Sailing in the Lowlands of England
by Gavin Atkin

I've just spent a week holidaying in a houseboat with my family on the Broads, a group of tidal estuaries and medieval peat workings linked by a network of canals and rivers in the low-lying county of Norfolk, England, and I must say it's a very beautiful place. It's also an area that has a number of characteristic boat styles that I thought some people might like to see - and which some others might enjoy being reminded about.

Here's a typical Broadland scene. This is often very low-lying country, and just as in Holland wind pumps have traditionally been used to control water levels.

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Probably the most famous traditional boat type seen on these waters is the Broads cruising yacht, typically an attractive gaff-rigged craft with lots of brightwork. Large numbers are available for hire to holidaying families. Many - including a whole fleet hired by the famous Hunter's yard - have no engines and so the hirers often spend a good amount of their time quanting their boats along the narrow channels. [I haven't included any shots of the floating caravans used by many holidaymakers on the grounds that they aren't really worth looking at.]

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Vying for first place in the fame stakes is the Broads wherry. I didn't see one myself, but I did find the model in the Museum of the Broads, and took some shots of the wherry yacht Olive on Barton broad (where Nelson learned to sail, it's said) and in the river near Ludham.

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Far less frequently talked about are the gaff-rigged and balance lug-rigged traditional half-decked sailing boats and the standing and balance lug-rigged dinghies. On our trip I sailed several of these and can thoroughly recommend the experience. I don't seem to have arrived home with any pictures of the boats themselves, but here are my children and myself sailing one. The wind was about Force 4 on this day and my son was sadly feeling a little seasick at this point following a longish run down Hickling Broad. :-( 

One thing I noticed about these boats is that they have little if any built-in bouyancy (emergency flotation in US English) and this puzzled me until I sailed the boats myself and developed my own theory: why should it be possible for the hire companies to survive in these litigious times without this basic safety feature? My theory is that the answer is that the sheets are organised in such a way that any gust above about Force 4 is close to pulling your shoulder out of its socket. Combined with steel centreplates in the luggers and some half-deckers and keels in other half-deckers, it's a neat solution that seems to allow hire companies to hire out sailing boats to complete novices year after year in relative safety. Worth thinking about, I'd say...

I also took some photos of the local type of shooting punt. The larger punts pictured here in the museum are real old shooting punts, which were sailed using small rigs. However, at some point racing broke out among the punt users, sails increased in size and now the Norfok punt is one of the fastest racing dinghy classes we have in the UK. I caught the beginning of racing on Barton Broad, and so have included a couple of pictures.

A day trip to the seaside at Cromer gave me a chance to take some shots of the local crab boats. The traditional boats are built up at the sides and have holes for the oars, which I believe are used for lifting. The built up sides are said also to have allowed the boats to be beached sideways. On landing they were allowed to be knocked sideways by the surf, and the crew simply stood inside while successive waves moved the boat further up the beach while the extra strakes prevented the boat from toppling over them. Notice that even the modern GRP crab boats, which look to me to be derived from cobles or dories, have the same black upper strake with oarholes.

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These are pictures of the hull of a racing half-decker on show at the Museum of the Broads; 

This is a more general pic showing a variety of elderly craft including more sailing punts, a pleasure steamer, and, top right, a rescue craft used for recovering airmen during WWII. The boats, which were rigged for sailing and had inflated bouyancy tanks fore and aft, were parachuted into the airman's vicinity and he was expected to sail or motor home. The whole thing was an idea of Uffa Fox's, and he designed the thing. Said to be derived from the racing punt hull, many of the rescue boats were converted for pleasure sailing on the Broads after the war.

Dscf0152.jpg (71812 bytes) Here you can just see the first Wayfarer designed by Alan Proctor.


This picture shows a house being thatched - Norfolk reed is said to be the best and lasts for 60-70 years. 'Photos cost 1, smiles are 2.50,' said the man on the ladder. Dscf0155.jpg (80029 bytes)
DSCF0127.JPG (76495 bytes) This shows a reed lighter used to carry the reed from the cutting areas on the Broads. 
A typical older Broads motor cruiser (you may glimpse a typical modern one behind it)... Dscf0132.jpg (75339 bytes)
Dscf0129.jpg (76494 bytes)  ...and something of the inside.


I trust you can still breathe after this...