the three rivers race 2023
The internationally famous Three Rivers Race, organised by Horning Sailing Club, takes place on the Norfolk Broads, usually during the first week-end of June.
The Three Rivers Race is one of the oldest remaining on the Broads sailing calendar. Running every year since 1961, it is also one of the largest inland yachting races in Europe, encompassing three rivers and two lakes or broads in rural Norfolk. Originally, the plan was to have boats crossing the estuary at Breydon Water with the three rivers being the Bure, Yare and Waveney. However, from a safety and tide aspect this proved impractical, so the northern Broadland Rivers of the Bure, Thurne and Ant were used instead, and remain the Three Rivers of the Race to this day.
The current challenge sees helms negotiate a course in the order of 45-50 miles, depending on conditions, rounding four buoys located at Ludham Bridge on the Ant, on South Walsham Broad or Fleet Dyke, on Hickling Broad at the top end of the River Thurne and downstream on the River Bure somewhere between Stokesby and Six Mile House heading towards Great Yarmouth, starting and finishing at Horning Sailing Club on the upper Bure.
The time limit for this is 24 hours from each boat's start time. There are also 4 mast lowerings required on the course to negotiate the pair of bridges at Potter Heigham and also the bridge at Acle both ways.
Despite all of these obstacles and sometimes complex rigs, the fastest boats such as Norfolk Punts and visiting Thames A Raters can complete the race in as little as 7 hours given favourable conditions. For those boats which cannot get back in time for a swift pint in the Swan, a cooked breakfast is provided at the finish in the clubhouse to revive weary sailors.
All the boats are tracked at Horning Sailing Club for safety purposes. A team of 10 fixed motor cruiser guardships plus a range of other safety vessels keep an eye out for any problems and report back to base via radio. The efficiency of this system was underlined in 2001 when, for the only time so far in the race's history, strong winds caused abandonment of the race. Having issued the command from base at 6pm, all crews and the vast majority of boats were either at their home moorings or back at Horning Sailing Club by 11pm, despite being up to 15 miles away by river, thanks to the safety network.
Progress around the course is tracked using computer software which allows the Race Controller to see in an instant on which stretch of water each competitor was last reported by a guardship.
The start of the race is the time for spectators to view the fleet in one concentrated mass, waiting to be started in groups of around 10 boats upstream of the start line at Horning Sailing Club. The first start is usually at 11am and it takes over an hour to get the whole fleet started.
Once the fleet has reached Thurne Mouth, yachts can usually be seen heading off in both directions, and this decision is probably the most critical one of the whole race, dependent as it is on wind, tide and boat performance. The Three Rivers Race really is a test of seamanship over a long period and covering a wide variety of areas from close-quarters boat handling at the start to light airs sailing overnight and control at the bridge zones. Crews have travelled to Horning from all over the World to take part in a variety of craft, including the impressive Thames A Raters, Norfolk Punts, Half-Deckers, Yeomans, Yare and Bure ODs (White Boats), Reedlings, Rebels, Wayfarers, Enterprises and other dinghies, traditional Broads River Cruisers and Production Cruisers. No single-handed craft are allowed.
Leaving from Horning, competitors make their way through the street at Horning, before sailing on the more open waters of the Bure once out of the trees. Then it becomes a matter of tactics - ensuring that the tides and winds work in their favour, choosing which order to sail the remainder of the route, which includes Fleet Dyke to South Walsham Broad, the River Ant to Ludham Bridge, under Acle Bridge to Stokesby (or further, dependent on wind conditions on the day) and under Potter Heigham Bridge to Hickling Broad.
As part of this course, it requires the raising and lowering of masts to get under the bridges - always a great spectator sport, with popular viewing points including Potter Heigham and Acle, where the crowds can enjoy the excitement.
Today safety is at the forefront of the race organisers' minds, and the Three Rivers Committee, headed up by Kevin Saunders, has been planning the 2023 race since last year.
