Broads racer

We look at one of the UK's fastest flat water racers - the Norfolk Punt

Monday March 14th 2005, Author: James Boyd, Location: United Kingdom
'Tea Rota added' may be the latest breaking news on the Norfolk Punt website, but what is ostensibly the Sunday morning play thing of the local gentry belies a boat that on flat water is one of the UK's quickest dinghies.

"The only faster monohull dinghy types are the 49er or the Thames A-Rater when the wind is light. We are bit faster than RS800s, but if we tried to race them in Hayling Bay we’d sink and they’d carry on…" succinctly summaries owner Peter Bainbridge, who admits that he is fairly new to the class, having only been 'punting' for the last 12 years...

The Norfolk Punt is unusual in having a canoe stern that belies its 19th century origins as 'the gun punt' - a workboat on board which broadsmen used to lie on their bellies and creep through the reeds hunting and effectively decimating wildfowl using a 6-7ft long gun mounted on board. "You had a blunderbuss that you fired off the bow of the boat to kill the ducks," explains Bainbridge. "But the recoil from the gun was so great that if you had a transom the punt sank. So they put a bow on the back to allow for the recoil. That has remained one of the class rules."

Sadly the gun - potentially useful at the weather mark - has long since gone but many other of the punt's features in addition to the canoe stern remain such as the negligible freeboard and the flat bottom hull that gave punts of old the reputation of being able to 'float on dew'.

Sailing Punts have been racing on the Norfolk Broads for around 100 years...

At present the class has two sets of hull measurement rules - one for chine hulls, the other 'open' - with both types having an overall length of 5.486-6.756m (18-22ft 2in) and an internal rudder that can be removed from its case inside the boat. For both types of hulls there are measurement restrictions dictating the 'Punt' shape. Minimum hull weight that was recently upped to 250lbs (113kg) - very much an imperial measurement class this one - from 100kg. "For a 22ft boat, 100kg is quite difficult to achieve, so we increased that by a little bit as none of the boats ever got down to it," says Bainbridge.

Above decks there is the most basic of sail measurement formulae defining the maximum size of mainsail and jib combined as 16.35sqm. Bowsprits (most modern examples have them retracting inside the hull) have a maximum length of 2.134m (7ft) from the stem, otherwise the size and shape of spinnaker or asymmetric is unrestricted. Apart from the hull restriction, class rules for the Norfolk Punt are refreshingly brief.
The faster Norfolk Punts now sport oversized 49er assymetrics and twin trapezes. "In terms of rig design we are always a year or two behind the 14, but they are still fairly modern," continues Bainbridge. Carbon is now regularly used in both mast and hull builds and the rigs.

Due to the Norfolk Punt's interesting concept and high performance it has attracted name designers such as Phil Morrison and Stephen Jones. At the Dinghy Show the class were displaying Bainbridge's own Whopper, a four year Jones design built by Richie Faulkner in Hamble. The Jones boats we were told have a slightly narrower stern and performing better in lighter weather as opposed to the Morrison designs that are more asymmetric-orientated with increased form stability in their hull.

Alongside the more performance-orientated open boats are a loving following of the hard chine Norfolk Punts that were introduced to curb costs after WWII. To cater for the different style of boats and their range of performances Punts are raced in separate classes and handicaps. The modern Morrison and Jones boats for example at the annual championship race for the Progress Trophy on the same handicap.

Currently most Norfolk Punt sailing goes on on Norfolk's Hickling and Barton Broads, the latter being home of the class' Norfolk Punt Club (click here to see where these are) and they tend to get 25-30 boats to their annual championship.

In terms of buying a Norfolk Punt prices range from a hard chine boat secondhand for around £2-3,000 to around £12-14,000 for a new boat.

As is to be expected with such a specialist type of boat numbers are not huge although two to three new boats are built each year. For the most part it is a class of tinkerers. "They are great boats to fiddle with because there aren’t many restrictions," says Bainbridge. "For example Whooper has a tough foredeck because we moor up at the end of the race on a jetty, so you have to wander across the foredeck. A number of people put on extremely thin foredecks to reduce weight."

If ever we moved to Norfolk...

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