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12 April 2018

for the love of boats

Tragedy spurred Penny and Wal to realise boating dream

When Penny Wallace’s parents passed away within three weeks of each other in 2013, it left a huge hole in her life and an unsettling sense of restlessness. Her father, Ron, had been quite a character, and many of Penny’s most cherished memories were bound up with his love of boating in the UK and overseas. Known as the “Capitan” when he had a boat of that name moored in Majorca, Ron had bought his first boat during a holiday on the Norfolk Broads when Penny was four years old. A quarter of a century of family adventures on the rivers and seas from Norfolk to Yorkshire and Holland to the Mediterranean had sealed Penny’s own passion for life on the water.

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An itch needed to be scratched, and Penny and husband David (known to all as “Wal”) – who often accompanied the family before the pair were married – turned their thoughts to buying their own boat. “It was a huge shock to lose them both,” says Penny, on board the deck of the 48-foot Penelope moored at Brundall. “I was very upset, and I just couldn’t settle. We had boats all through my childhood and Wal and I did a lot of boating with my parents, and we just looked at each other and said ‘one day, what about if we bought a boat on the Norfolk Broads’. “Once we had got the idea of a boat in our heads, that was that. My parents gave up boating 15 years ago because they weren’t as agile as they once were and wanted to spend more time with their grandchildren. But they were our inspiration for getting our own.”

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Wal, who had a small rowing boat with a 1hp engine as a boy, didn’t take much persuading. “I always loved boats, but never thought I would ever own one,” he says, looking out on to the River Yare on a quiet Sunday morning. For Penny, she is back where it all began 50 years ago, that fateful holiday on the Broads the start of a lifelong boating love affair. “My dad was Norwich born and bred, and came from a humble background,” says Penny. “When he was about four, his dad used to take him to the bridge at Thorpe St Andrew to look at the boats, but could not afford the bus fare both ways. They got the bus there to get there quickly and walked back. He would say ‘when I’m a big boy I’m going to have my own boat’. His father used to pat his head and say ‘yes son’. He always had a love of boats and when I was about four or five we were living in Harrogate and we had a week’s holiday on the Broads. We hired a boat called the Septabelle, with my brother Stuart, who was 10 or 11. We went into Horning, and mum and I went off shopping. Later, he said to my mum ‘what have you bought?’ She said ‘just bread, milk etc’. ‘Oh, well, I’ve just bought a boat,’ he said. She dropped her shopping bags! He had bought a Freeman 22, which we kept on the Broads and used to come from Harrogate to visit every weekend.”

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Bigger boats soon followed, including the 38-foot Nymrod, and the confines of the Broads and the rivers of Yorkshire were not enough to satisfy Ron’s wanderlust. The Nymrod hit the headlines when disaster struck on a trip to Holland when Penny was 11. “We were on our way towards Lowestoft for a day or so en route, and we suffered an engine failure,” she says. “An onshore wind blew us on to the groynes at Happisburgh and we got a hole in the boat and had to jump off.” At the time, Ron told the Eastern Daily Press: “We just could not get away from the beach. We were making some headway, but then we clobbered something rather hard 40 or 50 yards off the beach and I realised then we would have to go with the elements and put in a mayday call. The boat was doing all sorts of crazy somersaults.” All the family and friends who had accompanied them from Harrogate were safe, and the Nymrod was repaired after being towed by Caister Lifeboat to Great Yarmouth.

Soon after, Penny and Wal met at school in Uppingham, near Leicester, and, after dating as teenagers and then going their separate ways, got back together again before marrying in 2009 – on a boat, naturally. “We were first loves many years ago,” says Penny. “My parents thought the world of him, so although we split up we always stayed friends and he came to all my children’s christenings and my wedding. He even worked for my dad and went and lived with my parents for a while.”

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A mechanic by trade, Wal worked with his future father-in-law in the battery industry and would accompany the family on boating trips abroad. It included an epic journey on board a boat Ron commissioned from Broom at Brundall called the Midlanda B, making their way all the way to Empuriabrava on the Costa Brava in Spain where the family had a house. “I did two legs of the cruise to take the boat there,” says Wal. “Penny joined the boat with her brother in Sete in France. It was really quite amazing to think Midlanda B had come all the way from the Broads and there we were taking her around the coast from France to Spain,” adds Penny.

When the couple were married it seemed only natural to tie the knot at sea, and they hired a catamaran in the Caribbean sea off Barbados. “We collected the vicar from the harbour and took him out to sea,” says Penny. “He didn’t like it so we had to have a quick wedding and take him back. In our wedding photos, he’s just clinging on to the ropes!”

