Eric Smith: Broads helmsman and Norfolk sail maker’s remarkable Army career

Eric Smith, Broads helmsman and sailmaker

Broads helmsman and sail-maker Eric Smith, who laid the foundations of the Three Rivers Race, has died at the age of 91.

He spent his entire life on the Broads except for a remarkable five-year career in the army before returning to his beloved Norfolk and always said that he was homesick if he left the Broads for more than 24 hours.

Eric George Smith was born in Great Yarmouth on February 13, 1922. His father was an architect, passionate Broadsman, sailor and owner of two of the most beautiful Broads' cruisers, Siren and Crystal, which are still sailed today.

Eric spent his childhood sailing the Broads and learning to love them, encouraged by his father, who was a founder member of the East Anglian Cruising Club. As a small boy, he was bought a 14-foot dinghy, Joan, which was the first in a long line of much-loved boats.

He attended Great Yarmouth Grammar School and was 17 when he met 15-year-old Norma, in the town's swimming pool. She was later to become his wife.

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At the beginning of the war he went to Sandhurst and was posted to the Cavalry regiment, the Royal Dragoons (later amalgamated with the Royal Horseguards) to form the Blues and Royals.

The unit fought as a speedy armoured car regiment and by early 1945 was in northern Germany when the men were ordered to race to the Danish border, disarm the occupying forces and liberate Denmark.

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Lieutenant Smith, soon to be captain, was just 23 when he drove his armoured car into the southern Danish town of Sønderborg, where there was a large German garrison. As a lone officer, accompanied only by representatives of the resistance, he asked for an audience with the commander of the German garrison.

There, he told him to assemble his forces and to disarm in the town square. The General duly surrendered in the square and held out his hand.

But Lt Smith, in a gesture which captured the hearts of the watching Danes, put his hands behind his back.

He then gave a victory speech to the jubilant crowds from the balcony of the Town Hall.

Unsurprisingly, looking back in old age, he described it as the most exciting moment of his life.

Returning to England and to Norma, in 1947 he went to work for Jeckells, the oldest sail-makers in England, where he spent his working life.

It was the perfect work/life balance at a time when the concept did not exist – making sails during the week and sailing with Norma at the weekends.

He was fascinated by the technicalities of sail-making and in 1967, the directors of three Wroxham firms, including Jeckells & Sons, took part in an export mission to the United States and Canada. Mr Smith said that Jeckells sails were particularly popular in north America, but there he discovered a new world of sail-making: 'The sail loft at Marblehead near Boston is an absolute revelation,' he wrote in a report for Jeckells 'unlike anything to do with sailing that I have ever seen in England.'

The immaculate rope-free operating theatre conditions he described may have been impressive, but were less romantic than Jeckells' wonderful old loft of the 1960s.

The Smith family lived in a wooden riverside bungalow near Potter Heigham. With Norma as crew and newly-born Philippa, he sailed all summer.

As he missed it so much, in the winter of 1949 along with another resident, he founded the Snowflake Sailing Club. It remains a thriving sailing club today.

In 1959, crewed by Norma, he achieved the great distinction of winning the News Chronicle's Enterprise Championships at Horning.

After the race, he donated his trophy to Horning Club, to be awarded for a new race which he specified should be a test of seamanship.

David Hastings, then sailing secretary, Peter Mallender, commodore, and others, devised an all-night event which became the Three Rivers Race. His trophy was presented to the first winner in 1961.

Eric had many other interests, including a collection of half models, ship paintings, oil paintings of the Broads and old guidebooks of Norfolk.

He was also one of the earliest members of the Norwich branch of the Samaritans.

His wife, Norma, predeceased and he leaves two daughters, Phillippa and Sally, and two grandchildren.

A service of thanksgiving will be held at Belaugh Church on Friday, May 31, at 11am.

Michael Pollitt

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