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Good evening all! I have made a video of my time on the Norfolk Broads showcasing Great Yarmouth, Horning, Wroxham and Stokesby! Along with many cinematic videos in between and other footage! I would be greatful if you all gave it a watch as it took me hours to edit and I am very proud of it overall! Thank You all so much for your generosity!! Many thanks, Ben Armstrong
From Boston to the Norfolk Broads Sontay floated motionless at her riverside pontoon mooring in the late summer evening stillness; almost imperceptibly, she seemed to be straining at her leash somehow, like a ‘fish out of water’. Perhaps it wasn’t exactly cruel to deprive a boat built for the rigors of the sea of some fresh briny air, but the River Witham and its associate Fenland waterways had done her no favours: no prolonged bursts of throttle to tune up her six hefty Lister cylinders - the workhorse of many a West Country fishing boat - nor the advantages of salt water on a hull ravaged by decades of fresh water osmosis and scant antifouling protection. Yes, she had been to sea a few times: Grimsby.... Wells.... Great Yarmouth – but only half-heartedly, destined to make a hasty entry to another inland, fresh water cruising area, where she would rarely – if ever - break out of a gentle trot; maybe a canter at best – when what she really needed – wanted - was a good hard gallop out at sea through the waves of a fair-to-moderate North Sea blow! She was certainly built for it – but, like countless other craft afloat, she languished far from ‘home’: for the most part far from any chance of open waters.... If only boats could speak! It’s difficult to imagine that the Boston of the past once rivalled London as a maritime trade centre. Today, one of its more ignominious claims to fame is that of having the highest obesity rate of any town in Britain, while a quarter of the present inhabitants are immigrants. Like travellers in a foreign land, we listened carefully to the answers to our direction enquiries in an English that was not so much ‘broken’ – more camouflaged in its mid-European delivery. Yes, they were friendly, helpful, and polite: these strong and wiry workers from the sprawling fields of the fen country.... but we felt lonely, desolate – almost out of place; maybe, a bit like Sontay.... We wandered past the restaurants, not really wanting the attentions of fussy waiters, nor the self-conscious prices of elegant menus – more, the guaranteed value of the ubiquitous ‘golden arches’, for we were primarily after calories to see us through a long day’s cruising that would start very early the next morning. We sank our teeth into the predictable but nutritious nosh, efficiently served and surrounded by not a single English person! Here, in the heart of the bread basket of the nation, the overweight natives of twenty first century Boston appeared to have fled! At least the irrepressible culture shock distracted us from any festering anxieties that we harboured for our forthcoming voyage: the tidal sets across vast swathes of shallows, the lurking low pressure bands high in the atmosphere; but before all that, there was the Grand Sluice, straddling the down-river passage - lurking menacingly like a darkened barrier to our progress, awaiting our arrival before dawn.... Somewhat relieved to be back on board, we breathed the cooling evening air, the wide bulwarks of our new craft glistening with the first of the night’s dew. It was comforting to have all this strength around us – but we were almost paranoid about the batteries, using the cabin lighting sparingly, for fear of an ignominious failed start the following day; the lock keeper – by prior arrangement – was getting up specially to let us through: a no-show for this representative of the iconic and powerful mechanism for the control of the fenland drainage system was not an option! My knees no longer ached from the effort of unloading the hatch-back below the stepped flood barrier, clambering, fully laden, up to the magnetically locked door in the high security fence, hoping that it hadn’t been swung-to yet again by some well-meaning, but exasperating boat owner, thus causing me to temporarily have to put down my load of boat gear while I reopened the entrance to the river marina; then, down the other side.... It had been a long and tedious loading process; but now we were organised – ready for sea – the car safely back in its parking space at Wroxham; all we now had to do was get the boat there. Away to the east, the huge tower of St. Botolphs Church caught the last embers of the sunset. The medieval church tower, one of the tallest in England, has served through the ages as both a landmark to generations of travellers on the fens and as a seamark to the North Sea maritime trade - approaching from The Wash – going back to more prosperous times. The top of the tower incorporates