.

All in all a very satisfying weekend, and with the rose tinted view of hindsight maybe the school wasn't so bad after all. Just one tale about Dogs - as he was driving some boys out of the school in his car to go dinghy sailing, he espied some GIRLS from the GIRLS school just down the road. Now Akers had a thing about GIRLS - he really seemed to think they were the spawn of the devil and would lead all us boys astray - regardless of whether we wanted them to or not (which we did). On seeing these GIRLS, he exclaimed to the lads in the back "Godfathers! See boys see, those - those GIRLS - they're worse than the Whores of Babylon!"

So, if you know of anyone that attended Purely High School for Boys, please let them know that the "Men-boys and the Whores of Babylon" will be meeting again on the Broads next year.