Memories of a river man (1977-2017)

Location : Norfolk Marshes

After travelling the world with the Merchant Navy Tony started to work as a river inspector on the Norfolk Broads. He talks about his long and varied career.

Since the age of 13 I knew that I wanted to go to sea; I’m an only child and grew up in a Council house and I was determined to own my own home. A career at sea offered me a career path with extremely good money. Well, it seemed like good money as you didn’t have to pay board on ships, you got tax incentives and once you were qualified they paid you very well to start with, it made a big difference and I was able to buy my first house at 21.

Canadian Pacific Shipping Company

I left school in 1977 and joined Canadian Pacific Shipping Company (CP) as a Deck Cadet, which is similar to an apprenticeship. I had to go to London by myself for the interview, I was 16, born in Cromer and had never been to London on my own. In September 1977, having got my five O levels I was told that I had the job. I had to go to Terminal 4 at Heathrow Airport and pick up a ticket to Durban, South Africa. When I eventually got there, an agent met me and took me to the ship, I had never been out of the country before so it was all rather a big adventure.

You would go away for about three or four months at a time, with limited time ashore, and then have three or four weeks leave, you might do that for a year and then spend a year at college, it would alternate and there would be examinations all the way through to make sure that you were learning what you were supposed to be learning. Before we joined the ship we had basic training and psychological profiling to make sure that we had the right aptitude, as once you were on the ship you couldn’t get off.

I travelled all around the world, just about everywhere apart from Chile and China, anywhere you can imagine a boat could go. CP ships had a mixed fleet, it was fascinating loading timber, going round Indonesia, and going to Montreal in the wintertime on ice breaker type boats was quite interesting.

It was very good in those days because they paid for your exams and all your board, and in 1981 I passed what we called our Second Mate’s and became a Navigation Officer, qualified as a Second Officer. You always sailed below your rank, so if you qualified as a Second Officer you’d sail as a Third Officer. By the time I took my Chief Mate’s ticket, which was second in command, in 1984 you had to pay for that yourself.

Once I got my Chief Mate’s ticket, my duties didn’t change initially, but as I had my senior ticket I got onto container ships which were trading between north west Europe and The United States. As it was busier they needed experienced Officers rather than youngsters straight out of College.

I finished my career there in 1986; I resigned as the contracts were changing from British to foreign flag contracts, and you lost a lot of your employment rights and I couldn’t see a future.

On my last trip to sea in 1986 I took the Yellow Pages away with me, and I had a typewriter and wrote to about 180 different employers, one of which was Great Yarmouth Port. They wrote back and told me that there was a job of River Inspector. Fortunately they didn’t tell me what the salary was, as I would never have gone for it. My salary at sea had been something like £13,000 and the salary for a River Inspector was £6,500, but they paid overtime so we got round it in the end.

Great Yarmouth Port – Relief River Inspector

I started as a Relief River Inspector on 27th April 1987 and spent my first day at Ludham, I can remember coming out of the boatshed and just thinking this is absolutely beautiful.

The first six to eight weeks were spent being trained and then you went out with a Senior River Inspector to make sure that you were a safe pair of hands, The Port and Haven Commission were sensible, they employed ex seafarers because they knew that we knew one end of a boat from the other, and knew all the technical stuff they just needed to tell us, point us in the right direction and off we went.

I was a Relief Inspector until 1998, nobody in their right mind would leave a River Inspector job, you were given a nice launch, 30 foot long. You were told, encouraged to go into the pubs at lunchtime, so that you were known. In fact the wording was ‘if you have a bit too much to drink just hide in the shrubbery until you’ve sobered up a bit’.

It was our decision each day to decide where we went, we were part of the community so it was easy, information just flowed in to us, it wasn’t just enforcing speed limits it was knowing all there was to know. Our role was to manage our area and as long as the Office wasn’t getting too many complaints and we could be contacted over the radio with any questions they were happy, it was a very different era.

The Broads Authority

I had been working for the Great Yarmouth Port and Haven Commissioners for a couple of years when The Broads Authority took over, in 1989. As the same people were still in charge, the transition was very smooth, and nothing really changed for probably a couple of years, until The Broads Authority decided to look at our terms and conditions.

The Chief Executive of The Broads Authority, Aitken Clark, was unhappy with the little add ons that we had. We had a very low basic salary and then lots of extra monies added on for other things. He quite rightly said that he would rather put up the salary and do away with the add ons, and that is exactly what they did. They had a big review, which I was part of as one of the negotiators, and they increased the salaries by about £5,000, which is a big increase but they did away with the allowances for working weekends and all that sort of thing, but everybody viewed it positively, there was no ill feeling towards The Broads Authority.

