Our great sport of sailing can be enjoyed in highly varied circumstances. This summer I enjoyed some great sailboat racing on the other end of the sailing spectrum in the Broadlands of Norfolk, UK.
Norfolk is a relatively flat part of England (on the east side) where a number of rivers meander through the countryside; some small lakes called “Broads” are located just to the side of them, probably due to peat having been dug out in those locations.
The area is well known for yacht charters—but they are not called yacht charters … they are called hire boats. The experience excludes any rough water, clear water, sandy beaches or palm trees—but includes delightful stretches of river where animal life is abundant and the greenery is inspiring.
The boats are sail and motor and, designed for the conditions there, would not work at all in our Caribbean conditions. Both sail and power designs incorporate the challenges of shallow water and low bridges. Speeds are controlled to as low as three knots, and full bore is at six knots. Boats are designed with very tight turning circles, and with hulls that create a minimal wake.
The regatta I sailed, Wroxham Week, is now 130 years old. The entire event is sailed on a tiny piece of water (Wroxham Broad) and, due to the small size of the water, one of the main challenges of the organizers is to get each class off the water so there is space for the next class.
The water is far from clear—but heavily populated with ducks and geese. I witnessed numerous collisions courses with large boat fleets and flocks of birds that all resolved with remarkable efficiency. The club docks are heavily impacted with goose droppings.
The main classes are the “white boats” and the “brown boats.” The white boats are all white but the brown boats can be any colour. They are both very old gaff designs, and some of the boats are 80 years old. The real names are the Yare and Bure One Design for the white boats and the Broads One Design for the Brown boats. They are proof that intense racing does not need carbon and exotic equipment. They are highly restricted One Designs, with the class organizations dating back many decades and incorporating many important local dignitaries.
The class that is the most spectacular is the “river cruisers,” which are a handicap class of boats with cabins that go up to 40 feet, but with shallow draft and huge sail plans including topsails and bowsprits. When they are all on the lake (broad), there is not much space for anything else. The combination of small turning circles, very high helm skills and a decent knowledge of the rules ensures that collisions do not happen in every race.
One of the leading boats here is the 1904 built “Maidie” that was designed on the same basis as J boats but with a smaller keel for the shallow waters of the broads.
The final race of the event is the “Gold Cup,” which is only open to white boats and brown boats, and where they allow, after a series of eliminations, a maximum of 40 boats on the tiny start line.
What stands out in this end of the sailing spectrum is that there are 70-year old helmsman sailing outstanding races against more youthful competitors. The developed skills are not put to rest at the much earlier age we see in the Caribbean. What also stands out are the skills of so many sailors to maneuver in such small water with so many boats … whilst still respecting the rules and making so few collisions.
How did the sailing go? Well, not bad, and my wife Cary managed a third in the Ladies Race. In my case, a number of good positions were offset by some terrible ones, often due to the complications of dealing with large numbers of boats in small spaces. A little more practice at close quarters sailing in the (spacious?) Simpson Bay Lagoon, and I should be able to walk off with one of the hundreds of trophies collected at Wroxham in the 130 years they have been at it.
Founder and co-owner of the Budget Marine Group, Robbie Ferron is well-known for his many contributions to the Caribbean nautical world. He is a past president of the Caribbean Sailing Association and lives in St. Maarten.