Hosted by Horning Sailing Club, in the heart of the Norfolk Broads, the race is a true spectacle not to be missed, as the myriad of boats set sail - where small dinghies such as the Norfolk Dinghy and Wayfarer can be seen sailing against the visiting Thames A Raters, with their tall masts standing at over 40 foot high!
This year a total of 103 boats took part, starting from Horning Sailing Club from 11.00 am on Saturday 3rd June. They set sail in groups of around 10 boats at a time, starting with the Yeoman fleet. These were followed by the Wayfarer dinghies, then traditional Broads boats including Yares & Bures, Waveney One Designs and mixed dinghies. More traditional Broads boats including Reedlings, Rebels and Broads One Designs followed, then halfdeckers and production cruisers. The faster dinghies, including Norfolk Punts and the Thames A Raters, started after a short gap.
With a fair wind behind them they all made their way down the River Bure before making their individual decision as to which route to take in order to visit all the ten marks, each of which is watched over by a “guardship” with a rescue boat alongside able to respond to any emergency or search for any missing or long-overdue competitor.
Other marks which had to be rounded were those at Ludham Bridge on the River Ant, near Stokesby on the River Bure, the Stracey Arms Windpump and in Hickling Broad above Potter Heigham bridges.
Some 50 river cruisers and hire cruisers make up the remainder of the fleet, from the highly competitive to those who just want the achievement of finishing the race. This is one of the things that makes the Three Rivers Race so special - it means something different to each entrant. It's fantastic that after over 60 years the race is still going strong and attracting competitors from all over the country (and even some from abroad) to take part.
This year, the race included both previous winners and a number of sailors participating for the first time.
The MNA Boat Club Guardship “ELSA II” and her accompanying rescue dory were crewed by Club members Clive & Lois Edwards, RNLI Lifeboat crew members Malcolm & Jill Wright and Steven (Rocky) Woolford. They were stationed in South Walsham Broad at the end of the Fleet Dyke alongside the Marine Tech fuelling jetty who’s owners were very supportive and allowed us to use their facilities throughout the whole 24 hours. Thank you Rod and Nina!
The overall winner was a Yare & Bure One Design “Dinghy Skipper” which completed the course in 8 hours 24 minutes followed by a Yeoman “Firefly” and a Wayfarer “Compleat Fiasco”.
As regards our contribution of “ELSA ll” as a Guardship we had a fairly frantic 18 hour period even before the race started because, on our way south down the River Ant from our mooring at Barton Turf, we suddenly started to experience a weird “surging” of our engine which we thought might be a fuel filter. However, when checked, it was in fact perfectly clear. We were then led to believe it might be weed round our prop and/or rudder resulting in us spending £200 on a diver, only to find that there was no significant amount of weed affecting us!
So at 22.00 hours on 2nd June, less than 12 hours before we were due to lay our mark at South Walsham we had an engineer, Rob Fearson, from Sutton Staithe Boatyard who very kindly turned out and finally diagnosed the problem which was a wholly unexpected lack of oil in the gearbox – the cause being a leak in the gearbox cooler allowing all the oil to mix with the cooling water and them pumped out through the exhaust!
Re-filling the gearbox enabled us at least to get to our mark at South Walsham, on time the following morning, and to get most of the way home on the morning after the race had finished without further trouble – needless to say a new gearbox cooler is now being installed!
Very fortunately we had some much appreciated support from Richard and Rachel Card in their handsome motor cruise “Ness Nomad” who escorted us down the Bure and Fleet Dyke to lay our mark on the Saturday morning and then remained anchored in South Walsham Broad throughout the day in order to ferry Jill and Nikki back to Horning before we commenced our “night watch” Having “Ness Nomad” and Richard and Rachel’s sailing dinghy available on
stand-by to relieve us if we had any further trouble during the race was a huge relief in addition to which they were great company and help with recording the bunches of competitors rounding the mark so a huge “thank you” to them is due.
(Editor's note: The header photo is from the 2022 Three Rivers Race)