In the nineteenth century, duck punts were used for wildfowling and fishing. The punt would often be hand-paddled to the quarry, with the gunner lying prone in the bottom. When a target presented itself, the gunner banged his hand on the side of the punt and fired as the duck took to wing.
Over time, rather than rowing long distances, the gunners began to set lug-rigged sails and they found that their punts, without keels or lee boards and steered with an oar off the quarter, could sail surprisingly fast in good conditions.
Different designs of punts were developed on Breydon Water and Hickling Broad and in the 1920’s they began to race against each other at local regattas. Following lively correspondence in the Eastern Daily Press in 1926, the Norfolk Punt Club was formed “to preserve and if possible improve the traditional local type of punt and to encourage competitions in quanting, rowing and sailing of same”.
The existing Norfolk Punts were measured and class rules formulated for new boats. Overall length was between sixteen and twenty two feet with sail area restricted to eight square feet per foot of length. Initially spars had to be stored within the hull effectively imposing a Gunter sloop rig. The maximum cost of the hull was fixed at £2 per foot of overall length and the cost of all other gear could not exceed £15.15.0 so that the all in price for a 22ft punt was around £60.
In 1929 Uffa Fox (possibly the foremost small naval architect of the 20th century) joined two sections of mast together with duralumin tubing and the resultant punt became the first to be Bermudan rigged. Amid regular controversy, the class building rules were continually changed as owners found ways round the initial restrictions.
Initially, the Club organised races throughout the Broads, but in 1935, they bought a Harland and Wolff lifeboat, which was converted to a houseboat by Cox Bros at Barton Turf. This was then moored on Barton Broad to become the headquarters of the Club, and regular Sunday racing was established. Additional rafts were gradually added and the lifeboat replaced after the Second World War
After the war, the Norfolk Punt Class found the cost of clinker boats too expensive and commissioned Wyche and Coppack to develop a one-design hard-chine boat. In 1977, a fibreglass mould was produced, again to save costs, so that the hard-chine boats could be constructed out of fibreglass. A further development continued with a somewhat different design by Phil Morrison in 1998 with an asymmetric spinnaker.
The Norfolk Punt has been one of the fastest single hulled boats for the last eighty years – it achieved 13.8 knots at the world speed trials in Weymouth Harbour in 1978 – considerably faster than a Flying Dutchman. The new Morrison design is much faster than the hard-chine design.
Today the Norfolk Punt Club organises racing for a wide variety of craft and has some 550 members. It tries to maintain its original ethos of informal, economical and gentlemanly sailing combined with a love of the beauty of the local environment. In addition to weekly racing on Sundays and Tuesday evenings from May to September, there are a number of Open Events held throughout the season and each August, the Club holds its Open Regatta, attended by sailors from all over the Broads racing a wide variety of boats. This event is organised in conjunction with the Barton Broad Open Regatta Committee which is responsible for the racing on Bank Holiday Monday.