a lantern-like structure that was at one time illuminated after sundown. This tower, affectionately known as The Boston Stump – or more simply to locals as The Stump - can be seen from as far as the East Anglia coast on the other side of the Wash. A folk tale tells that the strong winds that frequently blow around The Stump are caused by the breath of the Devil. After an exhausting struggle with Saint Botolph, so the tale goes, the Devil was left breathing so heavily that the wind has not yet completely died away.... It was time for an early night. We stared silently – and rather apprehensively - at the rippling lights in the dark water with the muffled murmur of the traffic in the nearby town centre behind us; time for a quick cheer-up, I thought. I dashed into the dimly lit cabin and poured a couple of healthy slugs of rum. There are four Samson posts on our rugged new cruiser: two at the bows, either side of the hawse pipe – and two at the stern, either side of the transom in the cockpit. With mock solemnity I placed the tumblers squarely on each of the cockpit posts. We stared down at these strong points as the rum stilled. Their cross-sectional tops are easily the size of square table coasters; the charged tumblers looked firm and secure in the dim light. Somehow, it seemed an appropriate spot to place our nightcaps. We toasted our new floating world and the voyage to come. Down river, the last glimmers of twilight had faded as floodlights now illuminated the towering monolith of The Stump with an eerie hallowed reverence that seemed to transcend mere religious doctrine.... With one last night time glance at the majestic structure, we knocked back the rest of our drinks and retired below. ******* Hell! Just what on earth was I doing?? It had been just the merest of a half hour trial cruise up river, turn around and come back! That’s all we’d done in her! I’d barely touched reverse.... And now, this! I glanced across at Mary. She was awake, too. There was a rim of damp around my neck: nightmares, I suppose. As I wriggled out of the duvet the alarm went off: five, dark, silent and full of foreboding.... The piece of kitchen roll disintegrated in my hand as I strived to gain enough visibility through the windscreen condensation. Peering out, the dark world looked surreal and indistinct. ‘Here goes’, I thought to myself.... I pressed the green button; the screech of the oil warning seemed to go on for ages – but it was probably just my bleary anxiety. Actually, the engine roared into life almost instantaneously. Navigation lights on. No excuse now. Mary released the bow; I momentarily took the strain on the stern line; then, slow astern, ready to turn towards the sluice. Turn? Nothing seemed to be happening! Then, almost imperceptibly, she moved. ‘She’s a large lady’, I told myself – ‘just give her some patience’. The black barrier of the Grand Sluice loomed ever larger, ever more obdurate and intimidating in the darkness; dammit! I’d taken things a bit too slowly: we were a few minutes late; critical? I hoped not. Almost mesmerised by the ghostly shapes embracing me, before I really knew it, we were in the lock, surrounded on three sides by dripping walls, glistening in the boat’s lights. I turned to see the night sky above the river shrinking into a thinning vertical line as the gates closed. Above us, I could just make out the shape of the lock keeper, peering down at us; he seemed bemused. I then realised why. In the effort to get into the restricted space of the lock without overshooting, I had completely forgotten about coming alongside! I stared up at the keeper; he stared back at me. Perhaps he’d seen it all before.... Perhaps I was just.... I grabbed the boathook and pushed off at the stern so that the bows swung in towards the side. That was better. “Good morning!” Mary smiled up at the dark face above her. “That remains to be seem!” came a stern reply. That was a bit harsh. “Sorry were a bit late!” I shouted up, in an effort to raise the temperature somewhat. “You’ll have to hurry up!” came back the reply with the authority of a sea-parting Moses. Mary slung the bow warp upwards, but it misfired. Hardly surprising, since it was all of a damp twenty millimetres, blue plaited, snake-like monster – and, anyway, her shoulder was never up to throwing. I rushed forward and lobbed the coils back up at him, nearly knocking him over in the pre-dawn half-light. No response; perhaps we were now quits! The lock gates opened on to the vista of a river illuminated by the lights of a town still largely asleep. Mary pushed off. As I gunned into gear, I leaned across the dash board and looked up out of the open side window at the still figure of the lock keeper silhouetted against a lightening sky. “Thanks!” I yelled, giving a thumbs-up sign as I did so. It was light enough now to just make out his weathered features; he half nodded. ‘Good enough’, I