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A Charter on England's Norfolk Broads

No, the Norfolk Broads are not a ‘40s dance troupe; they’re a network of winding waterways and small lakes that encompass a goodly part of the wetlands of Norfolk, a county on England’s East Coast, and they have a unique charm that transcends any petty differences between powerboaters and sailors.

A charter on England’s Norfolk Broads provides a unique experience

“From my perch on the flybridge of my power cruiser…” As a die-hard sailor, these are not words that I could have foreseen myself writing, and yet here they are. Not that I’ve gone to the dark side; there is an explanation, and it holds water. Hard as it may be to believe, not only is it possible to have a waterborne vacation without having to set a sail, but there are plenty of wonderful destinations that are best seen from the, er, flybridge of a power cruiser: France’s rivers, Holland’s canals, and England’s Norfolk Broads, for instance. 

No, the Norfolk Broads are not a ‘40s dance troupe; they’re a network of winding waterways and small lakes that encompass a goodly part of the wetlands of Norfolk, a county on England’s East Coast, and they have a unique charm that transcends any petty differences between powerboaters and sailors. You can actually hire sailing boats here—traditional gaff-rigged Broads cruisers—but the proliferation of low bridges means you’ll spend a lot of time with the mast on the deck anyway, so why not go power? 

With a three-day September window for our cruise, my local guide, Joe, and I picked up our 40-foot Caprice power cruiser from the Le Boat base in Horning, and that is when I found myself perched upon the aforementioned flybridge. A special kind of boat has evolved for Broads cruising: long, slender and low enough to pass under the numerous bridges that crisscross the waterways. Accustomed as I am to sitting in a boat, as opposed to on top of it, not only did the river seem impossibly narrow from way up on the top deck, but the absence of a fin keel’s grip on the water completely threw me for the first half hour. 

Propelled by a big low-revving diesel swinging a prop the size of a manhole cover, the Caprice has mushy steering that takes several seconds to respond to any input—and a barn-door rudder that amplifies said input once it arrives. Hence I wove down the narrow river like a drunk on a bicycle, eyes bulging every time a boat appeared coming the other way. The saving grace was the Broads speed limit—a heady 3 to 4 knots, depending on the location. That’s right, three to four. Speed freaks need not apply. 

After a while, it all came together. My heart rate slowed to match the speed limit, and I learned how to steer the boat in a straight line. I could now enjoy the scenery. And what lovely scenery it is. Blessed with perfect weather (by no means a foregone conclusion in England), we meandered along winding waterways fringed in turn by woodlands and wetlands, past cows grazing in sunken meadows protected by levees, through impossibly quaint villages where each house seemed to have a boat tied up out front or in a “driveway” carved out of the riverbank. 

Every so often a tree-lined cut in the bank signaled the entrance to a broad, reminding me that this seemingly natural wonderland is actually largely man-made. In the early Middle Ages the local monasteries seized on the rich peat beds in the region as a ready source of income—peat being a sought-after fuel—and the excavations kept the local population in work for a few centuries. Then sea levels rose and the peat quarries flooded, creating what are now called broads. Some of these are little more than ponds; others would be called lakes anywhere else. We had one almost to ourselves the first night, dropping our mud weight—a lump of castiron on a rope—into the soft ooze. The perfect evening silence was broken only by bird calls and the lapping of wavelets stirred up by circling swans, who regally accepted the bread crusts we proffered. 

As in the Netherlands, evidence of man vs. water is plain to see in the windmills that dot the landscape, once used to pump out the low-lying fields, and the dykes that line the reed-fringed riverbanks. Chugging along at 3 knots, we were sometimes overtaken by cyclists pedaling happily along the dyke paths. Church steeples rose between the trees in the distance, and sometimes you could see just the top of a boat or part of a sail on a parallel waterway, an eerie sight. On one of the more open stretches of water I dared to open the throttle to a heady 5 knots, only to be waved at by a uniformed individual sitting in a rowboat who held up a crossing guard-style sign that said “SLOW DOWN.” Busted, Broads style...

There are no marinas as we know them, but there’s no shortages of places to tie up. On the second night we seized a vacant spot on the riverbank and walked half a mile to a village pub we’d spied in the distance, returning in the pitch dark after steak and kidney pie and a few pints of local ale. By now we had learned the secrets of handling Broads cruisers; use the paddlewheel effect of that big prop and the propwash against that big rudder as if you mean it, and the boat will eventually do your bidding. If you get it wrong, well, that’s what all the rubber rubrails are for. Going by the scars on many of the Broads cruisers, boat-to-boat contact is far from rare.

By day three we were complacently passing oncoming boats with mere inches to spare between them, us and the riverbanks, and finagling the Caprice in and out of some fairly tight spots. It was with considerable regret that I backed her in between her sisters at the Le Boat base; the more time I spent on the Broads, the more time I wanted to spend there. I never knew life at 4 knots could be so enjoyable. 

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