We were so close I could have touched him. The boat’s huge white sail, stretched like the wing of a combat-ready swan, was stretched by an unexpected gust of wind and we headed straight for a speedboat anchored on the shore.
“As to!” cried Dean Howard, our skipper, from the helm.
The crew sprang into action, running across the deck to hoist a wooden stick the length of the boat into the water. Using their bodies as leverage, they pushed the quant into the muddy river bed below in an attempt to turn 15 tons of massive timber in seconds. We held our breath: nothing. But a boat of this size requires patience. With the grace of a ballet dancer, our 52-foot wherry spun around at the last possible moment, missing the stationary speedboat by an arm’s length.
I was sailing the Norfolk Broads, a wetland in eastern England with more waterways than Venice or Amsterdam, aboard White Moth, a large solid oak wherry unique to the Norfolk Broads. With over 125 miles of lock-less rivers and lakes stretching through the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, the Broads form such a vast network that, until the 1950s, it was thought to be ‘a natural phenomenon. It wasn’t until British botanist Joyce Lambert discovered that most lakes had perpendicular walls and flat bottoms that the history of the Broads was rewritten. Further research by the University of Cambridge revealed that Britain’s largest protected wetland was actually hand-dug by medieval peat diggers between the 12th and 14th centuries.
In the centuries that followed, flooded peat digs became a vital trading network for what was then one of Britain’s most prosperous counties (King’s Lynn, an hour north of the Broads, was a major port of the Hanseatic League between the 13th and 15th centuries, bringing many wealthy merchants to its shores). In the 17th century specially designed boats, known as wherries, were built to carry reeds, timber and, during England’s Civil War, soldiers and ammunition along the Broads – and, if the conditions were favorable, to and from the ships anchored along the Norfolk coast. . Capable of carrying up to 40 tonnes and perfectly designed for the shallow, sheltered waters of the Broads, wherries remained the primary form of transport in Norfolk and Suffolk for two centuries.