Hunter's Yard cabin yachts sail into 80th year on Norfolk Broads

Hunter's Yard cabin yachts on the Norfolk Broads The Hunter's cabin yachts and half-deckers [day boats] are the only fleet powered by sail on the Norfolk Broads

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In the past few days the "lovely ladies" of Hunter's Yard, as they are affectionately known, have slipped back into the water of the Norfolk Broads - ready to embrace another season of visitors looking to adventure on the Broads in the style of a bygone era.

Celebrating their 80th anniversary, the boats are the only fleet of traditional Norfolk Broads mahogany cabin yachts and day boats powered by sail alone still operating on the Broads.

Cared for by the Norfolk Heritage Fleet Trust, the 20-strong fleet is lavished with attention during the winter months by a small group of dedicated craftsmen at Hunter's Yard, based on its own dyke off Womack Water near Ludham.

History of Hunter's Yard

Lullaby on Horsey Mere, 1932

Percy Hunter, with his two sons Cyril and Stanley, designed, built and launched the first two cabin yachts of the fleet in 1932.

The fleet grew before the outbreak of war, with the last two boats completed in the late 1940s.

The Hunter family operated the yard until 1968 when it was sold to the Norfolk County Council and renamed the Norfolk County Sailing Base.

In a need to make savings, the council decided to sell the yard in 1995 and break up the fleet, but a group of people agreed to form a trust to keep the fleet intact.

On 1 April 1996 the Norfolk Heritage Fleet Trust took over the yard, thanks to £100,000 of public donations and a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £200,000. It re-established its original name, Hunter's Yard.

As spring arrives, so does the delicate job of coaxing the "ladies" from the warmth of the boat shed back into the water via a wooden slip so they can be rigged and ready for Easter.

'It's magic'

Jennifer Mack, granddaughter of the yard's founder Percy Hunter, has watched the annual launches since the mid-1940s.

She said: "Every time I come in the spring and see the boats launching it's magic. Gleaming varnish, the wake-up of a new season and the start of another flourishing year - with luck, it's very special.

"During the season I remember my father [Cyril Hunter] was always a bit worried when the boats were due back in case they were damaged.

"If they were he'd often rush home and borrow my hair dryer so he could repair them, dry off the varnish, and get them back out as quickly as possible. At this time of year, all those memories come flooding back to me."

Lifetime experience

Little has changed in the boat shed since it was built by Percy Hunter & Sons in 1933.

A heady aroma of sawdust and varnish hangs in the air as if suspended in time, the walls are densely packed with rigging, blocks and tackle - all lovingly hand-crafted and labelled with old-school brown swing tags showing the name of the boats to which they will be fitted for the new season.

Tom Grapes at Hunter's Yard boat shed Looking after the fleet has "been a lifetime" for Tom Grapes, 82

Tom Grapes, 82, started working in the yard in 1947 after serving with the Royal Marines. He retired a couple of years ago but still spends many happy hours at the yard surrounded by a lifetime of memories of Percy Hunter's "lovely ladies".

"I worked with them for so long over the years, it was just a way of life - the years just rolled by. No sooner are you pulling them out at the end of the season, you're getting them all refitted and back in at spring," he said.

"With these boats you just fall in love with them and that's it - you try to look after them the best you can. When Percy Hunter designed them he so got it right. You can sail one up the river and they'll spin round on the spot.

"I worked 21 years for Percy, he used to be in the top of the shed with his old pipe going - always surrounded by a cloud of smoke. He was a real gentleman to work for.

"It's been quite an experience looking after the fleet, it's been a lifetime."

'Overwhelmed and humbled'
Jennifer Mack with her grandfather Percy Hunter (right) and father Cyril Hunter in 1947 Jennifer Mack with her father Cyril Hunter (left) and grandfather Percy Hunter at Hunter's Yard in 1947

With plans to expanded private moorings at Hunter's Yard to help generate income, the running of courses in keel boat sailing and the ongoing hire business, Jennifer Mack is confident the family fleet will be navigating the tranquil waters of the Broads for years to come.

"We have this niche market that's amazingly good. They [the clients] can't have a motor and don't have electricity, so it's gets them away from the hustle and bustle of the everyday world. If we can still appeal to them it'll be the best way to go forward.

"Most of the time when I come here I ask myself what would Percy, my father and uncle think about everything.

"I think they'd think like I do - absolutely overwhelmed and humbled by the massive support we've received."

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