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The couple’s first boat of their own was a “project boat” – a Fairline Targa 27 called the Lady Capitan – bought from Norfolk Yacht Agency (NYA). “It needed quite a lot of TLC, but we found that every time we came down to do some work on the boat we enjoyed going out on it too much, so didn’t end up doing any work,” says Wal. “One day we had parts of the engine off on the side of the quay and thought ‘can’t we go out on it instead?’”

“We had all these plans of renovating it and making it beautiful, but we just didn’t do it,” adds Penny, who now works with Wal in the family’s battery business in Market Harborough.

The Lady Capitan was to only last two months before a desire to get back to sea proved too strong. “It was Penny’s birthday and some friends asked if we fancied going to Southwold,” says Wal. “I said I didn’t think our boat would make it, so we went with them on theirs. Having done that and had such a fantastic day we left Waveney River Centre and drove to NYA to look at their boats for sale.”

“It brought back all the memories of all the sea work we had done,” adds Penny. “We were hooked. We realised that having a boat on the Broads was not going to be enough. We knew we had to go out to sea.”

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The new boat was a Sealine S34 they called the Lady P, but soon even that was too small for the couple’s needs after a rocky but satisfying trip to St Katharine Docks in London. “The weather was awful, and we were the smallest boat on the cruise,” says Wal, 55. “It was exciting and the sense of achievement coming up to Tower Bridge was fantastic. It’s nice to do it on your own.” But, adds Penny: “Lady P behaved really well as it was not a particularly kind sea. This boat (the Penelope) was on the same cruise and moored up in St Katherines. We walked past and thought ‘look at that, that would be lovely if we had that.’ We never thought we would get it but we decided we needed a bigger boat than Lady P.” The search for that bigger boat was long and wide, with the couple travelling all over the country looking for something in excess of 40ft; something like the Sealine 48 they had seen in St Katherine Docks.

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The couple have seven children between them, ranging in age from 17 to 31, and Oli, the youngest, was heavily involved in the search. “He kept vetoing boats, saying they weren’t good enough, or clean enough,” says Penny. “As he was the youngest and would be with us, it was really important for us that he enjoyed it. Thankfully, he loves it, and he chose to give up playing football on the weekends to come out with us on the boat. He’s done his powerboat, helmsman, and VHF courses, he’s done everything he can up to now.”

Eventually, the right boat became available – the very one they had fallen in love with in London, and the couple dug deep to buy the six-berth S48. With its large seating area, the Penelope is the ultimate party boat, and not one they’re likely to need to upgrade again.

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It’s the perfect place to while away summer weekends, and Penny says she counts the weekdays until it’s time to take to the road again back to the tranquil surroundings of the Norfolk Broads. “On Monday and Tuesday I’m a bit grumpy, by Wednesday I’ve got everything ready, then on Thursday right, that’s it, I’m off tomorrow. I just love it,” she says. “I just feel ‘me’ on the boat. Everybody’s friendly and looks out for each other. In the UK I don’t think we’d get anywhere nicer than on the Broads – there isn’t the community we’ve got here anywhere else.”

“We feel like we’re on holiday every weekend,” adds Wal. “Sometimes I just sit here and watch everything going on and think ‘we are very lucky’, but we have worked hard for it. When the children come and visit us they are all excited. I wish I had been able to have a boat when they were younger.”

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The couple are as happy taking their rib out on the Broads as they are cruising the seas around the east coast, and the wide circle of friends they’ve made are all part and parcel of the boating experience. “Some weekends we may not even take Penelope out,” says Penny. “We’re huge fans of going out on the rib and taking a bottle of fizz and a picnic into the Broads. One Bank Holiday weekend last year, we thought we’d just go out on the rib on Monday morning to the NYA moorings to say goodbye to our friends and have a coffee. Then, of course, it’s ‘do you want a beer?’ Then we saw more friends, and as we were coming past Coldham Hall there were two or three boats moored there, and they say ‘come and have a beer!’ We left Coldham Hall at 11 pm! We didn’t even get home that night and got up really early in the morning to go to work. That’s what we love about boating. We just have such a laugh all the time.”

For all that the Broads has to offer, the couple have fond memories of foreign adventures on Ron’s boats and, with a daughter living in Majorca, Penny has cast covetous glances at marinas in the Mediterranean. “Since I’ve been going to Majorca to visit my daughter I’ve thought ‘where better to have the boat?’ I feel like I’m ready for this one now. In Majorca you can just go straight out to sea – you don’t have to worry about tide times, bridges and harbours. Maybe Penelope will end up in Majorca…”

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As for anyone looking to get into boating, the couple are agreed on one thing: it’s a bug that bites hard. “My advice would be ‘be prepared’ because once you get on the boat you are not going to want to get off it. You are hooked,” says Penny.

“We’re obsessed really,” adds Wal, grinning.

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