thought.... Now, we were beyond the safety of the inland waterway system. We picked our way down river as the town began to come alive, the throb of the engine in low revs like muted thunder. Past the towering Stump, past the shuttered shops, past the prone fishing fleet; past the grumbling docks - and then into the dawn light on the long curving dyke that threaded through the mud and out to the harbour entrance. The ‘sounder gave an occasional bleep as we strayed too near the marker posts: the channel was narrow in places. The channel widened. Suddenly, amidst a dazzling silvery glare, the sea stretched out before us. As we approached the entrance, there was the almost imperceptible surge of a tidal swell. Sontay responded accordingly as her hull began to lift: it was as if she knew she was at last outward bound! We, too, were pretty excited at the prospect of going to sea in our own boat after an interval of nearly five years! As the sun rose, so did the wind; the forecast crackled over the VHF: ‘northeast four or five’; a little more than we wanted – and from the wrong direction – but, as we opened her up, she parted the waves with gusto and all was right with the world! Soon we were out to sea, crossing The Wash with a meaningful surge; the Stump, now a distant mark on the Lincolnshire horizon. As we reached the mid-Wash Buoy, the weather was clear and the reflected light from the sea gave our cabin an almost opalescent glow! Approaching the north-easterly point of the Wash requires some close navigational attention as the sands extend far out to sea between Hunstanton and Brancaster. The deep water channel means a fair trek north, but since we had a good Garmin plotter on board – and there was still a good height in the ebbing tide - we decided to use a ‘rat run’ across the shallower part around Holme Point. This was to be our first taste of a spirited North Sea: with a stiff north east wind curving round the point it was a wind-over-tide situation that threw up a few ‘green ones’. Sontay took them majestically in her stride, while our sprung seating absorbed a few shocks and the decks got a thorough wash down! The rolling motion – for which trawler yacht designs are renowned – was a fairly smooth experience and, after a few anxious glances at Mary, it was clear that the crew was taking them well too. As our confidence in the boat grew – so too was our confidence in our ability to handle her, also. As we turned eastwards along the North Norfolk coast, we passed the spectacular sand dunes that shape the natural beauty of this part of the world: the coastal grass peeling back like the edge of a green carpet to reveal the clear, bright sand sloping down to the waves. Passing Wells-next-the-Sea kindled a few hair-raising memories of coastal sailing here with my brother in ‘Drascombe’ and ‘Devon’ yawls in times when we were both a lot younger and fitter.... As the tide approaches half-ebb, the harbour entrance gets treacherous as breakers form in the shoaling channel. Past Cromer, the land rose into high cliffs – dark against the afternoon sun – with their associated rocky bottom to the sea bed offshore. Our depth sounder profiled this sudden change dramatically; time to look out for the localised profusion of lobster pots and awkward tidal eddies. By mid-afternoon we were abeam the Happisburgh lighthouse, marking a notoriously exposed and neglected part of the lowering Norfolk line of cliffs, where well-publicised cliff falls have wreaked havoc and devastation on many coastal homes in the village. The red and white striped tower is built inland, sitting in the middle of a field – like a giant piece of candy waiting for the relentless sea to eat its way inland and devour it; as it inevitably will unless the continually weakening sea defences are – once and for all - finally rebuilt! As the afternoon turned into early evening, our course changed to southeast, past the very low lying land of northeast Norfolk. Here, at Sea Palling, a series of sophisticated offshore reefs have been built to control the rate of erosion of this vulnerable coastline that is contiguous with the northern part of the Broadland area. Any breach here could spell disaster for the environment, the community and the local economy. For some hours previously, our progress had noticeably slowed as we bucked the flood tide streaming along the coast and back into The Wash. Now, the tide had turned yet again - and with the wind now on our quarter as we made our southerly approach towards the Great Yarmouth harbour entrance around dusk, our speed over the ground increased to nearly nine knots. It was reassuring to be closing the entrance so fast, thereby avoiding too much after-dark navigation out at sea. We sped past the colourful illuminated sea front, the sparkling piers and the wind turbines out to sea. Mary reached for the mike and informed the harbour master of our imminent