There was, however, very much the perception that The Broads Authority didn’t understand us, this persisted for many years, and to be fair they hadn’t any experience of anything like this, nothing similar in any other National Parks.

When they took us over we had radar guns, we dressed like Police Inspectors, white shirts, black ties and we had the enforcement element of blue lights. They eventually introduced a new, less intimidating uniform, more like a Ranger’s.

They kept the work patterns the same, even right up until I stopped in 2011, they did change the hours worked though, they stopped the 35 and 40 hour week and we all went on to a 37 hour working week.

A change in management mean that it was decided to divide the area in to two teams, North and South, which interestingly they have just gone back to in the last year. I was looking after Norwich but this change in management meant that I was moved to Wroxham.

There were differences between Norwich and Wroxham, Norwich was very much large stretches of water, fewer hire boats, very few day boats, it had water skiers, and rowers. The only place really in the system where you get water skiers and rowers is at Norwich, there is a very small rowing element at Oulton Broad. You get skiers on the River Waveney but no water skiing at all on the northern rivers, so it was a very different feel,

Wroxham has a far more holiday, touristy feel about it, with the day boats it is much busier in that respect than Norwich was. Norwich was more local people using the river with a smattering of holiday makers, so the river had a different feel.

Working at Wroxham on a Friday and Saturday was interesting, the boats coming out of the boatyards would all be looking for somewhere to moor, Horning was the place, to go, the boats from Wroxham went down stream to Horning, all the boats from Stalham went down the River Ant and thought they’d go Horning, everybody went to Horning and there aren’t that ,many moorings in Horning, so that was the place to go to on a Friday evening, to help people as there was nowhere for them to moor and they would be getting quite panicky. Generally we could find them moorings.

Friday was the day when people really had just the weekend hire and they wanted to cover more ground

Volunteers on the Broads

I started using volunteers way before The Broads Authority started any volunteering. My first volunteer was in 1998, and it was someone who was local to the area and wanted to come out on the boat. I was using volunteers extensively then from 1998 onwards and they didn’t become an official thing until about probably 2003.

I met no end of really decent people through being volunteers, generally they were retired gentlemen, there were a few females, but very few, who had boating experience and all they really wanted to do was drive a boat. Some of them were not as good as others, you could tell really whether anyone was going to be any good within a couple of minutes of them actually coming on board the launch, by the time they’d reversed the launch out of the boat shed you knew whether they had it or not, or whether you could teach them. It was all about spatial awareness with boats.

Their role was initially to support the staff, but then they went out on launches on their own, which were clearly labelled Auxiliary Navigation Rangers. At the time there was obviously a lot of concern from the staff that the volunteers were going to replace jobs, but we now know how volunteers have changed the face of society, they never took anyone’s job, they just enabled people to do slightly more.

That’s why I always worked with volunteers, it enabled me to do other things while they were driving the boat. It could quadruple the amount that you could do, they could drive the launch and I could do the paperwork, check registration numbers of the moored boats, so you can see how it would work extremely well.

I always tried to look after the volunteers, bought them cake, made them tea and coffee, because they were more important than staff really because they weren’t being paid so you couldn’t afford to mess them around.

Winter working

During the winter months we could work anywhere, you had to go wherever you were needed. The work was similar under both the Commissioner and The Broads Authority as it was very much as case of you had winter works to do. A lot of it would be tree work, clearing trees, clearing the river bank, My colleagues Jamie and I were given a work boat in November and were told what needed to be done and that would really be it until the following Easter. We would see everybody at Christmas but that was really it. We would log on and off each day so they knew where we were and what we were doing, and as we were cutting down trees you could see what had been done.

We used to collect a lot of firewood, that way in the early days as we were allowed to bring firewood home, that was entertaining, I used to take ten sacks a day home because ten sacks would fit into the back of the Fiesta I had. Jamie at one point was bringing a tractor and trailer to work because there was that much firewood.

We also had a lot of rigs moving around the system which we had to escort, during the winter months, we had an enormous project for the Flood Alleviation System, round the Broads, which involved lots of barges moving around.

There was a lot of dredging going on and they would have to move from one site to another, we had to escort them as some of them effectively filled the river.

In the 1990s under The Broads Authority we had to escort the Blackheath which was running up to Cantley taking fuel oil,

Towards the latter time there I was one of the mud pilots, so I’d go on board the Blackheath and help the primary pilot, he had been on coasters whereas I hadn’t. I had the sea going experience but not on coasters, so he would be the one who would actually tell the captain.

