The Broads – A Different Sailing Experience

A piece written by Rob McNaughton, for Hunter’s Yard – We hope you enjoy the read

I was watching the extraordinary spectacle of the America’s Cup series this year and I confess with the modern aids to televised watching this kind of boat racing it was gripping stuff but way beyond my ambitions and most sailors I should think.  We all tend to sail in some kind of niche way; the lake and gravel pit racers, in dinghies and all kinds of small craft on the coastal sea, cruising, ocean racing and serious passage making.  The diversity is great and the sport and pleasure great for its diversity.

I’ve not covered half of the options but I’ve done quite a few and yet it has not broken my early love for sailing on the Broads.  Many of you might think that it’s hardly proper sailing at all but I hope to convince you that, both that it is and that it is well worth trying it.  Firstly the Broads area is very beautiful.  Noel Coward referred to Norfolk as ‘very flat’.  And the Broads is certainly that but the skies are as wide as the open ocean and the countryside generally beautiful in a small scale way; neat fields, lots of productive hedgerows and a range of flora, fauna and birds enough to thrill anyone.  Go for sailing but find time to walk and discover the amazingly beautiful beaches, nature trails and the soft gentle lanes.

The next thing the sailor will notice is that the traditional yachts and half-decked sailing boats are different.  The freeboard is low (no waves to worry about).  They’re long and lean and faster than you might imagine.  Gaff and gunter rigs are still the fashion for they carry their sail high to catch the wind above the banks and reeds.  The mainsails are disproportionately big, some with topsails and the foresails, often carried on bowsprits, are small.  It’s not about aesthetics, it’s about being able to turn quick and set the jib very fast to recover from a tack – and it works.  By any standards the sail area is large because winds are lighter than on open water and the sails of the racing River Cruisers tower over their slim hulls. The boats are generally beautiful to look at.

Sailing a traditional Broads’ yacht is ridiculously involving.  Thank God that most of the banks are soft because they’re never far away and nearly every manoeuvre warrants a good plan B.  You can probably learn more about boat handling in a mile of river sailing on the Broads than in fifty miles at sea.  You don’t think so; then try winkling a 20 foot (6 metre) yacht plus bowsprit to windward up a channel less than one and a half times the length of the boat.  Believe me the sense of achievement is terrific.  There are things that come into Broads sailing that don’t apply anywhere else.  The skill to use the counterintuitive favourable wind shifts of the leeward bank to extend a tack.  The constant watch and adjustment to avoid the motor cruiser traffic and always the task of adjusting sail and course as the rivers appear to twist the wind direction relative to the boat by the minute.  As I say, totally involving but at the same time mostly gentle and safe for the sensible crew.  Dinghy sailors adapt quickly to Broads craft because they demand quick reactions and larger boat owners find the boats a revelation in what can be achieved working a boat up a narrow river.

The rivers are tidal and a real consideration in sailing on the Southern rivers but even in the North where they seem innocuous they can make the difference between a possible and a very difficult and slow passage.

Beautiful boats in a beautiful place and a chance to sample a new sailing and learning experience; not a bad offer when you think about it and usually a good watering hole or mooring (many free) for the night after a day’s activity.

There are three main yards still offering sailing craft for hire on the Broads and a number of smaller operators.  For the real purist and traditionalist the Hunter’s charitable Heritage Fleet offers the genuine pre-war experience.  Their yachts have no motors (oh the strange joys of pushing a boat using a quant pole!) no electrics and a cocoon of mahogany to live in for a week or more – they sail so well too.  Hunters offer skippered sailing sessions for the newcomer or ‘want to try’ (on its taster sail days) and their fleet of small half-decked sloops and lug sail dinghies are gems to sail.

Martham Boats have the biggest fleet with yachts ranging from half-decked 20 footers through to powerful craft over of over 35 feet.  Recent acquisitions have made their offering large and diverse and suitable boats can be found for most levels of experience and crew size.  Eastwood Whelpton also have a diverse fleet with some powerful traditional yachts as well as some more modern designs.  These are not the only yards hiring out sailing craft and offering tuition and short sails.  It’s worth looking at all the options and easy enough with access to the internet.

The Broads is a great place to start sailing, generally safe and with plenty of opportunity to get out on the water quickly.  It’s a great place to visit, grow skill and enjoy a very special and rather wonderful part of the world and for me, in my later days, a great place just to sail. 

Somebody described sailing the Broads as just drifting through the reeds and slime but it requires special skill and brings unique rewards. 

Rob McNaughton