This year was the end of an era. Every year since 1947 a group of intrepid sailors headed for the Norfolk Broads in the last week in April to sail boats they hired from Hunter's Yard.
Until this year.
Sadly age, injuries and other commitments meant that the trip didn't happen this year - the first time it has been missed in 67 years.
My grandfather was on the first trip, and did pretty much every single one for decades. In 1971 he took my father (his son-in-law), and my dad then did the trip most years after that. And I have been on the Broads too, twice (once with my brother) - so three generations have made the journey.
It should be pointed out that the trip was quite old fashioned. With one (unsuccessful) exception ever, it has always been a male only affair. Some explain this away by saying it is tricky to have a mix of sexes due to the toilet facilities alone. This has some ring of truth, as any toilet that involves you reversing in, bent double and with your trousers around your ankles is not conducive to love, romance or even a sense of dignity. However, the excuse falls down when you consider that it is just as awkward to go to the toilet in this way when sharing the boat with someone of the same sex as with a member of the opposite gender.
Others felt that having women on the Broads would change the dynamic, and the experience wouldn't have been as good. They are, of course, quite mad.
No, the real reason women weren't allowed on the Broads (at least as far as I can tell), was that sailing on the Norfolk Broads on these trips was nothing more than a week-long pub crawl using boats rather than walking or taxis as transport. Allowing women on the trip would mean that, if there arose a situation in which only one partner could go, the women would probably want to go just as much as the men. And so, instead, stories would be told to wives and girlfriends of rain and damp, of dirt and cold, of poor food and terrible smells. And these wives and girlfriends would pretend to believe them, and enjoy a week of peace at home, whilst their partner drank beer.
For me, it's a shame that women were discouraged from coming on the trip. If they had done it, then I suspect that the tradition wouldn't have ended this year.
The first year I went I sailed with my dad in a two-birth Hustler. I went not long after my grandfather died, knowing that it would have pleased him that I had gone, and hoping to prolong the connection to him after his death. I think it worked to some extent, although I didn't go in the spirit of sombre remembrance. I knew perfectly well that he went for the beer, company and joy of sailing, and that's what I did too.
There were three other boats on the trip, all people that had been on the same trip many times before, and there is a sense of holiday from the moment everyone meets in the first pub. Plans are made, boats are packed, and then you set sail. If memory serves, we probably sailed for an hour or two, and then parked up at the first pub for the night. The trip followed roughly this form, although some of the sailing was for longer than just a couple of hours, for the rest of the week.
Towards the end of the week we arrived at a pub that was a micro-brewery. They had seven different beers brewed on the premises, ranging from the pretty weak, moving through the relatively strong and right up to rocket fuel territory. Being young and with little common sense, I decided that I would try a pint of each beer that evening. When you factor in the fact that we had had a few pints at lunch time you can see that this plan was about as ill thought through as a plan can possibly get. I didn't even drink the pints in ascending order, and so by the end of the evening I was tipsy. Or even a bit beyond tipsy.
As you can imagine, the next morning I leapt out of bed and greeted the day with great enthusiasm. Actually, truth be told, I was awoken by my dad, who had got up and somehow managed to cook some sausages and bacon about a foot from where my head was without disturbing me. I looked outside as I ate breakfast, and there was beautiful sunshine and no wind at all. Not even a breath.
This was very bad news.
As we all know, when there is no wind and you are on a boat that doesn't have a motor then you are in trouble. Unfortunately, the people of Hunter's Yard were aware of this issue, and each boat had a quant pole. A quant pole is essentially a punt - an eight foot long pole that you stick into the bed of the broad and push the boat along.
There are several problems with this solution, particularly when you are hungover:
- The existence of a solution means you can't just give up and go back to bed. Or rather, you can't when you're sailing with your dad and a bunch of other comparatively un-hungover people
- It involves physical effort
- It involves balance - the technique for quanting on a Hustler is that you start near the bow of the boat and plunge the quant into the water. You then hold the top of the quant to your shoulder and walk to the back of the boat, pushing the whole way. This involves walking alongside the cabin, on a strip of curved deck exactly a human foot-width wide. When you reach the stern of the boat you have to give the quant a good twist and yank it out of the mud. On a moving boat. It is a precarious operation, particularly for a novice, even one in tip-top shape. I was not in tip-top shape.
My negative feelings towards quanting had been exacerbated by a story that had been related to me earlier in the week. On a previous trip one of the guys had been quanting, but hadn't managed to pull the pole out in time. he was left a couple of feet above the water, clinging to the pole as the boat he was supposed to be still attached to drifted on. He then, very slowly, slid down the pole into the water.
This was not an experience that I wanted to have.
I suggested to my dad that he might like to have first go with the quant pole, so that I could see an expert in action. He declined, feeling that it would be good for me to get the practice.
I said I didn't want him to miss out on the experience. After all, it may be the only chance he got to have a quant on the whole trip. He said that he felt the same about me, and that he had had plenty of opportunities on previous trips, whilst I had not.
We to and fro-ed like this for some time, until the weaker of us finally caved. With a heavy heart and a splitting headache I reluctantly picked up the pole. My first attempts were appalling, and with practice I got noticeably worse. Eventually it became clear that if we were going to actually move anywhere an expert would have to step in.
And so he did.
My good old dad quanted us for quite some time until the wind eventually filled in, whilst I draped myself over the tiller and stared at the floor of the cockpit, moving occasionally when a yell came from the bow that I needed to steer.
Whilst I can't say I'm proud of myself, I can say that beer saved the day. I successfully avoided quanting, instead being gently pushed along the broads to the pub for lunch and some hair of the dog.