Norfolk, of course…
I finished with business in the UK on Friday and had a beautiful weekend to spend on the Norfolk Broads, a web of waterways in pristine forests and marshland east of Cambridge. This is a very traditional British yachting area, and we were lucky to explore it with Zoe, a restored gaff-rigged broads cruiser built around 1900.
Broads Cruisers are wide, shallow-keel boats, able to avoid the mud and tidelands that make up the area. Zoe is a beautiful wooden sailer with a full Victorian stern, unique among the yachts sailing the area. No winches, no electronics, no shower: this is sailing the way it once was, close to the elements in a heavy, warm cradle of a ship. I had never sailed a gaff rig before, so it took a bit of practice to get the rhythm of it, handling the boom at both top and bottom of the square sail. It makes for a lot of ropework and a lot more weight to haul up and down the timbered mast. But the form and performance are really great once you get things set right. The cabin is small, just a couple of berths and a small gas cooker and pump toilet, with a roof that had to be lifted on my shoulders and braced into place at each stop to provide room to work.
At several junctures, the channels are blocked by low bridges, so the mast must be taken down to get beneath. While a lead slab counterbalances the mast weight, it’s still considerable work to walk the heavy mast down and back up in a controlled way. The rigging is much more complicated than a traditional bermuda sloop, and can become a mess of tangled wire and rope if you aren’t careful. Anchoring is done with a traditional mud weight, which is a real struggle to free from the bottom each morning.
Overall, she’s a physically demanding, but very satisfying and beautiful boat to sail.
The Broads were unusually vacant, and the wind was good, so we were able to sail eight hours a day, covering most of the main areas of the Broads. We were able to do lots of beating up the waterways in a staccato of tacks, then take an easy run ahead of the wind down another channel. It was easy to find sheltered marshes and still coves to anchor into for the night where it was quiet and solitary. Waterfowl were abundant, providing a swan poking a nose in each morning or a family of ducks in the evenings to keep company.
The wind was cold, but the sun was warm; we didn’t really get any rain or insects to interfere with the elemental pleasures of sailing. I enjoy helming part of the time, just handling jib- and main-sheets others: there’s always with time to think, to talk, to laugh, maybe to spot a heron or a pike. In stressful or relaxing times, sailing always brings back patience, connection, balance, and reflection. It was even better to have the opportunity to sail a classic yacht on this turn.
For me, times just don’t get better.