Learning To Navigate by John MacDonald

Why I chose to take a boat on the Broads in the UK is a complete mystery, I have absolutely no idea why I hired the ruddy thing, although I did need some photographs of drainage mills for a project I was undertaking. It was a
24 foot, two birth river cruiser from a local boatyard in Beccles.

My experiences on the water have been limited mainly to /P&O/, /Shaw Savill/ and the /New Zealand Shipping Company. The smallest craft I have taken passage on was the Harwich to the Hook of Holland ferry. Even on the ferry the bar service was reasonable, but here I was not only serving my own drinks but also driving the thing as well. I had made certain that the boatyard knew that I had no experience with small boats, I was reassured by a female voice on the other end of the phone, “You will be fully coached. We will not let you leave the boatyard until you can handle the craft.” This made me feel better;after all, if it was difficult they wouldn’t rent one to an idiot like me! I had researched boating on various internet sites, but they seemed to be mainly concerned with taking in a reef during a force ten. First, I didn’t know was a reef was, and secondly, at any sign of a force ten I was making for the nearest pub! So it was that I, a nautical virgin, drove into the boatyard on an overcast and drizzling spring morning.

Imagine my surprise and trepidation when I saw the thing, bigger than I imagined and with visibility from the driving seat horrifyingly restricted. If I am not the worst car driver in the country I am certainly on the short list! Whether or not my inability to propel my automobile in a controlled straight line was an advantage in steering a boat, the next couple of hours would show. I was told to stow my gear aboard, this nautical idiom indicated that I was now an old sea dog and could legally catch scurvy or wear one of these yellow water-proof hats.

The main cabin had ample head-room, with several small and cunningly hidden wardrobes and cupboards where one can stow one’s gear. However, I kept my valuable items, cameras and laptop, on a shelf near the door leading to the cockpit… Just in case I did manage to excel myself and sink the thing, how I was going to keep them dry in the hypothetical abandonment of the boat, I never quite worked out! Off the main cabin was a small closet some two feet by two which contained a remarkably efficient shower ,a small sink, and a revolting contraption
which passed as a toilet. I vowed to stick to a fiber-free diet.

Waiting for the boatyard assistant to turn up and show me how to drive the craft, I wondered just how many boats they did lose and whether or not there was a tried and tested procedure for such an event.

At two, or should I say 1400 hours, a tall and lively individual put in an appearance. It was his job to turn me from a middle-aged, Potamophobe into a matey in the space of 20 minutes. I was given a tour of the cabin and shown how to perform the engine checks. The engine lurked under a hatch in the cockpit, painted a metallic green with several covers in red, these were the levels I had to check every morning: water, oil and remove weed from the filter. It was all straight forward enough, but for one who habitually sheers bleed-nuts on radiators, I wondered just how comprehensive the obligatory insurance was.

With the motor throbbing away we pulled out of the boat yard’s cut and into the river where I was instructed in the art of turning through 360 degrees, mooring alongside, and mooring stern-on. It all seemed very easy, but beware these manoeuvres were performed on the Waveney between Beccles Old Bridge and Beccles New Bridge. It was
like a mill pond, and I was duly lulled into dangerous self-confidence. On my own I put the throttle forward until the tachometer showed 1200 revs, this being equal to 4 miles per hours while 1400 equates to six. If, however, there is a tide running at six mph against you, you are dead in the water, so these guidelines are completely meaningless because there is always a tide of one sort or another running.
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I motored upriver towards Somerleyton where I intended to spend the night. Somerleyton has a swing bridge which carries rail traffic. The bridge will open for boats if the operator sees you. The technique for being noticed is to sail in circles until either the bridge opens or you get dizzy and nauseous. A board which shows the maximum headroom under the bridge was indicating 8 feet; my boat was 6ft 8inches above the water line with the awning and windscreen dropped and just over 9 with the superstructure in place. I decided to drop the awning and windscreen rather than suffer the indignity of revolving in circle after circle making myself light-headed.

I put the throttle to neutral and clambered around the side to undo the studs which secured the various pieces together. I managed to drop the windscreen, but the awning remain fixed, seeming to defy the laws of
gravity. It was then that I noticed we were beam-on to the bridge and drifting towards it at an alarming rate. I kicked the wretched thing in the hope of persuading it to collapse, which it did just as we drifted under the flat underside of the bridge.It fell away as if pushed by an invisible hand from the bridge. We were that close! As we drifted out of
the other side I remembered that I had to sound my horn. ‘Toot, toot’… I found my hip flask, took a long swig of whisky, and motored away from the bridge. I moored at the free mooring near the Duke’s Head pub which I immediately headed for. I needed to have a meal, a drink, and to make amends for the inadequate plumbing aboard the boat.

I slept soundly that night with dreams of my ingenious mooring knots coming undone and waking up on some foreign shore where I was made to test bridge heights by standing on the bows of vessels wishing to pass through. However, I awoke with a headache from overindulgence.

