Broads safety patrol kept busy on Breydon Water

The Broads Authority's new Spirit of Breydon patrol launch with John Ragan(left) and Jon Hopes in charge. PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

With the Broads boating season picking up in earnest over the school holidays, tourism correspondent Stephen Pullinger joins the Broads Authority's new Breydon launch on an eventful safety patrol.

Even before the Spirit of Breydon leaves her mooring at Goodchild Marine, Burgh Castle, rangers Jon Hopes and John Ragan manage to prevent a mishap which might have spoiled the day for the holidaying O'Connell family.

Their inexperienced attempts at mooring have left a rope trailing in the water and Mr Ragan, 54, spotting the danger of it becoming entangled in the propellor of their cruiser, shouts, 'keep going forward' and then races up to reel them in to the quay.

He nods approvingly at the lifejackets being worn by the children on board, Ben, eight, and Scarlett, five, and presents them with 'Wear It' keyrings as a reward.

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Despite the Broads Authority's (BA) high-profile Wear It campaign, launched after five preventable drownings in 2011, their father Mark O'Connell reports that at least half the children they have seen on the water since picking up their boat in Wroxham were not wearing lifejackets.

'Yesterday, at Acle, we even saw children jumping off a boat into the water,' he said.

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Mr Hopes, 49, who was in the police for 30 years - 11 of them on the Broads Beat patrol - before joining the BA this year, admitted the safety message needed to be constantly enforced.

He said: 'You can come from Wroxham where the water might be completely calm into a tidal environment in just a morning. People do not realise the danger; if you fall in at Yarmouth yacht station on Breydon Water without a lifejacket on you are in trouble.'

The Spirit of Breydon, bought from Goodchild for about £115,000, attracted some criticism when she was launched in the spring because of her price and high specification - even including radar - but the rangers describe her as 'the perfect workboat'.

And BA chief executive John Packman, who has joined us on board, insists the purchase was essential now the BA has taken over responsibility for Breydon Water from Yarmouth Port Authority and has to carry out patrols in treacherous winter conditions as well.

Almost prophetically, considering the eventful shift to come, he says: 'If she saves the lives of one family it is worth it.

'Only very recently, a holiday boat lost power on Breydon Water and, with the tide running out very fast, it was drifting towards Haven Bridge.

'It was only because of the speed of Spirit of Breydon that our rangers were able to get there in time to stop it hitting the bridge.

'Last week, its radar enabled the rangers to help a cruiser in thick fog.'

The boat's main task is to patrol Breydon Water at times when the water is too high for cruisers to safely go under the low bridges into Yarmouth yacht station.

As Mr Ragan says, with very clear guidance in the BA's magazine the Broadcaster and ample advice from boatyards there really is no excuse for what he dubs 'high tide Charlies'.

However, as soon as we leave the River Waveney on to Breydon Water we spot a luxury cruiser heading from the Berney Arms towards Yarmouth.

A phone call to Yarmouth yacht station determines the bridge clearance is 8ft 5in 'and falling fast'; checking the name of the cruiser on the rangers' handy on-board chart reveals its safe bridge clearance is 8ft 3in.

'It will never get there in time,' says Mr Ragan, guiding the Spirit of Breydon alongside to offer the family - clearly oblivious to the danger - advice to turn around and wait for the tide to drop.

He said: 'We always stay on Breydon while the bridge clearance is 7ft 6in or less; at those times we should not see holidaymakers trying to cross but we frequently have to advise up to 15 boats a day at this time of year.'

Incidents of boats actually hitting the Yarmouth bridges were not that uncommon, he added.

Almost immediately, the Spirit of Breydon's 22mph top speed and blue flashing lights are called into action when a passing boater reports a cruiser stuck on the mud at the Burgh Castle end.

'If we get there quickly enough we might be able to help her off,' said Mr Hopes, who reports that during the summer there can be four of five groundings on mud every week - despite the clear channel marker posts on Breydon that have been improved since the BA took over responsibility for it.

'Sometimes we can talk them off; other times it requires a tug boat,' he said.

It transpires that on this occasion, with rising water, the holidaymakers have been able to steer away from the mud themselves.

However, there is scarcely time to report the all-clear to Thames coastguard before we are racing across Breydon again to catch up with other cruisers heading towards Yarmouth.

Mr Ragan said: 'It can often be like this. You think your shift is coming to an end and then you receive a report of another boat on the mud.'

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