Sailing on the Broads.
© Martham Boats.
Sailing on the Broads.

A Family Sailing Holiday on the Norfolk Broads

‘Okay, kids, where do you want to go on holiday this year?’

‘The Broads!’

And so, yet again, our little family – Mum, Dad, Arthur (16), Sam (14) and Rosie (12) – commit to a holiday with accommodation the size of your average airing cupboard, with no shower and a loo requiring contortions you wouldn’t believe, and which after a week will leave us smelling ever so faintly of chemicals. A holiday where the main diet will be bacon butties and the routine will be up-and-at-'em at 7am and bed by 9pm. How can this nightmare be the No.1 choice every year for my band?

'In the space of five minutes, we’re in the wilderness. Reedbeds as high as a man wave beside us, coots and grebe scatter as we approach, harriers wheel overhead…'

It all started 32 years ago, when Kate and I discovered a company deep in the heart of the Norfolk Broads that hires out vintage wooden sailing cruisers. It was cheap, and we penniless teenagers (and keen sailors) had a romantic week drifting along the rivers and lakes of one of Britain’s last wildernesses. Thirty years later, we were surprised to find the same company still operating and even hiring out the same boats. Now equipped with a family, we set off to see if it was as good as before.  Since then, we’ve been four times...

For those unfamiliar with the area, the Norfolk Broads are a huge area of wetlands crisscrossed by rivers and punctuated by flooded gravel pits or 'Broads' that can be anything up to 1.6km across. Messing about in boats on the Broads has been a popular pastime for more than 100 years, while the vessels of the Martham Boat Company hark back to the golden age of the 1950s and novels of Arthur Ransome.

Driving into Martham’s muddy boatyard, you see a long row of polished wooden craft, both sailing boats and motor cruisers. After the bare minimum of formalities, you’re left to yourselves – to throw in your gear, fight over who has which bunk, and start to sort out the myriad ropes lying on deck. Being 'experienced', we forgo the use of the old diesel onboard motor and hoist the huge red canvas sail, hauling up the heavy 'gaff' and setting the jib before casting off and pointing the bowsprit upstream. Straightaway the kids are occupied – Arthur takes the tiller, with Sam on mainsheet and Rosie on jib. Meanwhile, I put the kettle on while Kate slices the rolls and starts to sizzle the bacon.

In the space of five minutes, we’re in the wilderness. Reedbeds as high as a man wave beside us, coots and grebe scatter as we approach, harriers wheel overhead… We're here out-of-season – in fact, at the end of the Easter holidays – and though that means the weather is changeable, it also means that waterways that can get very congested in August are almost deserted. As the majority of the Broads is marshland, there are few houses and no development. Where it is solid, little towns and villages have sprung up, but because they cannot be enlarged they have retained much of the quirkiness and charm they had 50 years ago. 

The wildlife is spectacular, and the absence of road noise, replaced by the sound of reeds whispering, water slopping on the hull and the gentle flap of canvas, is spellbinding, especially for kids. When you feel the need to touch dry land, you just moor up and walk the many footpaths in the area, follow country lanes, and visit local towns to stock up.

Taking a 9m cruiser up a 30m-wide river makes for a great challenge and a whirl of mad activity, as booms are swung and sheets hauled in at maximum speed as you try to avoid losing way. As you are quite likely to meet other sailing craft, this can even get competitive. Indeed, our best holidays have been when we've gone with another family in an identical boat and spent the week racing.

At the end of the day, things calm down. You can moor by a pub, in a little village, at the side of a deserted river, or even in the middle of a Broad. In our case, it's usually one of the latter, and we sit and eat dinner and play cards until it gets dark. Then it’s early to bed – your daily routine takes on that of the sun.

At 7am, dawn breaks. It's hard to describe how beautiful this time is – sometimes I get up well before to sit on the bank and watch the sun come up and nature wake all around. For this magical first couple of hours, we’re alone on the river, before the fibreglass monstrosities hired by most holidaymakers hurtle past on their way to the next pub.

For us, this the perfect family holiday. But don’t worry if you can't sail – Martham also offers motor cruisers very nearly as beautiful and that will turn heads wherever you go. The only essential item to bring with you is a camera, as you'll take home photographs to die for.

See Take the Family's family boating holiday tips and find out more about Norfolk family holidays.

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