I cast off, pushed the throttle ahead. and set off for St. Olaves where I had to negotiate the road bridge. This time I moored at the Bell Inn where I found the pub was shut. I dropped the superstructure, motored through, tied-up at the free moorings, had an early lunch before putting the boat back together. I must be getting old! The stretch of water from St Olaves to Burgh Castle passes a number of windmills that I wanted to photograph. The plan was to spend the day oscillating between the two, getting my pictures.
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Now if I had been an experienced boatman, I would have sniffed the air and said something like. “The old River she bee playing up; She bee in a bad mood; She bee!” I wouldn’t shove off for all the beer in Yarmout or some such gibberish. But I wasn’t a boatman and I did shove off. The difficulty of getting her bow pointed in the right direction should have given me a clue, but I just couldn’t connect the dots. With the Waveney’s muddy water rushing past I pitched and rolled my way upstream. The sky was overcast with a typically British drizzle making my progress a measurable affair. I had my camera and tripod set up in the stern when we past a mill I would rush back take a picture and then try and catch the helm before the boat ran aground in the reeds. The whole operation was fraught with perils, and I was in constant danger of losing my equipment overboard; the camera and tripod were probably worth more than the boat. After spending several hours engaged in this operation, it was with some relief that I motored towards the moorings at Burg Castle. They were deserted… I still couldn’t join the dots!
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My approach to the quay was text book, but the vicious tide soon had her moving ahead banging against the mooring pilings. It was a struggle to make her fast, scrambling on my knees and just managing to take several turns around the mooring post before she headed off upriver unmanned like a latter-day Marie Celeste. It was an overcast grey day; the river was running very fast and the boat was at least three feet below the level of the bank. The length of pilings indicated a considerable rise and fall in the tide. It just did not seem right! No other boat was moving, and my craft bobbed and pitched liked a cork. I made the decision to head for Reedham, a decision which possibly saved me and the boat. I was to find out later that the tide fell some six feet and flowed with a force which would have put fear into Hemingway’s Santiago himself.

Getting off the mooring was difficult.m I had to push the bow clear using my feet, rush back put the throttle full ahead, and make for the centre of the River. It took five attempts, during which time I probably broke every boating rule in the book, using reverse and forward throttle as if I were parking a car at the local supermarket. But it finally got me clear and in mid-stream heading for the confluence of the Rivers Waveney and Yare.

The Waveney joins the Yare with Breydon Water and Great Yarmouth to the right and upstream to Reedham to the left. The mudflats stretch for miles in all directions, poles mark the navigable channel. A more desolate place on an overcast, drizzling late afternoon I couldn’t imagine. It is a place of depression and despair. I saw no other craft
that evening and I felt completely alone. If I had felt the necessity for solitude in order to find myself then I had the spot. But all I wanted was a brightly lit pub, a strong drink, and a chirpy barmaid, so I pushed the throttle forward exceeding the six miles an hour speed limit. I wanted to be out of that melancholy place.

With sky threatening, I cheered myself with doses of whisky from my flask. Soon relaxing, I even indulged in a couple of sea shanty’s. I approached the Reedham Quay at about 1000 revs. As I came alongside I put the engine into reverse, the boat came to a gentle stop adjacent to the mooring post, perfect! I jumped ashore with the stern mooring rope. The engine was still going astern. I tried pulling against the boat; useless! All that happened was the loss of several layers of skin from my hands. I managed to jump aboard just as she went the wrong way up a small slip way. I put the throttle full forward.We shot off into the centre of the Yare. Turning towards the quay once more I decided I needed a breather.

I put the throttle into neutral. With the throttle in this position the boat still had headway, but there was no water being pushed over the rudder by the propeller. In other words I couldn’t steer. I was approaching a moored motor cruiser, my bow heading for the cruiser amidships. My bow loomed over the moored craft like a frigate preparing to ram a U-boat.

I put the throttle full ahead. With the engine racing away I put the wheel hard over and missed the cruiser by what seemed a couple of inches. I had a fleeting glimpse of a rather stout gentleman cupping a mug of some hot beverage. He was wide-eyed as I sheered off, just missing his craft. He mouthed something the last word was definitely me; the first may have been dear, but I believe it had a more nautical flavour. But by pure luck I was parallel to the quay. I put the throttle into reverse, the boat stopped, and I put her into neutral and jumped ashore with the mooring line

A middle-aged lady from one of the boats already moored was watching with admiration. She took the bow line and made it fast. “We had trouble earlier,” she said. “The tide here is treacherous.” I thanked her but somehow forgot to make her fully aware of the circumstances.

Sitting in the Lord Nelson over a whisky, the room gently swaying, I decided I wouldn’t make a boat-man. Whether it was the diabolical toilet facilities on board, the unpredictable tidal flow at Burg Castle, or the almost disastrous mooring at Reedham, it is difficult to tell. I decided to take the New Cut back to Beccles, load my photographic equipment in my car, and remain firmly on dry land.