Wherrying with Nat

I have often been asked the question – “How did you learn to sail Albion?” Well, it’s a long story, and it started when I was about 12 years old, when I saw a poster on the noticeboard at school, advertising a number of “adventure” type holidays for boys, organised by the Student Christian Movement.

The SCM as an organisation is unlikely to count me among its greatest adherents, and in fact I was totally uninterested in its ethical leanings. I was interested, however, in one of the Easter holidays on offer.

A week’s sailing on the Broads in the wherry Albion and some yachts. Seven days, food found, £9.00 (or £9/-/- in those days). I was duly transported to Wroxham carrying kitbag and bedroll, and was introduced to the party leaders. As I remember, there were about twenty lads of my age, and three “leaders”. All were from “away”, I was the only local lad in the party.

The group had hired Albion for the week, together with the hire yachts Golden Emblem and Medina. I remember I was allocated a berth in the forward cabin of Medina, a 28 foot, four berth, hard-chine cruising yacht of the type common in those days in the hire fleets. One of the type usually described in Blakes catalogue as “more suitable for the beginner”.

Sailing from Wroxham on the Saturday morning, I made the acquaintance of Nat Bircham, the skipper of Albion. Nat was a professional wherryman engaged to sail Albion during the week, and not otherwise connected to the party. He lived in Wroxham and brought his push-bike with him on board, so he could get back to Wroxham each evening from wherever we ended up.

 My memories of that week were mainly of being shouted at by nearly everybody, never being able to pull in the jibsheets (on the yachts) hard enough, or at the right time, and being continually confused by the oddball manoeuvrings of the sailing yachts. I didn’t know much about sailing at the time, and in reality, didn’t learn much. In retrospect, it seems that the leaders in charge of the yachts didn’t know much themselves about sailing, and were recruited at the last moment to run the weeks holiday.

After that week, I was dead keen to repeat the exercise, and resolved to join a similar cruise the following year. I read every book I could find about sailing, and by the time the next Easter came along, I was a total expert! Just as well, as the week nearly did not happen. Two of the “leaders” did not turn up, and I was asked if I would take one of the yachts for the week! The yacht was the thirty-foot, bermudan sloop Flight 2 belonging to Jack Powles, and was hired along with Flight 1 and one of Smith’s Sabrina‘s.

The latter was handed to my friends, brothers Simon and Michael Neary to sail for the week, they also being veterans of the previous Easter cruise. I well remember the look on the face of the boatyard hand when I turned up with two other very youthful types to take over Flight 2. I also remember quanting the boat away from their jetty, and doing a good job of it, and feeling the eyes of the boatyard hands watching me. It was a good job they couldn’t see the course of events for the rest of the week, as I don’t think I did a single thing right. I didn’t ‘arf learn fast, however.

Nowadays, of course, you wouldn’t dream of placing a fourteen year-old in charge of a vessel like that, with three other kids aboard for a week, but that was then, this is now.

Our mentor in all of this was Nat Bircham. He recognised that some kids were not interested, and others keen to learn. If you were keen, then he had time and patience, though sometimes it seemed as if he had little of neither. Nat did a lot of shouting, especially if you were doing it all wrong.

At that age, if I was making a mess of things, having somebody shouting in your ear was more than a little daunting. I rapidly learnt to listen to what was being shouted, and do what was being told without getting “flustered”. This ability stood me in good stead for later life in the Merchant Navy. Mind you, my wife will tell you that this ability has been all but lost in recent years (“don’t you ever listen to a thing I say?”).

One learnt that most important of wherry skills – how to make a decent cup of tea. If you made Nat a cup of tea and he didn’t like it, he would congratulate you on having made a nice cup of coffee, whilst pouring it prominently over the side. Another skill expected from all was plain common sense.

One Easter trip, moored at Ludham Bridge, pouring with rain and freezing cold, a crowd of twenty or so of us kids had traipsed a goodly cargo of riverbank mud aboard on our collective feet, and it was everywhere. When Nat arrived it was no use explaining that the towpath was a quagmire – we got well and truly told off! Nat had carefully wheeled his bike along the grassy bank, avoiding the mud. Lesson learnt – no mess made – none to clear up!

Nat taught me a vast amount of the wherry seamanship. 
Just a few titbits may be mentioned here.

Albion was approaching a berth on Barton Turf, sail lowered, but coming in too fast. Nat put the helm over hard-a-port, hard-a-starboard, back and forth a number of times. 
“Slow ‘er down a treat, bor”.

Close astern of our mooring at Potter Heigham a hire yacht misjudged the approach and landed on the quay heading with a sickening head-on crash. I waited expectantly for Nat’s comment (he and I had both observed this bit of failed seamanship) – it wasn’t like him to say nothing. “That’s the best way to stop, bor. Can’t fail”.

During the week I had charge of Flight 2, we were making our way slowly up the Ant toward Barton Broad. At Ludham Bridge, Nat bet me “a hundred pound” that he would fetch Barton with Albion before we did. As it happened, somehow or other we got there first, so I cockily went to claim my “hundred pound”. Nat was unimpressed. He told me that I could have my hundred pound, and he would watch while I carried it away!

Stopping for the night somewhere or other, there were no mooring posts, and no convenient trees or bushes to moor to. Having put out two lines on rond anchors, Nat needed another mooring point. He took the Patten Bar and stuck that in the riverbank, dropping the mooring line over that!  (The Patten Bar is part of the Halyard winch – an extra shaft with pinion providing enough purchase to allow the sail to be hoisted singlehanded. Usually stowed in a chock on the foredeck alongside the Carlin or forepeak hatch).

