A quiet January cruise on the Norfolk Broads turns into an unexpected crime drama for PBO contributor Will Renilson

Winter… Nothing happens in the winter. How wrong could we be!

We own a Jersey 36 motorboat which we keep on the Norfolk Broads. She is a very seaworthy, sturdy vessel, fully equipped for use at sea, and we often cruise along the coast.

So far, we’ve travelled as far as St Katharine Docks, London, but we also enjoy using her all over the Broads.

The Norfolk Broads is an amazingly friendly National Park with more than 200km of waterways to explore. In the summer it’s perfect for gentle trips with the family where we enjoy canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding and rowing, along with sailing our elderly Mirror dinghy.

Yes, the Broads are lovely, but in the summer we also have copious amounts of visiting boats and hire craft which come with their own challenges.

So, one of my favourite times of the year for the Broads is winter.

Chart of Will Renilson's Norfolk Broads route

Chart of Will Renilson’s route

Winter idyll

The weather may be a tad inclement, but there are no hire craft around and you are never fighting for a mooring spot. You often get the rivers to yourself.

It’s perfect for seeing the myriad of wildlife – being home to more than a quarter of the rarest wildlife in the UK. And you can also use the many electric posts provided by the Broads Authority to help keep you warm at night.

So it was that in January 2023 we set off for an eight-day trip on the Southern Broads. After four days of meandering from St Olaves up to Norwich, we returned to our moorings for a night before heading off for Oulton Broad and Beccles.

The Broads area is covered by various social media sites and there had been reports of a 35ft Bourne Cruiser being stolen and towed away.

There had been several sightings of it on the River Yare, The Chet and even Langley Dyke. We didn’t think too much about it other than that we’d keep an eye out.

When we eventually left our moorings in St Olaves, we had already covered the ‘search area’ and were intent on just slowly enjoying our trip up to Beccles. We had a blustery day gusting 30 knots, but again this does not bother us, so off we went.

We had the river to ourselves (perfect) and surprised the bridge keeper at Somerleyton Swing Bridge, as he didn’t expect to have to open on this sort of day.

The stolen 35ft Bourne Cruiser spotted on the river bank

The stolen 35ft Bourne Cruiser spotted on the river bank

Abrupt stop

We carried on past the bridge and after about a mile, we spotted the stolen boat on the North Bank!

We quickly took some photos of it and a screenshot of the area from our Navionics App on my phone, plus a pinpoint location from ‘What three words’, which is the location device that the emergency services can use.

Next, we had to move off till we could get a signal and contact PC Paul Bassham from the Norfolk Constabulary Marine Team.

After some difficulty with a wifi signal we were through to him and he quickly confirmed this was the boat he was looking for.

PC Bassham sprang into action, and quickly got the relevant permissions in place. He realised there were no Broads Rangers nearby and so arranged to meet us at the Waveney River Centre.

During this time my friend, Ken, who had been tracking us using the automatic identification system (AIS), realised that we were stationary in a part of the Broads that had no moorings.

He phoned to ask if we had broken down! So, he and his wife, Debbie, got dragged in to act as extra crew to help tow the stolen boat to safety. With PC Bassham and our new crew aboard, we returned to the scene.

The Bourne Cruiser had had its name board removed and Broads number changed.

Gusty approach

It was gusting 30 knots and we were right on the lee shore. I feared I would run aground or touch the tree roots with my propeller in the water. We approached bow-first so PC Bassham could get ashore and do his policeman bit.

I checked with the echo sounder for depth but this stopped working when we stirred up the mud while using the thrusters, so we spun the boat round and edged in stern first with my extra ‘pressed hand’ checking the depth all the while from our dive platform using a boathook.

PC Bassham disembarked, took photographs and gathered evidence, and then we set up the tow.

The stolen boat under tow

The stolen boat under tow. Credit: PC Paul Bassham/Norfolk Constabulary marine police team

It was windy, a northerly lee shore, so by using two tow lines to our port and starboard it kept the lines short and enabled us to give the boat a mighty tug to get her off the falling tide.

She then slipped into our wake and behaved very nicely so we never tried to get her alongside. This way there was minimal disturbance to any evidence. Only one man had been on board and he was the policeman with gloves on!

A happy owner Poor PC Bassham then had a myriad of paperwork and phone calls to complete as we towed the boat to the Waveney River Centre where we monitored it for the night, then the marina staff took over until the forensics team could arrive.

It was a real privilege to watch the police in action and our awareness of the stolen boat in the first place highlighted the power of social media. The end result for us was a very happy boat owner having got his boat back.

The rest was left in the hands of the very competent police and we received a very nice letter from Inspector James Makepeace a short while later, thanking me for being instrumental in locating the boat and for assisting in its recovery with the tow.

He agreed with my previous praise of PC Bassham and confirmed that a suspect had been arrested and more stolen items recovered.

Our Jersey Lass did really well in trying conditions right on the lee shore with the tide beginning to fall. We celebrated with a Sunday lunch up in Beccles!

Will’s crew watching PC Bassham doing the paperwork aboard Jersey Lass

Will’s crew watching PC Bassham doing the paperwork aboard Jersey Lass

Towing back to the Waveney River Centre

Towing back to the Waveney River Centre

Lessons learned

1) It is useful to make a note of the local marine police telephone number and email for your cruising ground. In our area, we have the Norfolk Police Marine, known locally as the Broads Beat Police, but who is it that controls your area? A quick look at your local police website will likely tell you.

2) Are you part of the social media system to be alerted if there have been any thefts or break-ins? Search for boating groups for your cruising ground on Facebook.

3) The ‘what three words’ location system really helped to pinpoint the precise area we were referring to upon finding the stolen boat. Find out more about this service at www.what3words.com or download the free what3words app on your smartphone or tablet.

4) It was great to see that our shoreside contact was vigilant and checked in with us when we stopped for a while in an unusual area. They were also able to step in as crew. Have you got the phone number of somebody who can be called on to help? Always let someone know your boating plans.

5) For an emergency dial 999. The non-emergency number is 101.

Peelian principles

Norfolk Constabulary Marine Crime Team boats. Credit: christaylorphoto.co.uk

Norfolk Constabulary Marine Crime Team boats. Credit: christaylorphoto.co.uk

Toby Gosden, Norfolk marine team sergeant, said: “The Norfolk Constabulary Marine Team is made up of a sergeant and two full time crew that cover the 125 miles of the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads as well as covering our coastal areas of Norfolk.

“We have other trained crew that work alongside us and are fortunate to have police support volunteers who crew our boats. We also work alongside partner agencies to maintain visibility on both the inland and coastal areas that we cover.

“The old ‘Peelian principles’ of policing for the people and the people being the police is evidenced well by Will’s story.

“Our work is greatly enhanced by the support of the communities that we serve. In this case, a suspect was arrested and additional stolen items were subsequently recovered.

“PC Paul Bassham has retired since this article was written however, the work that we do hasn’t changed, and is now overseen by PC Sarah Walford.

“If anyone has any marine-related concerns or would like to receive crime prevention regarding their vessel, please email Broadsbeat@norfolk.police.uk.”

About the author

Will Renilson

Will Renilson

Will Renilson switched from sail to power when he bought Jersey 36. Jersey Lass. He previously owned a self-built Wharram-designed 46ft catamaran and a long keel 26ft Lemster design (similar to a Folkboat) before family life saw the boat become a new conservatory on the understanding that he’d get a boat again on retirement. Will spent a year refitting Jersey Lass, which is kept in the Norfolk Broads, but he enjoys coastal trips further afield, including to London.


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