12 April 2018
It’s no exaggeration to say that the 43-foot Queen V has given John a new lease of life. The 79-year-old was recovering from surgery in 2012 and facing a long convalescence and an uncertain future. That was when wife Valerie and daughter Kerry stepped in to give John the motivation to get back on his feet and, more importantly, back on the water.
At the time, the couple owned a Sealine 360 called Katelyn, but his family thought a new boating challenge would help John focus on making a full recovery. “It was important for John to come out of that surgery with something to challenge him,” says Valerie, sitting on the deck of the Sealine S43 that was to prove John’s salvation. “We had to really think what sort of boat he would be able to cope with, but we didn’t want to go for an easy boat. We opted for a sports boat and it has given him this motivation.”
John, a man with a wry sense of humour originally from County Offaly in Ireland and now living in Norfolk, says: “I was on the point of dying. They told me they’d make a Mercedes incision, so named because it’s in the shape of a Mercedes badge. I came to and found out what he had done. I said ‘you didn’t say it was going to be a Mercedes lorry badge!’ I was in the hospital and pretty poorly. Valerie saw James Fraser (from Norfolk Yacht Agency) and said ‘can we swap the boat over for John to give him something to think about and give him back his mojo?’ James was very good. He said we could swap the boat over, and we won’t charge you for it because we’ve got to make sure he’s not a goner. He gave me a lifetime guarantee because he thought I would only live for six months – but I’m still here! He’s told me I can’t claim on the guarantee now because he would have to kill me.”
“James knew what I was going through,” adds Valerie. “He showed a great generosity of spirit and said it doesn’t matter how long it takes or whether you end up buying the boat or not. For that reason alone I’ve got tremendous affection and respect for him.”
The Queen V, a nearly 10-ton, six-berth, sea-going sports boat, was waiting for John at its Brundall moorings when he was discharged from the hospital. “I had this lovely boat and I could not get here for eight weeks,” says John. “Eventually Valerie drove me over and the pain was unbelievable.” But it was worth the wait, and the pain, for the Queen V has enriched John and Valerie’s lives in so many more ways than just messing about on the water.
Registered as Queen B at the time, John’s brother Francis, from Dublin, arranged to have a new nameplate made of stainless steel and fitted to the boat by Tudor Print in Brundall.
“It’s a different life,” says John, a former motorcycle apprentice who worked for Isle of Man TT winner Reg Armstrong in his native Ireland. “When we come here it’s relaxing and quiet. It’s my shed really. It’s nice to come here and read a book or clean the boat. We’ve got electric blankets and two fridges full of beer and sauvignon blanc! There are nice people around who always say hello, and we can go to the pub or the bistro and know everybody. If I sold the boat I would miss a lot of social contact.”
The couple met in London 60 years ago when Valerie was a 17-year-old trainee supervisor working for Marks and Spencer, and John had swapped Dublin for England to work in the costume jewellery business. “I had a job offer to go to Canada but I met Valerie in the cake department of M&S,” says John. “I’ve never eaten cake since!” The couple were engaged within five months and married as soon as Valerie’s step-father would allow it – when she was 20 years old – spending their honeymoon riding through France, Spain and Portugal on John’s BSA Super Rocket motorcycle.
After the company he was working for went bankrupt, John started up his own costume jewellery agency, selling products manufactured by Jablonex, in what was then Bohemia in Czechoslovakia. Valerie joined her husband as a retail consultant after retiring from Marks and Spencer with 33 years service under her belt and became involved in creating jewellery design with Jablonex. But by then, the couple had uprooted from London to a farmhouse in rural Norfolk, a switch that would eventually lead them to the Broads and the seas beyond.
“I retired at 50 when I was still working as a buyer for M&S in Baker Street, and persuaded John that we should have a change of lifestyle, and we ended up living in Norfolk,” says Valerie. “I had no real knowledge of Norfolk. I remember going on holiday on the Broads once a long time ago and have to admit I hated it! I was rather spoilt at the time, travelling the world and staying in the best hotels, that the whole boating malarkey was a bit of a culture shock.” But all that was about to change, thanks to a conversation with boat-owning friends in their adopted county.
“It was all Valerie’s idea!” says John. “I’d had motorbikes, cars and go-karts, and always wanted a boat but thought I couldn’t afford one.” Valerie says all she provided was a nudge in the right direction. “We were with some very close friends who had a boat and they asked if we wanted to come over and see it,” she adds. “So we did and I said to John ‘would you like a boat?’. He said he’d always wanted one so I said ‘if that’s what you want then go for it’.”
The boat they bought in April 2006 was Katelyn, a 36-foot sea-going vessel that was to change Valerie’s view of life on the water forever but only after a steep learning curve. “James wanted us to buy a boat first, but I was 68 and I said ‘I’m over the hill, I don’t have time to get a little boat, then a medium boat then a bigger boat’,” says John. “I’ve always loved machinery, and when we bought the boat I sat here looking at all the buttons and thought, it can’t be that difficult. I started these twin engines up, here we go, put her in gear. I was across the other side of the river in about two and a half seconds and I was back here in four seconds. I was a nervous wreck to start with, it’s like trying to park a car on an escalator.”
