Woke to a fading sea fret as the clouds seemed to be lifting and the forecast was for steadily increasing temperatures. The wind had backed to the west. The plan was for a long sail, largely against that wind, to reach Gay’s Staithe, which is near Neatishead on Barton Broad’s western edge.
The landscape at West Somerton is flat and exposed so we could use the light breeze to make good progress. It was just strong enough to allow tacking in the narrow river and across the fairway of Martham Broad. However, you did have to keep a careful eye out as reeds were encroaching upon the edges of the river or fairway, and one or two party members did come to a temporary halt in the almost hidden shallows.
As we sailed along, all we could hear was the gentle lapping and parting of water, the light slap of the reefing ropes on the sails as we tacked, and a huge variety of birdsong. Delightfully peaceful.
Martham Ferry was a challenge with the wind in this direction. The floating part of the bridge stuck out towards us and made it difficult to approach at any speed and the angle of the opening meant that you needed all the speed you could muster to creep through the gap against the wind.
The next stretch past the end of Candle Dyke heading toward Potter Heigham, was helped by increasing wind, now up to a Force 3 and backing further into the south. Still tacking into the wind, but with the wind angled somewhat forward of the port beam along this stretch, it was a set of short and long tacks. On each long tack, trying to eke out as much forward progress as possible before tacking across the river and loosing out to the flooding stream. The risk was of being blown into the reedy bank and having to quant off and restart. If that happened, then it took several tacks to gain your momentum back.
The wind direction also meant tacking through the bungalows at Potter, but it was strong enough to keep us going; it is an exercise in boat control and patience.
At Potter bridge we moored on the south bank to lower masts and doubled up on quants to make better progress through the bridges, an effective technique. A quick dash to the shops to top up on victuals, and also top up our water, and off again heading west.
Once clear of the last of the bungalows progress was much brisker as the river is wider and the wind is free. We arrived last at the Lion at Thurne for lunch to find our companions sat outside the pub in the sunshine. It was here we held our traditional toast to Absent Friends.
A bit more beating to Thurne Mouth, then a right turn into the River Bure and, with the wind now largely on the beam, faster progress towards St Benet’s Abbey. On one bend we saw another Hunter boat, Wood Avens, with a dinghy in tow. She was stuck on a lee bank having failed to make a tack. We could see that the crew were not experienced as they were trying to use the quant but were pushing from the wrong end. So we doubled back and came past again advising them to send one crew member forward and for them to back the jib. This they did and they duly swung off the bank and got under way again.
Suddenly, over the trees, we spotted the huge mast and unique black sail of “Albion”, the last remaining commercial wherry, now rescued by the Albion trust and used to show what sailing vessels were like. Compared to our yachts she is a behemoth with a huge tree trunk of a mast, and that enormous, loose footed, black sail.
A short distance west of St Benet’s we turned into the River Ant and we were on a relaxing, but brisk, run to the Bridge at Ludham. Here, the mast has to be lowered again. Twice in one day is just about above and beyond the call of duty! The main problem here is that there used to be a spot just next to the bridge for sailing boats to moor to lower and raise masts. However, this has disappeared in the last few years and so you have to moor before the double bend meaning quite a long quant up to and then through the bridge.
After the day’s earlier practice, the job was rapidly accomplished and we set off up the remainder of the Ant, past How Hill and through Irstead village.
With the wind in this direction, even though the Ant changes direction a lot, there was only one short beat and we were blown gently through the village, normally a spot for much quanting as it is so tree lined.
Irstead is a delightful spot with the waterside properties being of character and each very different from the next. You can pause on your way through as there is a public staithe by the parish church.
Then out onto Barton Broad, a magnificent place to sail as most of it is deep enough in the main part and there were extensive clearing and water quality improvements carried out around the year 2000. Anyway, time was pressing on so we headed west up the marked channel towards Gays Staithe.
The last part of the approach is heavily tree lined, and the wind was fickle, as we beat the last few hundred yards. Again, the staithe was nearly deserted, just one motor boat was there. We moored and set up our awning, joining some others for tea and a natter about the day’s events. Pete arrived and started to moor on the other side of the almost square landing area that forms this staithe.
Suddenly there was a crack like a pistol shot followed by a large splash. We leapt up and dashed across to find Pete in the water. He had tried to push his boat with his foot, that had slipped and he fell, taking the awning spreader for Wood Sorrel with him – until it just snapped. Fortunately he fell in right next to the side and we were able to pull him out with nothing hurt except pride.
After he had changed we walked down to Neatishead noting that the former Barton Angler pub was still closed and seemed to have reverted to a private dwelling. On our way into Neatishead we spotted that the “Old Eagle”, another former pub from 20 years ago, was up for sale.
In the White Horse we had an excellent set of evening meals; huge portions, well prepared and presented. The former head barman had left, but the cellar was still in good order and producing excellently quaffable ales. The current barman closed up shortly after 23:00.