Today we were tagged in a picture on Facebook. It showed the rudder and mast from a Norfolk Oyster mid-way through its winter rub down. The owner was doing a good job but what really made the picture special was the items were not being sanded down and varnished in a garage or shed; they were being worked on in the family sitting room.

In the past this picture, and the countless others I have received from exasperated wives and/or proud owners, would have shocked me. Sixteen years ago I would have shaken my head at these images and wondered why? Why would those wives let that happen? Why would the owner think its okay to sand down and varnish a mast in the dinning room?

But then in 2000 I met Neil in a pub. I was nineteen, and he asked if I wanted to go out on his boat with him and some friends the next day. I’d never been on a boat before, despite growing up about eight miles in land from Blakeney, so said yes. The following day I awoke to glorious sunshine and wearing weather appropriate shorts and t-shirt (remembering to take a cardigan in case it turned chilly), I headed down to Morston feeling slightly nervous.

Neil and his friends were excited to show off their motorboat, an                                                                         “American Import. A Ski Nautique with a V8 engine”.
It meant nothing to me but it had comfortable seats and a cup-holder, which was nice. However, as soon as we motored out from the creek and into Blakeney Harbour, a stiff breeze blew and the heat from the May sun was lost. Trying to hide my shivering, I pulled on my light summer cardigan and as the throttle was opened up on the boat and we blasted across the water, my hair whipped viciously at my face and the wind cut through to my bones. It was then I realised that I was under dressed and boats were over-rated.

Neil, I realised from his beaming face, loved being on the water. He and his friends suited up in wet suits and took turns to wakeboard from behind the boat. I want to say it was the longest two hours of my life but that award goes to the time I went with my Dad to his pigeon-racing club. Anyway, Neil asked me if I liked being on the boat, and did I think I’d ever want to try wakeboarding. His face was so hopeful that I didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth,
“Yeah, it’s great,” I lied.

It wasn’t great when we ran aground* and Neil and his friends realised there wasn’t enough water to get back to the slipway. It wasn’t great when Neil and his friends remembered the anchor was in the back of one of the trucks parked at Morston. It wasn’t great when Neil decided to run back to the truck to get it, leaving me on a small boat with five people I barely knew. After sitting for five minutes in uncomfortable silence, I, along with one of the ‘girlfriends’, hopped off the boat having decided to walk from the Cley channel across the marsh to Blakeney Quay. We were going to have to do it anyway unless we wanted to sit on the boat for the next eight hours until the tide came back in. We could clearly see Blakeney so guessed it to be no more than a half hour walk. We stumbled across the marsh, waded into deceptively deep creeks and fell over frequently into the mud. It took us about three hours to make it to Blakeney quay and by the time we arrived we were bedraggled, exhausted and high on our new found friendship, so when Neil apologised for the disaster of running aground I waved it aside and told him not to worry as I’d had a fun time anyway.                                                                                                                                                                                      “Great! Wait until you try sailing,” was his reply and so I tried sailing.

But the moment I stepped onto the Wayfarer and felt its bobbing motion on the water I was terrified, panicked that it would capsize at any moment. I’d had a phobia of water as a child, and the Wayfarer brought it all back. I was unable to hide how I felt. I was fine on the Ski Boat, fine on the Rib, fine even in the little Bonwitco 375 but the moment we got near to stepping on board the Wayfarer I’d freeze up and become irrationally tearful. Eventually Neil stopped suggesting that we go sailing and I assumed that it would be his thing.

Back then in 2000, Neil had set up his own boat yard and if I wanted to see him I would have to go to the yard. And once there, rather than just stand and talk to him, I would be asked to help too,                                                                            “Could you just help me sand this mast?” became such a regular request that soon I became good at sanding, then good at varnishing, then good at masking up the waterline on a boat and antifouling. Slowly, and unwittingly, I was being indoctrinated into the world of boats, and I was surprised to find I really enjoyed working on them. Sure it was cold and laborious but there was a special satisfaction to be found in labouring over a boat. In 2004 I joined Neil working at the yard full time and was working mostly on Norfolk Oysters and Norfolk Gypsies. These traditional styled sailing boats looked so pretty that I couldn’t help be awed and a little intrigued by them.

One warm, early September evening, in 2006, Neil and I were walking down at Morston. The tide had just meandered up the creek and as we passed by a pontoon of moored Norfolk Oysters, Neil paused to point at one of the boats we looked after each winter. He casually mentioned the owner had popped by the yard and said he wasn’t using the boat and we could go for sail if we wanted.
“Have you ever sailed in one?”
“You know I haven’t.”
“It’s a shame, the servicing would make a lot more sense to you if you had.”
He was right. It was annoying.
“It’s not tippy like the Wayfarer,” Neil promised.
“But what if we capsize?”
“Almost impossible. You wont even get wet,”
Neil took my hand and pulled me first onto the pontoon and then onto the boat, “You’re going to enjoy this,” he smiled as he handed me a life jacket.

And you know what? He’s right. I loved it! The evening was perfect! Warm with just a gentle off shore breeze to push us through the water. Without an engine we could hear the water lapping on the hull, the birds calling across the marsh and we could talk to each other! I mean actually talk! This was a novelty as I was used to shouting over the noise of the Rib’s engine. The Oyster was beautiful. And more importantly it was dry. And it wasn’t tippy. I could finally feel the stability I’d heard Neil talk of so often. I could see how the high freeboard and clinker hull prevented the water from running and splashing up into the cockpit. She was so reassuring that I was able to fall in love that evening, with the boat, the harbour and *gasp* sailing!

In 2010 the chance came for Neil and I to buy a Norfolk Oyster and it was me who jumped at it. And, while I’m not precious about my car because the children have used it as a place to hide raisins, the odd mitten, and somewhere inside lies an undiscovered apple core that I can smell but not find, I am very precious about my little Oyster. She’s named after the first dog Neil and I shared and she’s as much a part of the family as ‘Annie’ was.
We go to her when we are feeling like we need to stop the world and get off. If out for a sail, or a potter under engine, Neil or the 9 year old takes the helm, I’m on either the jib sheets or tea and biscuit duty, and the 7 year old trails her hand over the edge, watching the water carefully for dolphins she knows she won’t see but can’t help hoping for. After, we return home feeling calm and satiated, connected back to our environment in a way that’s hard to explain or define but is definitely essential for us.

I’m still not a sailor; I am average crew and the role I enjoy most on my boat is that of a passenger, to lay back along the seats on a sunny day and to watch the red sails moving against a blue sky – it’s my idea of heaven and makes me so grateful that Neil didn’t give up on me all those years ago.
From that very first day, way back in the year 2000, boats have bought me into contact with the most amazing people and almost every day I feel incredibly lucky to be surrounded by beautiful boats. So, if Neil and I ever retire from the boat yard, we will almost certainly be sanding and varnishing our mast and spars in our home and I’m pretty sure that if we could fit ‘Annie’, the Oyster, through the doors then she’d be inside the house too!

*Neil has instructed me to make it clear that when we ran aground on that first trip it was on an ebbing tide and in an unmarked channel – he was young which is why these mistakes were made! Lessons were learned from the six mile round trip he ran to fetch the anchor and secure the boat.