Page updated: 15 January 2010
The Three Rivers Race is organised by Horning Sailing Club and is normally held on the first weekend in June each year.
Horning is a small village within the County of Norfolk approximately 130 miles north east of London. Norfolk is one of the largest counties in England. Its boundaries to the north and east are the coast, and inland it extends beyond the towns of Kings Lynn, Thetford and Diss, west and south of the capital, the City of Norwich.
Horning is within part of the county known as The Broads. This area includes some of the neighbouring county to the south, Suffolk. Broad is the local term for a lake found in the area. Most are connected to the network of some 200 miles of rivers and in some cases the rivers flow through the lakes. The majority of this water is navigable and all is a haven for wildlife.
The Broads were formed in medieval times when sea levels rose and flooded the shallow diggings from which peat, the fuel used locally, was obtained. In those days the waterways were the equivalent of a modern motorway system, as much of the land was low lying and frequently boggy and impassable. Not only are the lakes artificial but the routes of the rivers have been subject to human management since the earliest times as well. Some have even been made to flow in the opposite direction to that which nature ordained.
The three rivers from which the race gets its name are the three northern rivers of Broadland, the Bure, Ant and Thurne. The Ant and Thurne are tributaries of the Bure which itself is a tributary of the Yare, the main river in the southern Broads area. The Bure joins the Yare at Great Yarmouth, some ten miles downstream of Stokesby.
As for the race, at first it sounds simple, an out and back course in which you must round four marks and return to the start. It begins to sound trickier when you discover the course is in the order of fifty miles in length, with a start outside the sailing club at Horning and the marks on two different Broads and in two different rivers.
The marks can be passed in any order. As the fastest boats can normally complete the race in under nine hours, for them the decision on the order to take them should only affect their position in the race. For slower boats the decision will probably determine whether the course can even be completed in the allotted twenty four hours. My own boat, a SeaHawk, is one of the slowest allowed to take part. 2010 sees the fiftieth anniversary of the race and up to 2009 I had only heard an unconfirmed rumour from one source that suggested one had managed to complete the course.
Not only is there wind and tide to consider, the course is made more complicated by the fact that it involves passing under two bridges at Potter Heigham, in order to reach the mark on Hickling Broad, and a third at Acle, to reach the mark on the lower Bure. And, of course, all these bridges need to be passed both ways in order to return to the start.
In the upper reaches of the rivers small-rigged boats will normally suffer a lack of wind from riverside trees and at Potter Heigham the problem is the many riverside chalets and shacks. These deflect the wind in often unexpected ways. In most years the wind can also be relied on to drop to nothing in the middle of the night. If caught with the tide in the wrong direction, you may need to just sit it out with a mud weight over the bow, the local form of anchor, and hope for conditions to improve.
Tide becomes the predominant issue the further down the Bure you travel. As, these days, the race always starts at the same time of day, some years the start will be against the tide, whilst others it will be with it. The race organisers decide the length of the lower Bure leg depending on the weather forecast and the time of the tide. The mark, one is told, will be at one of three points. The closest to the start is at Stokesby, the furthest at Six Mile House. In truth, even between these three points there is still some flexibility on exactly where the buoy is dropped and on at least one year, the briefing that crews received immediately before the start only said "turn when you get to it", as the race officer explained, they hadn't yet made a decision on where it would be.
The two bridges at Potter are close enough together to be treated as one, and race rules do not oblige you to raise the mast between them. For most boats passing under the two bridges involves a lot of energy expended by the crew in frenzied paddling. But it's not just stamina. The famous Potter Heigham bridge is medieval and has a very small arch. For many craft, timing the passage through this bridge is the key to success. If the tide is high there is headroom to consider. If it's taken at other than slack water, current can be an issue, with it being near impossible for heavier boats to make way against the stream. Add to that the fact that other boats will be balancing the same issues and you can end up being last in the queue to pass through the bridge.
Finally, the race is further complicated because the start is staggered. Typically, something over a hundred and twenty five boats take part and over recent years the field has been getting larger still. The entrants are split into a dozen or more groups, by handicap, and these start at five minute intervals. This means that an optimum strategy for a boat of one type may not be the same for one starting an hour later. Neither will the strategy for a slow boat match that of a fast one, as the slow boat will have to deal with more than one tide.
This then is no ordinary race. Whilst boats of the same class will race under much the same conditions as each other, those of radically different designs are not really in competition. Many who take part think the handicap system is not weighted fairly and it does seem that the smaller open boats appear to win consistently year after year. For most, I suspect the reasons and motivation for taking part are as varied as those who compete in the London Marathon. Personal goals, such as beating a particular rival, or achieving a particular time become far more important than an overall placing against the mass of other entrants.