Three men in a boat

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We had to put another tack in; a sudden wind shift would have had us bash into the river bank if we stayed close hauled. I signalled to an approaching holiday motorboat that we were about to cut across his bows and went for it. Just our luck and we picked a complete plonker who didn't know what to do and we had to take extreme action to avoid being T-boned by this blithering idiot; but at least we had the opportunity to do lots of shouting.

This was day two of the second reunion from our secondary school where we revisited the Norfolk Broads. The details of the first epic adventure can be listened to in the podcast "An Old Gaffer, The Whores of Babylon & a Quiche"; suffice to say in this blog that we had more boats with more people on this occasion.

Sons No 1 and 2, Jez and Ben, joined me on Buff Tip, a 20ft "Yare and Bure" one design. A wooden halfdecker, gunter rigged, with no obvious accommodation. We chartered her from Hunters Yard in Ludham, where we'd arrived all those years ago in the old school bus. It was good to see Wood Rose again, the boat we'd been on as teenagers. She still looked very trim despite the hard work, bumps and grinds that consist her lot in life.

We quickly stowed our gear in to the cubby holes under the fore and aft decking and familiarised ourselves with the rigging and other equipment. Rather than quant poles, Buff Tip was equipped with oars to provide ancillary power should we become becalmed.

Night time accommodation was simplicity itself. As Buff Tip was a half-decker, the generously proportioned cockpit became a snug shelter by the simple expedient of dropping a tent over the long, slender boom which was itself supported by boom gallows. I hoped it would stay dry during the day at least, otherwise the cockpit sole would provide a damp bed for the three of us!

We shoved off, one by one as kids, dogs, bags and more kids were all loaded on to the boats. From the boatyard we went down the dog leg, and out onto the main river. Last time we went left, up to Potter Heigham, under the famous low bridge, and up to Hickling Broad. This time our destination was Horning, in the other direction.

The wind was good and steady, but mostly coming from where we were going, so we tacked. And tacked. And tacked. Fortunately Buff Tip slipped along, even close hauled, and we made such rapid progress we decided to double back and find the other larger heavier and slower boats. Although I was worried we would have a damp night and thought longingly of the homely and comfy cabins they had, the way Buff Tip was handling I wouldn't have traded places!

Sailing back again, this time with the others, we got caught up in a local race. To see even larger boats being aggressively raced in the narrow river was quite a sight; lots of calls for water and "Starboard!" as right of way were established in a kind of elementary territorial fight; which is basically what it was anyway. Lovely to see though, beautiful white sails, very tidy manoeuvres, these crew knew what they were doing and we did our best to keep out of their way.

Tack, tack, tack, tack. Buff Tip went about nicely, holding her way as we went through the eye and got herself back into the groove again, just in time to go about o the other bank, just a short distance away. The motorised bathtubs with holiday makers mostly just stayed out of our way, some were bemused by our antics and some were plain confused. But sail has right of way over power, as every one knows (don't they?) so we were quite happy to hold our course and as a consequence mayhem sometimes erupted all around us.

Quite fun, really.

In the latter half of our route, the river became very sheltered with trees either side. We were taking longer and longer to make any forward progress as we became becalmed more and more frequently, so the two boys manfully rowed, our progress became faster as we could go in a straight line. But of course we'd become a powered vessel, so had to pay attention to other sailboats!

Finally we arrived at Horning, we came along side under sail, tied up, and got the tent over the boom before the rain, which had been increasingly threatening to arrive, got us all soaked. Given that there'd been so much rain already in July, we didn't fancy being out in a deluge.

Evening. Pub, stories of the day, memories of school, updates on who is doing what with whom. One funny story for the record; one of the young lads who came on the trip was snatching at the reeds that form much of the river bank, but one he grabbed hold off didn't let go at the root, and with an almighty splash the young lad suddenly found himself in the water! Fortunately he had a buoyancy aid on and was rescued very quickly.

The next day we nipped around the corner and through the narrow entrance into the broad at Horning. We had a wonderful blast around the lake, testing out Buff Tip on all points of sailing. We went around a few racing bouys, careful not to get in the way of the local racing scene and once we'd had our fill of open water sailing, we left, but not without mishap.

The exit is just as narrow as the entrance, it being the same thing. A 200 yard stretch of water, at times not much wider than the length of our boat, surrounded by trees and facing directly into the wind! We waited until the narrow strait was clear, built up speed in the lake and went for it, hoping that our momentum would generate sufficient apparent wind to keep us going.

Our strategy nearly worked, but I hadn't allowed for how much faster Buff Tip was than the other yachts and, as we approached the last few metres before the freedom of the river, we caught up with one of the others yachts that just couldn't get out of our way. Complete chaos as we went into the trees, and a selfish motor launch decided to barge in, restricting even further our ability to move. Fortunately Ben and Jez are strong on the oars, we paddled backwards, managed to catch a puff in the headsail and were out!

We suffered the same frustration on the tree-shielded river, spoiling if not completely and literally taking the wind out of our sails. But this time we had the current with us and continued to make progress, making much use of the apparent wind. Shortly after nearly being T-boned by the idiots in the motorboat, a massive squall came through, deluging us with unbelievably wet water, fresh from the sky, and completely recyclable. We had way too much sail up really, the mast groaned ominously, the bow wave mounted as we accelerated away; we spilled wind as best we could, given that it was now more or less behind us.

The squall went through and things calmed down somewhat, though the wind settled down to a steady force 4 blow. We were rocketing along on the broadest of beam reaches, now gybing across the river instead of tacking. We even goose-winged on occasion, and longed for a spinnaker! Mile after glorious mile of uplifting, soul enhancing, exhilarating, downwind sailing, catching up and over taking the motorised plastic bath tubs, the crews of which stared at us, unable to believe that their floating caravans were being stuffed right royally by nothing more than a sail!

All things come to an end though, and not wanting to beat back by continuing further than the turn to Buff Tip's home in Ludham, we went head to wind to drop the main, so we could approach the home berth under the more controllable headsail. The boys by now were able enough crew, but we weren't quite quick enough to get the rig down before the head of the boat was turned and we started to make way again. I stuck the bow into the reads and we parked up, safe and secure whilst we stowed the main with sail ties.

We shoved off and just to prove that less is often more, we were still making significant speed, even though we were only using the much smaller headsail, though we were much more relaxed and the slightly manic bordering-on-the-edge-of-control feeling had gone.

A left turn had us close hauled as best we could on just the headsail. The reeds further cut the wind, as they are about 6ft high, and we glided smoothly and silently along the deep browny-black water. Right turn into the boat yard, we let the headsail flap and our momentum took us deep into the yard. I timed the turn perfectly so we went port side to, facing back into the wind, and just as the fenders kissed the wooden platform Buff Tip came to a graceful halt and the crew stepped ashore to tether this magnificent creature to the moorings.

All in all the three men in this boat had a great time, and enjoyed a wonderful downwind sail, one of the best of my life. The usual incidents, glad the wee lad that took an early bath was OK, and the winner of the "Dogs" award for best accident was Julian, who managed to broach smack into a Hoeseasons bathtub, with the river police right behind him…

I'm sure we'll be back for more.

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.