She was put back in the water by a big crane and Yorik went up and down the river a few times before pronouncing that all was well. We loaded all our provisions on board including milk and butter Reg’s sons Peter and Graham had been entrusted with half-a-crown to get from the village grocer’s.
There was no bottle broken across her prow, no marshal music and no crowds whooping and cheering. Just a yokel and a blacksmith looking on anxiously as we took up station in the middle of the flow and set off for Yarmouth. “Keep to the right – and give way to ya...” hollered Yorik.
“What?” we shouted back.
“Can I drive Dad – please...please?”
“Okay, but stay over to the right – I’m going to do us some bacon and eggs so look out for somewhere nice to moor up.”
“Can we play French cricket Dad – after breakfast?”
“Perhaps,” he offered unconvincingly.
We didn’t. With them all down below I looked on anxiously at some boat that was weaving up the river towards us. First he went one side, then the other – his great big sail twisting and billowing again and again in the wind.
Undecided, I called for a second opinion like a doctor confronted with something new and nasty, “Dad – Da-aa-ad, quick Dad, there’s this boat and he’s...”
The yacht drove into us like a destroyer ramming a U-boat. It knocked me off the driving seat and my dad was thrown back down the steps into the galley. I sat on the floor wondering if the yachtsman might be drunk. Not that I knew what drunk meant exactly but I had seen a film where Laurel and Hardy had weaved a car all over the road and were stopped by a policeman who made them walk the white line. They couldn’t even see it, so I reckon that’s what drunk meant. I peeped over the side of our boat and watched as a man dressed like an admiral with a smart white peaked-cap sprinted along his deck towards us, as sober as a judge and about to pass judgement, “Who was steering this boat?” I ducked down again and hid on the floor, fearing the worst. “You stupid sods!” shouted the man, “who’s in charge of this ruddy boat? Don’t you know you have to give way to yachts?” He continued forward and inspected his pointy bit that had whacked into our side, “You’re bloody lucky there’s no damage to my yacht – bloody-well watch where you’re going and give way to yachts in future.”
We continued down river with Reg at the wheel – I was in disgrace and worried I’d never drive again. My fate seemed to be confirmed, “He’s made a right mess of this boat,” growled my father, “I shall have to buy a piece of mahogany in Yarmouth and scarf it in – good job I brought some tools. A bit of varnish, some white paint and Bob’s your uncle.” He was too, but my Uncle Bob had wisely opted for a week in a caravan in Cornwall. He’d been on minesweepers during the war and had originally seemed the ideal companion for this sort of holiday. He must have known a bit about boats and the risks with me on board, so had cried off. Without Aunty Joyce, my mum had backed out too and dad, having paid the deposit, talked his mate into coming. It would have been obvious even to a village idiot that we two men and three boys, messing about on the Norfolk Broads, were heading for disasters Jerome K. Jerome couldn’t have imagined.
“Bloody good job I hadn’t got the bacon in the pan or we’d have lost the lot – pull up over there Reg,” dad cried excitedly, pointing to some flat ground beneath a windmill on the opposite bank, “I’ll finish the breakfast and then take a better look at the damage.”
“And the cricket, Dad?” His look said it all.
We sat out on the grass and ate our bacon, eggs and fried bread. If cholesterol existed back then, which I doubt ’cos my dear old grandma, who was nothing but goodness personified, would never have fed me the things she did. Anyway, I wouldn’t have taken much convincing it was the ‘goodness’ that came out of cauliflowers. Everything was full of goodness my mum reckoned, but cauliflowers?
Graham and Peter ran off to explore the windmill and I went with them. We didn’t have any windmills in Somerset that I knew of and I looked on enthralled as Peter, a fourteen year old clever-clogs at the local grammar school explained that it wasn’t a windmill but a wind pump to take the water from the reclaimed land and shift it into the rivers and drainage channels. I looked across at my dad crouching down to examine the damage – definitely no cricket and time to go, but I hadn’t thrown in the towel quite yet, “If I’m careful, Dad and tell you straight away if there’s a problem, will you let me drive again?”
“Only if Mr Sweet will watch you and agree you’re safe!”
I drove like my life depended on it, calling attention to boats, logs and just about anything Mr Sweet should know about, including a passing skein of geese which might decide to bomb us. At the end of ten minutes, he could take no more of my running commentary, pronounced me fit to drive with care, and went below, yawning.
His sons seemed disinterested in driving, perhaps they’d developed some sort of antithesis to all forms of driving so as to avoid following in their father’s footsteps. At one stage, I pulled in to the side to make sure another yacht, tacking with malign intent, left us in peace. We’d sailed by Acle where we had thought about stopping yesterday evening. All around was flatness – not boring flatness because there were things to gaze at which often drew my concentration from the river. Fearing another catastrophe I refused to look at cows and windmills, the latter being hard to ignore, and concentrated only on things in the water. I saw moorhens, water rats and even swans as we sailed on into a huge lake beyond which I could see buildings and church towers. The map said there was a wide stretch of water before Great Yarmouth called Braydon Water so I knew that when it narrowed I had to turn sharply north.
Suddenly it narrowed and a railway line come in from the left and ran parallel to us, but the map wasn’t too clear. I reckoned we had about a mile to go before we turned north toward our destination – Hickling Broad. I tried to gauge our speed as if there was a bicycle by the side of us. We seemed to be going faster – maybe this bit was downhill. Then a train chugged past and when it whistled, I waved happily to the passengers on the train. I watched it as it rumbled slowly across a trestle bridge. I could see the train driver waving too – almost frantically and he was making his engine whistle too. Perhaps he knew this boat and saw it quite often, I thought – so I waved even faster. I watched the train devotedly as it rattled on and just as it sounded its whistle a few more times something caught my eye as I said goodbye to that nice train driver.
I thought I saw a big red notice and an arrow on a wall but hadn’t time to read it because our boat seemed to be romping along, even though I throttled back. The river got even wider and on each side of us were big, very big ships everywhere, with people shouting and waving – one ship let out several booming blasts on its hooter and I knew I was in trouble, “Dad...Da-aa-ad...Oh dad...I’ve got it wrong again.” I started to cry – it was, I hoped, my only defence. My dad came from below and uttered a strange word beginning with ‘eff’, then another ending in ‘locks’. He grabbed the wheel and turned us around and thrust the throttle to full.
However, on full power we were barely making headway against the current so after more than two hours and now in the dusk we passed by that red warning sign with the big arrow, telling all craft of danger, “How could you miss that damned sign? It’s big enough, Richard.” He was right and it dawned on me that the waving and whistling were warnings not greetings that only a bad boy could have mistaken, but I was tired and hungry and happily helping to find somewhere to moor-up for the night.
You can read Broadside Part 1 and Broadside Part 3 here
'Broadside' is from Short Fews 1 a collection of 8 humorous short stories and is available to buy on Amazon Kindle or you can read more excerpts from Short Fews 1 and Short Fews 2 here