arrival - and our clearance to moor alongside the Town Quay crackled back. As we turned past the vast outer harbour and entered the Yare between the harbour breakwaters, we felt that deep sense of relief that comes to those who have accomplished long sea passages; that feeling never fades – however long you’ve been doing it! Something to do, no doubt, with the perennial unpredictability of the restless sea.... Now, however, we faced a new challenge. We sped up the river with the fast incoming tide; past the towering, floodlit ships, past the rusting rivets – some seemingly within touching distance, past the towering, buttressed wharves.... Ahead we could see the buildings of the old town with the quay heading in front, our mooring for the night. The danger lurked beyond: for not far from the Town Quay was the Haven Bridge, closed for the rest of the night with a rapidly decreasing air draft that made it impossible to shoot it that night. My anxiety was our ability to turn into the current before the bridge with enough manoeuvrability to approach a suitable mooring position. There were several other sizable ships docked alongside the quay and we wanted to stay well away from them just in case any of them were thinking about departure before morning; better to be on the safe side. We would have to act fast. If we couldn’t make the turn, we would be pinned to the bridge by the strong flood; it didn’t bear thinking about.... A suitable gap appeared. I turned well downstream of it. Sontay responded well, even as we sped ever closer to the bridge in that strong current at an alarmingly crabwise angle! I gunned into the stream and, with great relief, started to make headway. I suppose I overcompensated somewhat, so relieved was I to have made the turn: the quay was swathed in darkness from the shadow of the street lights, making the judgement of its precise position difficult; my first attempt resulted in a soft rebound. Rather than get too close to a moored ship ahead of me, I played the engine in neutral and very slow ahead to maintain way for an approach to our chosen gap. This time I judged it better – and we came in with just the merest of touches. We were far too low to reach the bollards along the roadside, so I instructed Mary to take a turn round the chain fastening of one of the enormous tyre fenders. Not only were the fenders enormous, the attachment chains were too, as was the deep-set piling that held the whole quay construction together! Somehow, Mary managed to get her head caught in all the barely discernible paraphernalia and I had to dash forward quickly to sort her out before the boat lost way. I leaned over the rail and untangled the warp - and Mary - before anything nasty could happen, making sure that as I leaned back into the boat I had the other end of the warp wrapped around the fender chain! Mary collapsed onto the foredeck in a confused heap. She was annoyed and indignant, but I now made fast - to the bow at least – and immediately I could only see the funny side of things, and promptly burst out laughing. At this, Mary, predictably, was furious. I beat a hasty retreat to the stern, still cackling tactlessly, to make fast there too. Recovering our composure, we adjusted the warps to lie comfortably alongside our giant fender - what was once probably an old mining lorry tyre. Engine off; the relief of the quiet from the engine room; calm.... We stared at the twisting montage of reflections of harbour lights in the smooth, undulating water. Traffic rumbled above us, punctuated by the faint whine of a ship’s generator astern. The dew was beginning to glisten. We were lost in our own thoughts, for at last we could both afford the luxury of complete relaxation after more than fifteen hours of sea cruising. Why had I laughed? Because that was the only way I could handle the sudden release of tension at the point of a successful outcome from a potentially dangerous situation. Mary knew that, too. I touched her hand. We both also knew that there might be other ‘potentially dangerous situations’ out there along the way.... We stood together in silence for a bit, mesmerised by the harbour lights and sounds. Then, I dashed into the cabin and – as I had done the night before – poured two stiff rums. I came back out into the cool night air and placed them on our new ‘coasters’. Tomorrow we would shoot the various bridges at first light and make our way to moorings in Wroxham. There was a lot of work to be done to our new boat – but here, in the Norfolk Broads, which we love, we were way within our comfort zone; that was fine within its limitations – but we also love the sea – and it was all out there: masses of it; just waiting. It was as if Sontay had made us an offer we couldn’t refuse.... We chinked our glasses together and drank to the future. It tasted good. Map: https://www.flickr.com/photos/126797358@N05/sets/72157647315202621/map/