Page published 20 December 2008

It had been a long time since I'd been sailing when Liz and I were invited by my sister-in-law Mary to join my brother Mike and their son and daughter, Ben and Carrie, his for his 50th birthday celebrations. It was to be aboard a sailboat on the Broads. This time on a traditional half-decker, hired from Martham Boat Building and Development Ltd's yard.

The party set out from Surrey at an ungodly hour, arriving in Norfolk by mid-morning, where we were there to greet them. As Liz, Ben and Mary aren't sailors, our party also hired one of the yards, rather elderly, and past their best, day launches. As expected, Mary lived up to her reputation, a corruption of the John Lewis slogan "Never knowing under catered", and loaded an enormous picnic aboard the launch while Mike and I prepared "Walnut" for the day.

Hoisting Sails on Walnut

I'm a bit quick with the throat Halyard, so hoisting sails doesn't look professional

With a little guidance from the staff at the yard, things sorted themselves out. We cast off with Mike first at the helm. Things are not as tidy as they should be - we haven't even raised the fenders - as we take off across the river to do a 270° turn through the wind, and then make the 100yd run up river to turn at Candle Dyke and head for Hickling Broad. By the time we make the turn we have got ourselves better organised and the fenders get lifted.

Walnut, having just left the staithe

Mike at the helm, takes us straight across the Thurne before coming about!

The photographs here don't tell the full story of the weather. While we started with a good breeze under cloudy skies, by the time our two boats moored at the dyke at the Pleasure Boat Inn at Hickling, there was brilliant sunshine. Both crews joined forces aboard the launch and we tucked into that giant picnic lunch Mary had provided.

As soon as we finished eating, as if on cue, it clouded over again as we prepared to leave the dyke. Our plan was to cross Hickling Broad again and make our way to Horsey Mere, just a mile or two away, but down a long narrow dyke.

Walnut, one of the 'white boats' in the Martham based fleet

Leaving the Pleasure Boat Inn, where we had a massive picnic!

Over lunch the wind had dropped way and barely filled the sails as we passed the distinctive houseboats managed by the Whispering Reeds yard. There is a pair of chocolate and white houseboats, flanked by a pair of smaller two tone blue ones. The boats with their unchanging paint schemes have been hired to holiday makers since at least the early 1960s. Indeed, Mike and Mary later had a couple of holidays in one of them, "Sunrest", themselves.

I took a strange excitement when the yacht, which was leaving Hickling at the same time as us turned out to be considerably slower and we romped past her as we made our way out of the shelter of the trees by the pub.

Walnut,under sail

Now Carrie takes the helm as we make our way back from Hickling

Carrie took the helm as the clouds continued to thicken. When we reach Horsey Mill the skies finally opened and a ten minute thunderstorm left us soaking wet. Ben and our wives were better off being able to shelter under the canvas roof of their launch. Spirits were not dampened, however, as we seemed to dry off quickly so the storm was not the disaster it could have been. ,It did leave us with still less wind, however, and it proved impossible to make reasonable progress back along Meadow Dyke.

As we needed to get back to Martham before the yard closed, we took a tow down Meadow Dyke which wasn't quite the end that we had hoped for, but in spite of rain and failing winds, it still counted as a great day out.

Walnut,under tow

It's getting late and the wind has died away, so we take a tow

In contrast, the trip the following year was embarrassing. I managed to get the half-decker hired on that day well and truly aground and out of channel just opposite Meadow Dyke. It was impossible to row out of the shallows against the force five and we were obliged to resort to mobile phone and a call to be rescued.

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