Hard aground in Ranworth dyke, and unable to get off. Nat muttering that the dyke had moved, and that his neighbours would be asking him 
“you bin doin’ a bit o’ reed-cuttin’, Nat?” 
The last card up Nat’s sleeve was to lead the gaff line to the halyard winch (after stoppering off the halyard), and to back the mainsail with it. This provided enough astern power to enable Albion to be pushed off by quant. I’d heard of backing a jib, but backing a mainsail…? Not to be recommended, but it worked a treat on this occasion.

Moored at Horning, and overlapping the berth by several yards due to Albion‘s length. A German lady on a hire cruiser had the temerity to suggest that Albion was far too big to sail on the Broads. Nat reminded her who won the war!

The following quote from Michael Neary sums up the Nat Bircham school of sailing:

“It was not long before I realised that wherries and their skippers move in the same difficult and fallible world as the rest of us. On one occasion we set off from Coltishall Green and Albion, no doubt hampered by the lack of strength and expertise of a schoolboy crew on the quants, blew down to looard onto a large tree which overhung the river. Some quite sizeable branches crashed into the water and a confetti shower of leaves descended onto the hatches. The tree was clearly getting the worst of it and an irate lady scuttled down her back garden and told Nat, in no uncertain terms, that she entertained some doubts about his competence and suggested he would have done better to have used the other side of the river. Nat replied, with equal conviction, that she should not concern herself with matters beyond her comprehension and reminded her of the penalties the River Commissioners were empowered to impose on those who allowed their trees to obstruct the navigation. (These were not the exact words used by either party)”.

Nat was both the first and last of a breed. He was the last of Albion‘s skippers who had sailed cargo-carrying wherries for a living, but the first who had constantly to put up with the curiosity and ignorance of a charter party rather than the weighty silence of sugar beet. He showed a remarkable patience and tolerance towards the youngsters aboard Albion, and always found time to answer their questions.

The lack of weight and experience in such a crew must have made his job extremely difficult, for sometimes the adult leaders of the party were less use than their charges. I recall Nat being temporarily astonished and shocked beyond words when an anoraked schoolteacher confessed that he could not tie a reef knot. When Nat recovered, his response was something like – 
“Is there anything you do know how to do?”

“Albion” – One of the last surviving trading wherries on the Broads

Nat was always ready to explain the intricacies of the handling of the wherry if asked. His tour-de-force was a lengthy, detailed and (to me) incomprehensible monologue on the exact method for slipping, and re-shipping Albion‘s slipping-keel. In the same way as a new apprentice is sometimes sent for a bucket of compressed air, we would sometimes be able to con someone to go and ask Nat how one went about slipping the keel, and enjoy watching as Nat’s explanation gathered weight, and the stunned questioner was fastened by his glittering eye.

Probably the main difference between the way in which Nat and the present-day skippers handle Albion is that Nat viewed a wherry as an everyday tool and drove her pretty hard. Present-day skippers are aware of the need to preserve an old lady and of the difficulty of obtaining new gaffs, masts and sails. But I will always treasure the memory of Nat taking Albionup Old Meadow Dyke under full sail with bonnet in a stiffish breeze. Ten yards in front of Albion one could see the water level drop by a couple of feet. One or two motor cruisers coming the other way mercifully found somewhere to run their craft up into the reeds, but I am sure the sight of Albion approaching at seven or eight knots with her windward side scraping the reeds and her sail well out over the marshes will have haunted the dreams of several holidaymakers for many years.

On the return journey the following day, Nat put me on the helm, for an equally hair-raising trip down Meadow Dyke. Instructed to keep her on the outside of the bend, Albion was snoring along. Approaching cruisers were signalled as to which side they were to pass. Reaching the end of the dyke, I was right pleased to have made it without running onto the mud. Then it all went wrong! There is a black-and-white post marking the turn up toward Hickling, where we were bound. Our dinghy took an unexpected sheer, and I thought it was going to go the wrong side of the post. Distracted by this I didn’t get the helm over quick enough to make the turn for Hickling!

We drove into the riverbank under full sail and a fresh breeze. It was a marshy reeded bank, and she just kept going and kept going. Eventually stopping with the reeds about level with the stern, we were solid! I waited for the inevitable tirade from Nat, but nothing! I was sent with a long rope to the post in the dinghy, making fast. The rope was reeved through one sheave in the lower mainsheet block and taken forward to the winch. Four hefty lads on the handles and she slowly backed off. I hate to think about the possible damage to the winch from a horizontal pull, instead of the vertical one it is designed for. But it worked.

Apprentice, indeed. I think I sailed on about six or seven SCM weeks between 1962 and 1965, and by the end of that I reckoned I could have made a useful wherry Mate. In fact, on my last Easter cruise, somewhere near St.Benets, one of our attendant yachts was making a public pig’s ear of it; Nat handed Albion to me, and off he went in the dinghy to sort out the mob in the yacht.

On one occasion we were lying to the mudweight in Malthouse Broad (Ranworth). Nat had gone home for the night on his bike. The following morning I was sailing one of the dinghies on the broad, and spotted Nat and his bike on the staithe. I sailed over to pick him up, and started lowering the sail. He said 
“leave that up, bor”.
He stepped into the dinghy with his bike, and off we went. No room to sit, just hold his bike with one hand and steer the boat with the other. Good job there wasn’t any tacking to do!

Nat was not liked by everybody. He tended to call a spade a bloody shovel, and tell people exactly what he thought. 
“Take ‘er for a minute, bor. I’m going forrard to shake hands with an old friend.” 
Nat was a character. He taught me a lot and that’s priceless.

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