In an ideal world, Valerie advises not to go straight into a larger boat but says: “Norfolk Yacht Agency (NYA) offers a unique service. When buying our first boat from them we were complete novices, but they want to help you and they do help you. Everybody benefits from support if you need it, and James and his team are there for you throughout. He will not leave you adrift – no pun intended. Ultimately, why should we fear something just because we happen to be a certain age? Just do it. To stay young both physically and mentally, you need to try new things. If you’ve got time on your side don’t be embarrassed to try it. Get something you feel confident with and go from there.”
Once they’d mastered the controls, John and Valerie were off on the rivers and man-made lakes of the Norfolk Broads at the start of an adventure that has brought thrills and tranquillity in equal measure. Their first day on the Broads was marked by a warning to respect the water, as Valerie explains: “We heard a cry of ‘man overboard’, but unfortunately they didn’t find the chap for two days. He was found to be five times over the limit, so that was a very early lesson for us about safety issues on the boat.”
The couple’s next lesson was about more structural considerations and making sure you know the architecture of your boat. “Katelyn had a flybridge and we got to Reedham Bridge and it was closed,” says Valerie. “John said ‘we can get through there’. I said ‘I don’t think so!’. So we go through this bridge and the navigation light on the radar arch was completely demolished. It was the most frightening experience. After two bottles of red wine later at the Dukes Head at Somerleyton, I had recovered my equilibrium.”
The next day they came to a cropper when they were flagged down by a Broads Authority patrol boat on Breydon Water. “There are strict speed limits on the Broads, but there are no speed limits on Breydon Water, so we were going along at a good clip when we were stopped,” remembers Valerie. “It was embarrassing for me because I was still a magistrate. Apparently, we were endangering the safety of fellow boaters with our wash.”
“Somebody spilt a gin and tonic or something and complained,” adds John, whose favourite part of the boat is the twin, 480bhp Volvo engines, which can propel the Queen V to 32 knots at sea.
Soon, they were ready to tackle the North Sea with the NYA Cruising Club, where boaters with new and used boats alike, can take to the open waters with as much or as little help as they need. On one such trip, John was awarded a certificate, signed by sailor Robin Knox-Johnston among others, for the funniest moment during a cruise down the east coast to Lowestoft and Southwold. “They had a cannon outside the restaurant at the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club,” says John. “I was standing in front of it smoking a cigar with a beer. They said ‘could you move John, we’re going to fire the cannon?’ I said ‘I’m not moving because it’s not going to fire.’ ‘It’s up to you,’ they said. They were convinced I was going to get blown up, but of course, it didn’t fire!”
Every voyage is memorable in its own way, and the vast majority pass off without major incident, but of course, it tends to be those that don’t necessarily go 100 percent to plan that stick in the mind. Like the time when Katelyn was engulfed in smoke from an engine fire, or when fog so thick descended in the North Sea that visibility was measured in inches rather than yards. “Valerie said to me ‘I can smell burning’,” says John. “I said ‘no wonder, because we are on fire!’ The whole boat was full of smoke. It was going everywhere. We radioed into James, Valerie on the radio saying ‘we appear to be on fire James’. One of James’ men, Speedo, came on the boat and got it all under control. A gasket had gone and it was blowing oil all over the engine, which was red hot. It was all a bit worrying.” Valerie adds: “I was straight on the radio, just to say ‘everyone needs a Speedo’. It’s become a bit of a saying since. I like using the radio!”
When the thick fog descended in the North Sea on a trip to Holland, Valerie and John’s daughter Kerry was at the helm. “She thinks we’re mad,” says Valerie. “We took her to Holland and the fog came down while she was at the helm. She was very nervous and saying: ‘I can’t see!’ We said just keep going and we will tell you when to stop.”
“She thought we were completely mad, but I could see well enough all the time on the radar, which she didn’t know!” adds John.
As well as the pure fun and freedom of being out on the water, boating brings other benefits that are integral to the whole experience. Valerie reels off an almost bullet-pointed list: “Learning new skills, enjoying rivers and seas, camaraderie, total freedom, visiting new places, overcoming fear in challenging conditions, making friends and watching children thrive in such wonderful environments. All the people we know through the boating fraternity are really lovely people. There is a great support, a real esprit de corps. Everyone helps each other if and when they can if someone’s having difficulty. We’re possibly the oldest on the NYA cruising club, but we’re young at heart and we’ve made genuine friendships. We get on well with everyone. There are also no barriers socially. You can come from a very humble background to a wealthy one, any strata of society and everybody mixes.”
John adds: “A lot of our social life is now to do with boats. Everyone has a drink and gets on well.” And although he jokes that the couple may soon be ready for mobility scooters, they clearly love the boating lifestyle too much to give it up anytime soon.