Wherry Yacht Charter
Caring for the Broads' last wherry fleet

Sailing a wherry

Every sailing on a wherry is slightly different, but this page gives you an idea of some of the tasks and procedures that the crew and skipper carry out, presented here in terms of a short sailing on Hathor for members of the public (rather than a charter or either of the wherry yachts). See our glossary to find out more about the terms used.

Preparing the boat

The first task is always to put the kettle on! Boiling enough water for passengers and crew to have that all-important cup of tea takes a long time. Then the crew begin by removing the sail covers, folding and stowing them. Then, with the sail still rolled and attached to the gaff with sail ties, the blocks are attached and the winch used to raise the gaff (only the peak) just enough to remove the crutches (which support it off the roof) and then lower it to the roof. The sail ties are removed and stowed, and at this point reefs are put in or taken out if necessary. The blocks are attached in another configuration so as to be able to raise both the peak and the jaws of the gaff, and therefore the sail, when the time comes. With the sail prepared, the quants are put out ready for use, and any mopping and brushing of decks that is needed can be done. Passengers are welcomed on board and given some information about the boat, the sailing and the Trust.

Setting off and raising the sail

On the skipper's word, the mooring ropes are cast off and the wherry is manoeuvred into the main channel using quants. This is often straightforward but may involve a 180° turn or more complex paths to leave a marina, for example. The crew are then instructed to get ready to winch, and so two attach the winch handles and wait for the command, although a further crew member will usually continue quanting to maintain enough speed to allow the boat to be steered. With one crew member each side, they winch when the command is given, raising the sail until a "whoa!" from the stern; during raising, the skipper uses the gaff line to keep the gaff under control, as well as watching the progress of the sail, steering, instructing the quanting crew member if needed, and possibly giving instructions to other boats if they are in the way. No easy task to do all that at once! The clanking noise of the ratchet is a distinctive and evocative sound accompanying the raising, and always attracts the attention of spectators. If needed, one of the crew can drop down a gear on the winch to make the final parts of raising easier. With the sail raised, someone goes aft to fetch the gaff line from the skipper and secure it by the mast, and someone else makes the tea.

Sailing, quanting and tacking

With favourable wind, sailing should be straightforward. It's not unknown (although nonetheless rare!) for the crew to be barely needed throughout the sail, except for raising and lowering. But if the wind is very light, the quants are used to provide forward motion ("straight shoving"). To quant, a crew member stands just aft of the timberheads and spears the quant into the river bed, known as setting the quant. Placing their shoulder firmly against the wide butt on the end of the quant, they lean down onto it and walk along the length of the deck to the stern, pushing the wherry forward beneath them. At the stern, a sharp tug frees the quant from the mud on the river bed (usually...) and the crew member returns to the bow to repeat the action. At the same time, a partner on the other side is doing the same thing, but staggered to provide constant propulsion.

If the wind is against us, the quants are used to assist in tacking, i.e. sailing back and forth across the river in a zig-zag to make progress. One quant across the bow pushes the front of the boat around and through the wind. In more difficult conditions, the quant on the other side may be used at midships or at the stern, for extra power. Crew wait for the skipper's shout of "lee-ho" to set the quant. In very difficult conditions, we may even lower the sail and mast, and quant the boat straight along the river as above, as windage on the mast is enough to push us backwards. However, this prevents us from using the sail for reaches of the river where the wind would allow sailing, and so we try and tack where possible.

Lowering the sail

This requires far less effort than raising! The skipper's request for someone to bring the gaff line aft indicates that the sail is about to be lowered. Under instruction, one winch handle is placed on the lowest gear, the ratchet is removed, and the crew member winches down enough to take the strain out of the rigging and sail. The brake is then applied and the winch handle removed, after which the sail is lowered gently on the brake, with the gaff controlled via the gaff line until the skipper can stand on the roof and take hold of the end of it. The instruction then is "let it run!", at which point the brake is completely released. The crew member watches the rapidly descending gaff jaws and re-applies the brake just in time to prevent the gaff crashing down on to the mast hoops and roof. Depending on the conditions, the sail may billow as it is lowered and end up trailing in the water, in which case the crew quickly haul it out and pile it on the roof.

Lowering and raising the mast

When approaching a bridge, the sail is lowered as normal, but the brake applied slightly earlier to leave the gaff still suspended above the roof. The parrell beads are unhooked and the gaff is pulled aft to disengage the jaws before being moved to one side of the mast and lowered all the way down to the roof. The winch is allowed to run until the halyard is loose, and then the gears are disengaged and the winch barrel swung over to one side. At the same time, the foc's'le hatch is secured open, and a crew member goes down to open the gate which usually sits across the mast counterweight. Only when they have come back on to the deck is the forestay undone, and then a steady pull on the blocks starts the mast moving. Pivoting at the tabernacle, it lays down along the roof, with the lead counterweight rising out of the hatchway. The skipper can then hold down the top of the mast at the stern while passing through the bridge.

Raising the mast is, as you might expect, the reverse! A tug on the forestay starts its jouney back to vertical, and the blocks on the bottom of the forestay allow it to be tightened and secured before the gate is swung back across the counterweight and the hatch closed. The winch barrel and gears are put back into place, and handles attached to begin raising the gaff. When it is off the roof, the jaws are swung back into place astride the mast and the parrell beads are reattached. The sail is then winched up as normal.

While all this is going on, someone may be quanting or pushing on the bridge to walk the wherry underneath it. With the right conditions and a good crew, the sail and mast can be dropped at the last minute, with momentum carrying the whery through until the sail can be raised - with no need for a quant. This is known as "shooting the bridge" and can cause a little concern to any innocent spectators on the bridge when everything seems to be being left too late!

Mooring up

When approaching the destination, mooring ropes will be attached to the timberheads at fore and aft before the sail is lowered. The sail is dropped such that enough momentum remains to get the wherry into the mooring, with a crew member stepping ashore with a rope to loop it around a mooring post and ease the boat to a halt. If there are capable people on the shore, a rope may be thrown to them for the same purpose. Coming in to moor can be tricky, particularly if there is a strong tidal flow and the space is tight - other river users someties do not appreciate our lack of brakes. When the ropes are securely attached, passengers are then able to safely step ashore, and depart with happy memories and a new appreciation for the boat, skipper and crew!

Putting the boat to bed

With sailing finished for the day, the sail is put away under cover - sunlight is the most important factor in a sail's degradation over its life. This is the reverse of the process at the start of the sailing, with the sail first being rolled and secured to the gaff with sail ties. The blocks are then reconfigured to allow the peak of the gaff to be raised and the crutches put underneath it for support. The covers are then brought out and unrolled along the gaff, being tied beneath and fastened around the front of the mast. Bands are used to allow the blocks to support the gaff and sail at two points, with the winch being used to raise the blocks just until the slack is taken up. Finally, the life ring bearing Hathor's name is attached to the block over the main stairs to the saloon and cabins. Another sailing is complete.

All charter customers receive complimentary membership of the Friends of WYC.

Wherry Yacht Charter is a registered charity (as Wherry Yacht Charter Charitable Trust), number 1096073

WYC is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, RDPE, Geoffrey Watling Trust, Town Close Estate Charity and others.

HLF logo       RDPE logos    Geoffrey Watling Charity logo       Town close logo