They used to say ‘to Master’s orders and Pilot’s advice’, because the Master’s always in charge but the Pilot’s telling him where to steer and where to go. We’d take the coasters up and bring them down, we would have a launch in front, to make sure that everybody got out the way. That was primarily in the winter months and it was quite demanding in terms of resources.

The storm of 1987 and extreme weather

I can remember going out after the hurricane of 1987, bearing in mind that it was the October of the end of my first season, the launch I was on was based in South Walsham. I lived out near Blickling and had to go via Cromer to get to South Walsham, as the roads were blocked, the aerial at Blofield was down and we had to rely on phone boxes. I was told to go to Wroxham to meet Jamie, on the way I saw a yacht which had been blown down the dyke and thrown over the piling.

When we got to Wroxham Jamie and I went into Bridge Broad, which is upstream from Wroxham, there used to be an island in Bridge Broad but since that hurricane there isn’t. The Island was blown across the Broad and it is now fixed to one of the banks, you would never know that it was an island. Of course we ran across and sounded it with our echo sound, it was the same depth as the rest of the Broad.

One of the worst affected areas was a place called Dunburgh, above Beccles, on the River Waveney, so many trees came down that I think May Gurney were there for about three months clearing them. You could walk across the river, it was just a mass of trees.

Over the years we have had problems with ice, we have had it so thick, four inches, that I have been able to walk across it. We had problems with the Blackheath being iced in at Cantley sugar factory, it could not leave. It would have been able to smash through the ice but it would have sunk every boat on the way down because as it pushed its way through the ice, the ice would just slice through the hull of the pleasure boats moored, so we couldn’t allow it to move it had to wait.

My last winter on the launch was in 2010-2011, I can remember going down for an early morning escort from Runham on the lower Bure and because we were running reasonably quickly, the water was coming over the bow, freezing on the foredeck and freezing on the windscreen, and I can remember sitting thinking ‘I’m getting too old for this’ and I was, I did well to give up when I did.

Changing roles

In the early days as a River Inspector under the Commissioner’s you would come out of your boat shed and your biggest decision of the day was upstream or downstream. Now, the Rangers as they’re now called have area plans, they have got performance targets on where they go, they have to do safety checks on moorings, everything’s recorded on the tablet which is then sent in for insurance purposes, public liability.

What the Rangers do now is far more tightly controlled than it ever was. It started off in the Commissioner’s time ‘that’s your area, you manage it as you see fit, unless we get loads of complaints we’ll leave you well alone’. To ‘this is what you’re going to be doing, this is what we want you to do, this is when you’re going to do it’, so much more tightly controlled.

They do countryside work now, they’re not just dealing with boats, they don’t spend their whole working week on a boat, they spend 60% of their time doing navigation issues and 40% doing countryside issues.

They’re far more engaged locally with Parish Councils and people like that, than we were, although I always used to do Parish Councils, but it’s more a formal footing. It’s very much more tightly controlled on what they do now and their delivery targets, and they’re measured, everything is measured. Every time you talk to somebody it’s recorded that’s the difference, there was no record keeping in the early days.

The areas worked are similar but nowadays they have less time to work them, we would work far more flexible hours. There is a natural rhythm to the river and I used to work with that, it tends to start at about 10 or 11 in the morning and finish about 6 or 7 in the evening. That changes on a Friday when people pick a boat up, they’re out later and on a Saturday. So I would tend to work later on a Friday and Saturday so I would come in at lunchtime and work late. The advantage of working later is somewhere like Horning, where there is very limited mooring, you’d encounter the family, there’d be fading light, they’d be panicking, you’d come along and you’d make their problem go away, you’d find them a nice safe mooring, you’d be the knight in shining armour and that was the nice bit of helping people.

It probably doesn’t work in the same way now, because their time is more tightly controlled, they have to focus their resources to where they’re most needed. But the Rangers now are far more multi skilled, they have a bigger skill set, far more than I originally had.

It’s less human oriented because the trouble is the time that you would spend talking to people is hard to measure, I’m not saying it’s better or worse, it’s just different. And the way that we used to do it, you would spend time gossiping over a cup of tea, or whatever, that gossiping would enable information to come out which you’d then find useful. The Rangers now to be fair haven’t got time to gossip. They haven’t got time to stop and chat, in the same way that we used to, they’ve got all these targets to meet.

I miss that, even in my present role, I miss helping people, I miss the towing people off because they’ve got stuck, things like that, where you can really make somebody’s holiday. You would let the young lad come on board and drive the boat, or when Mum and Dad are getting fractious because they haven’t found a mooring, and it’s getting dark. You’d find them a mooring, tell them where to go, they’d all think it was wonderful.

