If at first you don’t succeed, try reading the instructions, writes Pamela Wade.

Even disasters can have a silver lining. For my husband, whose life-long mission is never to let an old joke die, this one presented him with a gift opportunity to revive the gag about the man who unwittingly left his wife behind at the petrol station.

Neither of us was laughing when we first saw the cruiser reserved for us to pootle around in on the Norfolk Broads. Even viewed stern-first, it looked huge; and when we stepped aboard and saw how far away the bow was, we were awed. "Are you sure this is ours?" we asked. "There are only the two of us." The boatman waved away our concerns as he showed us around - master bedroom, saloon, galley, forward berths, two bathrooms - and demonstrated how the roof slid back so that we could enjoy the damp glories of an English spring.

He skilfully eased the boat out of the yard and took us for a spin along the river, calmly explaining the controls until we took over ourselves, even practising mooring alongside the riverbank where, by manically pumping the gear lever back and forth, we stopped with a bump that made us hardly stagger at all. For two non-boaties, it was a triumph, and we tossed the Skipper's Manual aside as soon as our instructor disembarked, leaving us in sole charge. Perched midships behind the wheel, we glided off along the River Bure, ahead of us 200km of waterways winding through Norfolk's flat expanse.

Created in the Middle Ages by flooded peat diggings, the network of rivers, dykes and lakes has been popular for boating holidays since Victorian times. At the height of summer, hundreds of craft, from cruisers even bigger than ours down to canoes and kayaks, turn the water into slow-motion motorways as they process from mooring to mooring, vying to claim prime spots outside the prettiest riverside pubs. We were happy to be followers, spotting herons, ducks and geese, cooing over thatched cottages, inspecting the varied boats moored beside each house, delighted by a traditional windmill, its sails slowly turning.


Having left town behind, we passed Wroxham Broad, surprisingly vast for a hand-dug pit, and hammered along at a heady 10 km/h, ducks playing chicken under the bow, reeds swaying in the wash. Confident now, we passed the boats in front, but then got nervous again as we negotiated a sharp corner at Hoveton where a swarm of little sailing dinghies scooted in all directions. The afternoon was wearing on and, warned that moorings could be hard to find in this busier part of the Broads, when we came to Horning we started looking for a gap.

The dog-eat-dog drama of supermarket parking seemed a doddle compared with spotting a suitable empty space, watching out for other boats, turning to face upstream and the forward-reverse-forward pumping of the gear lever on top of actually steering. It was a tense and sweaty business of throbbing temple veins. But we did it and skipped off to the Ferry Inn for our reward.

This is what cruising the Broads is all about, we congratulated ourselves with the first pint of cider. Maybe tomorrow we'll go under a bridge, we said with the second. If we had a whole week, how many pubs could we visit, we speculated with the third. Probably it's time for bed, we decided before the fourth.

Perhaps it was the cider, perhaps nervous exhaustion, perhaps the gentle rocking of the boat: we slept well and woke full of enthusiasm next morning. Even the horror of discovering that other boats had sneaked in tight fore and aft didn't daunt us. We fired up the engine, cast off and began the fraught back-and-forth jiggle to ease out into the river. It didn't go well: from my place at the back I could see a looming collision with the yacht moored in front and, without actually formulating a plan, leapt off the stern, an action expressly forbidden in the spurned Skipper's Manual. It is forbidden because what happens then is that you lose your footing, topple like a felled log on to the towpath and dislocate your shoulder.

As I writhed on the gravel, our cruiser hit the yacht, which erupted with startled people, and shoved it far enough forward to scrape past and out into the river. My husband, obliviously turning downstream, caught sight of the men waving and shouting at him from the bank and, puzzled, eventually manoeuvred back close enough to hear: "Your wife's fallen and hurt herself. She's in the cafe and we've called the ambulance."

My husband's face brightened as he recognised the familiar set-up. "Thank God for that!" he said. "I thought I'd gone deaf."

Fact file

Most amateurs enjoy incident-free holidays cruising the Broads, and so might we, had we chosen a smaller boat. There is a full range available, all kitted out.

Norfolk is a two-hour drive from London. And ACC has a special arrangement with the NHS.