The Norfolk boat skipper who gave Ed Sheeran his big break

Broads boat skipper Oli Franzen. Pictures: Brittany Woodman

Broads boat skipper Oli Franzen - Credit: Brittany Woodman

“I’ve learned so much, it’s been brilliant,” enthuses a holidaymaker from Scotland as we disembark from the Belle of the Broads. 

We’ve just spent an hour and a half out on the water, on a Broads Tours cruise from Wroxham to Salhouse Broad.  

It’s the morning that Boris Johnson has announced he’ll be stepping down as Prime Minister.   

I’m the first to admit that I’m addicted to the news – I've been a journalist for more than 20 years and I’m pretty much permanently attached to my phone, always on alert for the next breaking story notification. 

But pottering along the River Bure at 4mph, no-one was hypnotised by their screens.  

The only option is to slow down, stop scrolling, drink in that magical and unique landscape...and relax. 

Broads boat skipper Oli Franzen on the Belle of the Broads. Pictures: Brittany Woodman

Broads boat skipper Oli Franzen on the Belle of the Broads. - Credit: Brittany Woodman

Our skipper for the trip was Oli Franzen. He’s been with Broads Tours since 2016, when he swapped a career in marketing for being out on the water. 

Most Read

But listening to him talking about the huge part the Broads has played in his life, it’s obvious that it’s his natural habitat. 

Growing up in Norfolk, his grandparents taught him to sail when he was a child – and if he wasn’t sailing he was out fishing.  

“I’ve always loved the Broads, since I was really little,” he says. 

His nanny and grandad sailed a traditional river cruiser called Martlet, named after a mythical bird, which was built in Wroxham in 1907 for the holiday trade. 

“When motorboats came out, the yards sold the river cruisers off to local people,” explains Oli.  

“My mum would have sailed Martlet since she was seven in 1957.” 

His grandparents sold Martlet in 1984, but Oli’s mum, Hilary, felt that it had left a big hole in her life. She managed to track the beloved boat down and brought it home in 2000. 

Oli Franzen and his mum, Hilary, sailing Martlet on the Broads

Oli Franzen and his mum, Hilary, sailing Martlet on the Broads - Credit: David Edmund-Jones

“Nanny helped her buy it and gave it a really good inspection, she climbed up the ladder and wanted to check it was all done properly,” laughs Oli.   

In between, before Martlet returned to the family, Oli would still be out on the water – whether it was on Bluebottle, a borrowed mirror sailing dinghy, a Wayfarer, a Laser or family friend Paul Thomas’s boat Bessie Bell. 

Oli Franzen sailing Martlet on the Broads

Oli Franzen sailing Martlet on the Broads - Credit: Contributed

Or he would be out in his fishing boat on Rockland Broad, which was on his doorstep. 

“It’s just one of those unknown, secret Broads that most people don’t get out on,” says Oli.  

“You could go out early in the morning and forget all your problems, watch the most rising off the water, and it was just magical. That really drew me into loving the Broads.” 

Oli also became interested in the ecology of the Broads, which guided the direction of his studies. 

“Back then the Broads were really polluted. I remember my grandparents said when they were here in the 50s you could see the bottom of the Broads and that really fascinated me.  

“For my degree I studied environmental science at UEA and then I specialised in aquatic ecology and Broadland ecology.” 

Broads boat skipper Oli Franzen. Pictures: Brittany Woodman

Broads boat skipper Oli Franzen - Credit: Brittany Woodman

Oli’s first job was a seasonal job for the Broads Authority, taking tourists out on boat trips. In the winter, he came and worked for Archant.  

Publishing was also in the blood, as his dad, Peter, was editor of the EDP for many years.  

He started out working in the post room, then had the chance to move into marketing and events. 

“I thought it was really brilliant,” he says. “Then I was torn about what I wanted to do, because you can’t beat the buzz of local newspapers – there's something really special about it.” 

Deciding to stay with Archant, Oli was involved with organising flagship events such as the EDP Business Awards and the Norfolk Food and Drink Awards.  

As a music fan, he was also in his element organising the Next Big Thing competition for up-and-coming bands, founded by the EDP and Evening News.  

One year a teenage singer-songwriter called Ed Sheeran won – whatever happened to him? 

“Ed Sheeran wrote me a letter and it said ‘Dear Oli, here’s my song The A Team, will you listen to it’? I really wish I’d kept the letter, because it’s probably worth a fortune now,” he laughs. 