Advances in technology and more rules and regulations

Technology has helped Rangers enormously, nowadays they have got smart phones, they can get emails, they have got cameras, We used to have film cameras and had an arrangement with a guy at Wroxham where he would develop the pictures really quickly if we needed them in a hurry .They have got better communications now, I can remember getting my first mobile phone, that was wonderful.

In the days before mobile phones it was very different, we used to have boards up at the mouth of the rivers and the Police had SOS boards, and if they were looking for someone they would go on the boards. In the pre mobile phone era we used to say that we could find someone between 45 and 90 minutes wherever they were on the Broads.

That’s obviously changed now, we used to have better coverage on the boats, but they don’t now as they have more things to do, and they don’t need to as they have mobile phones.

There have been more regulations introduced, because there needed to be. Had we had the stability requirements we have now, we would not have had the incident in either 2004 or 2005 when the boat capsized and the woman wouldn’t have died.

All disasters in my experience are a combination of little things going wrong, it’s a whole string of little things occurring and make the one big thing.

We used to have far more incidents of drowning than we have now, the worst one was many years ago at Horning Ferry, a five year old girl drowned, it still chokes me up to think about it now.

In those days all the services, Police, Emergency Services, River Inspectors all worked closely together, we felt very much all part of the same sort of team, there isn’t the comradeship now.

Health and Safety

One of the biggest beneficial changes I have seen over the years is the improvement in safety, it is so much better, one such change being the wearing of life jackets.

The modern invention of the self inflating life jacket has changed the fact that people can wear buoyancy aids all the time., When I first started all we had were what we called ‘board of trade jackets’, you’d get them on a deep sea ship, they’re full of fixed foam, they’re enormous, if you put them on you’d have a job getting out of the narrow cabin door, I have to turn, and sideways anyway, I’m too wide to go through, but with one of those on you’d really have trouble.

When we started getting the self inflating jackets it made such a difference and we would wear it all the time because it was a fine example to others and now most of the large boatyards have them and give them to the hirers.

The safety has increased enormously, communications are far better, with modern mobile phones, everybody has got a GPS in their pockets, they generally know where they are.

Favourite area to work in

It is a hard decision to make but I would say that my favourite area would have to be Wroxham and Horning, because you were helping people, and that’s where the job satisfaction came from. Helping the families, guiding people, showing people what to do. I used to have a party trick about cleaning boats, we kept the launches immaculate, and we’d found what chemicals were safe to use and I can remember reducing one chap to tears on Salhouse Broad on a Sunday afternoon. He was cleaning a little plastic boat with what was ‘jif’ and I came up with something else with a soft brush and brushed it on, and just when we‘d made a cup of tea it all came off and he’d wasted all weekend, I could have cleaned his whole boat on 20 minutes and he’d spent the weekend doing it

We had incidents of people getting stuck, leaving their wives behind, their children behind, it was a very different time, before mobile phones,

Conservation and the future of The Broads

I probably should have had more of an interest in the wildlife around me, but I wouldn’t know what bird was what, but my main interest was in protecting the wildlife by trying to stop the fishermen disturbing it in the winter.

Horsey Mere is voluntarily closed in the winter, but that did not stop fishermen from trying to get up there. They were going for the female pike, full of eggs, up on the Upper Thurne, and there were some real fanatics, some travelling from other parts of the country.

I worked with the National Trust on the Horsey Estate to try and get these fishermen out, but they would go to enormous lengths, they would launch before sunrise, cover all their registration numbers, even wear balaclavas, they would not worry about the voluntary ban at all.

The business has changed over the years, there are lot more touristy things to do, but it’s primarily based just in the summer months, most boats run from Easter until October and then they come off the water, into the sheds to have maintenance.

Northumberland National Park has been designated a dark sky area, and it would be a real bonus if we could have dark skies on the Broads, it is a good destination, and apart from the light pollution from Norwich and North Walsham the rest of the area is quite good, with little light pollution, if you come to this area on a clear night you can see the Milky Way.

It could be a slow burn project as it could fit in with planning policy, gradually the lighting would get better as it was replaced.

The Broads is one of the best kept secrets, it is like a great big village, everybody knows everybody else, it has such a lovely feel, everyone will help each other, and those of us who have lived here a long time have such a connection. We will lose that as everything is changing and becoming more focused on technology not people.

River inspectors. Tony first left. (Thanks to Mark Lockwood for the photo)

Tony Risebrow talking  to WISEArchive  in Horning on 17th February 2017

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