Wherry Yacht Charter
Caring for the Broads' last wherry fleet
Albion and Hathor sailing

© 2009 Sue Hines

Norfolk Wherries: general history

Norfolk wherries developed from the earlier Norfolk Keels, improving on the ancient design through their ease of sailing. They are distinctive due to their large, single, gaff-rigged sail and their forward-placed mast, characteristics common to all types of wherry. Their ability to sail the narrow, shallow and tree-lined upper reaches of Broadland's rivers made them vital to the economy of the area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when trading wherries carried goods of all kinds between the coast, the inland port of Norwich, and the numerous village staithes (small quays). So important was water-based transport that locks and canals were used to extend navigability on the rivers Bure, Ant and Waveney, and some smaller wherries were built so as to be able to access these stretches.

However, this was not to last. Railways enjoyed significant development during the Victorian era, reaching the main population centres of the Broads as well as numerous villages and, along with steam-powered coasters operating on the Yare, steadily began to take trade away from the smaller, slower wherries. When cargo carrying eventually became unprofitable many were dismasted, given motors and converted to lighters for carrying coal or dredging spoil, but eventually most were sunk in dykes or used to strengthen banks. Some found another use during WWII when they were moored on open water to prevent seaplane landings. Traces of sunken wherries can still be seen at low tide on Surlingham Broad (an area known as The Slaughters, and marked with a sculpture at Rockland Staithe), Salhouse Broad, and Oulton Broad, and in 2009 one was raised from Ranworth Broad to make way for moorings.

The railways were not only bad news for Norfolk's wherries. Although they took away the cargo trade, they brought something of growing importance to the Broads economy - visitors. The railways' arrival coincided with the work of authors such as PH Emerson who helped to popularise the area as a holiday destination. With yachts available for hire, it was not long before some wherry owners began to convert trading wherries for passenger use, at first on a seasonal basis and then more permanently. When it became clear that this business was a profitable one, wherry yards turned their expertise to purpose-built pleasure wherries, retaining the hull, mast and sail configuration of the trading wherry while fitting out the interior with cabins, a saloon, a galley, a toilet, and even in some cases a full bathroom. These vessels would usually be hired, along with a skipper and lad, on a weekly basis from one of the many boatyards across the system. Some wealthier local families owned their own wherry, such as our own Hathor which was built for the Colmans (of mustard fame), and spent many a happy summer sailing with family and friends.

The final evolution of the wherry was the wherry yacht. Seeking to distance their craft from the still-working trading wherries, some boatbuilders began to combine sleek white hulls with a traditional wherry gaff rig. Pleasure wherries had already moved from the traders' black sail (coated with coal tar, neatsfoot oil and lamp black to protect against the elements) to a cleaner, uncoated white sail, but had retained the black-painted, clinker-built hull. By using a carvel-built hull, wherry builders could achieve smoother and more graceful lines; they also adopted the counter-stern design seen in some other yachts, giving the passengers a larger place to sit away from the winching, quanting and other activity of sailing.

Sadly, as with the trading wherries, pleasure wherries and wherry yachts also found themselves the victim of changing times. With the arrival of smaller, motor-powered holiday craft that could be piloted by the hirers, the more expensive skippered wherries began to fall from favour. Although some eased into old age as permanently moored houseboats, eventally most were sunk or otherwise lost to history.

Of the eight remaining wherries, two are traders (Albion and Maud), three are pleasure wherries (Hathor, Solace and Ardea), and three wherry yachts (Olive, Norada and White Moth). All of these can be seen sailing today - follow the links to find out more, and to determine which one you have seen or photographed, use our guide.

Watch - our wherry yacht sailing experience on video.

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.

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