Passionate about real ale, Oli was invited to become the Evening News’s pub reviewer, the Bar Spy, and organised Meal Ale food and drink nights.  

And he branched out into travel journalism, writing about sailing holidays in Greece and Turkey and spectacular safaris in Africa.  

He was also co-presenter of the Daved and Confused Show (“I was ‘Confused’,” he laughs) on the Norwich community radio station Future Radio for 10 years – little realising that chatting on the airwaves with his friends David Helsdon and Andy Palmer would set him up for a career change further down the line, where all his interests and skills would converge. 

Oli worked for Archant until 2011, when he moved to Anglia Farmers for a role that combined both his marketing and writing experience. 

Away from work, he was still getting out on the water whenever he could, whether that was a leisurely paddle in a canoe, exploring hidden areas of the Broads with his partner, Emma, racing a Laser or a Norfolk Punt at Hickling, or pike fishing in winter. Earlier this year, at Wroxham, he caught his biggest ever pike – a 25-pounder.  

Oli Franzen with his best ever catch - a 25lb pike caught at Wroxham

Oli Franzen with his best ever catch - a 25lb pike caught at Wroxham - Credit: Contributed

“I do most of the boating out in the summer and then the fishing in the winter. The Broads have this naked beauty in winter, when it feels more like wilderness,” he says. 

In 2016 Oli saw that Wroxham-based Broads Tours was advertising for a new skipper for its tourist boats. Bringing his career full-circle, it couldn’t have been a more perfect fit. 

“Obviously I’ve handled boats all my life,” says Oli. “At the interview they said ‘can you do the commentary?’ and I said yes, I’ve done a radio show for 10 years. And also, I could put my environmental science degree to good use to talk about things I love on the Broads and try and get people inspired.” 

Broads Tours operates four tour boats: The Vintage Broadsman, Cordon Rouge, Belle of the Broads, and (biggest boat on the Broads) Queen of the Broads, as well as a fleet of day boats. 

Oli did three months’ intensive training to handle the big double decker tour boats and get his boatmaster’s licence.     

“What I love about it is that as well as being out on the Broads myself, I can take out 100 to 200 people a day and share my passion for the Broads,” he says.  

“I don’t have like a set script, I talk about what I’m seeing at the time, and I try and talk to the passengers personally about it.  

“They get off the boat and they’re enthused and then we get them coming back and enjoying other things. They might come back for a holiday for a week, or they might hire out the day boats, or they might come back for one of the evening cruises.” 

Broads boat skipper Oli Franzen. Pictures: Brittany Woodman

Broads boat skipper Oli Franzen with the Vintage Broadsman. - Credit: Brittany Woodman

No two boat trips are the same: you never know what you’re going to see. 

“There’s all sorts of wonderful wildlife,” says Oli.  

“Commonly you’re going to be able to see great crested grebes, different types of geese. Yesterday I saw a pair of kingfishers, which was so lucky.  

“There are even a few bitterns which have spotted by some of the other skippers down at Woodbastwick Reach, and are super rare, there are only 50 pairs in the country and 30 pairs live in Norfolk.” 

One of Oli’s favourite things about his job is introducing the wonder of the Broads to younger generations, teaching classes about the ecology and conservation of the area on school trips to Hoveton Great Broad. 

“We could see Swallowtail butterflies over there – they're Britain’s biggest butterfly and you only get them here in Norfolk, so they’re a real icon. Or Norfolk Hawker dragonflies – big old dragonflies with emerald green eyes like mini dinosaurs,” says Oli.  

Back on dry land, I tell Oli that I almost feel like I've been on a week's holiday. 

“It put me on a permanent high for about two or three years when I escaped a computer in an office,” he says. 

“It makes you feel so much healthier and happier, just being out on the water.

"I’ve always found it like that. I'm magnetically drawn to it and nature and wildlife and that natural beauty just completely chills me out and makes me feel really content.  

“It’s good for everyone else because they come from their screen-based world and they just have an hour and a half or two hours and then they come out a lot more relaxed.”  

For information about Broads Tours’ boat trips, including their summer jazz nights, casino nights and sunset cruises, plus their half-term Halloween Creepy Cruises on the Vintage Hauntsman and Christmas Santa Cruises from Wroxham, visit broadstours.co.uk, where you’ll also find details about day boat hire.  

Find out more about Broads boating and cottage holidays from their sister company, Norfolk Broads Direct, at broads.co.uk