Learning how to smuggle

We emerge from the creek at first light, riding the high tide into the North Sea. It greets us with its customary cruelty, tossing our open boat and soaking us with spray. The red sail snaps, the boards creak, and when the boom swings across the tiller, it nearly takes the helmswoman’s head off. Somewhere out there, someone has left something for us to collect.
I’m standing in the bow, tired, wet and dirty, searching the swell for a tiny red buoy that marks the location of the contraband. It’s the climax of the most exciting adventure you can have on the British coast this summer: an intensive course in the dark arts of smuggling.
Norfolk has a long and bloody history of trafficking, but Henry Chamberlain, of the Coastal Exploration Company, is at pains to stress the legitimacy of his venture — part escape-room puzzle, part Anneka Rice gameshow, but a whole lot more tense.
“We are not involved in the running of drugs, guns or anything illegal,” he says as we board his converted whelker, the Salford, in Wells-next-the-Sea. “Nor are we pretending to be pirates. This is an adventure training exercise designed to teach the seamanship, covert skills and fieldcraft used by 18th-century smugglers.” He scowls at his motley bunch of recruits — Lis, Alan and me. “This isn’t a pleasure cruise, but if anyone asks, we’re just tourists.”
If the language sounds a bit Foxtrot Oscar, that’s because Henry is a former Royal Marines officer with extensive experience in matters he’s reluctant to discuss. First mate Terry’s CV
includes counter-narcotic operations in Colombia. There’s another bloke called Adam whom I really don’t like to ask.
At Scolt Head, we turn into Overy Creek, slipping silently into a maze of fast-flowing tidal channels. Then we leap overboard for a one-mile survival swim. Apparently, this is how we’ll escape if compromised. Then there’s a run up the dunes for a navigation exercise. Luckily, I’ve got Google Maps.
“Switch that phone off,” Terry growls. “The authorities will lock on to the GPS signal.” He then spends an hour teaching us exactly how to spot those authorities — proper spook stuff. “You’ll need these skills later,” he adds darkly.
Rum coves: Henry, centre, and Terry, right, map out an escape route
Norfolk’s 18th-century smugglers knew the coastal marshes like the backs of their hands. They could hide here when the heat was on because, where urbanised 21st-century tourists see a treacherous labyrinth of sucking mud, they saw shellfish beds, mackerel feeding grounds and hidden creeks where all you needed to catch a flatfish was a dab hand with a sharp stick. Under Adam’s instruction, we harvest a bucket of mussels, four mackerel and a basket of samphire.
But there’s no time to celebrate. Our contact has been in touch. He’ll be in the pub in Burnham Overy Staithe at 21:30 hours. He’ll be reading a paperback called Blood Money.
“And he’s nervous,” Henry says. “If he doesn’t trust you, he’ll do one. Your cover story is that you’re birdwatchers. The code phrase is ‘Temminck’s stint’.”
“Bear in mind that he may have been compromised,” Terry adds. “So look out for anyone who doesn’t belong. If it kicks off, you’ll need a plan B, so work out your escape routes.”
Alan, Lis and I stare at these rum coves. They’re having a laugh, right? They stare back, deadly serious. A plane flies over. “That’s the third time he’s been past,” Henry notes.
Our foraged fish, cooked undercover on the boat, is delicious, but we have little appetite. It’s a two-mile walk across the marshes into Burnham Overy Staithe, where we check the village for rough men, but the coast seems clear. The pub is empty, save for some hipsters and a bloke reading a paperback called Blood Money.
Alan orders a round while Lis and I discuss the Temminck’s stint we saw today. The bloke butts in.
“Couldn’t have been a Temminck’s,” he mutters, handing over a scrap of paper with a six-digit grid reference on it. “I’ll be back to collect tomorrow, 10am sharp,” he says. “Don’t be late.”
I memorise the digits and burn the paper. We drink up and leave. A Range Rover pulls into the car park, but the occupants are more Notting Hill than Old Bill. A lady watering her hanging baskets stares hard at us, and there’s a suspicious man walking a suspicious basset hound at a suspicious time of night.
Paranoia chases us across the marsh and, when we get back to the Salford, Henry insists on mounting a watch. My turn is the hour before dawn, when I’m alarmed by a jogger with binoculars and a phone. Exercise fan or exciseman?
“Let’s go,” Henry says. Lis takes the helm, Alan trims the sail and I take the binoculars onto the bow, searching for a six-figure spot in the heaving North Sea.
There’s a buoy at the co-ordinates, and Alan snags it with a boathook. There’s a waterproof bag attached and, once it’s been dragged aboard, we turn landwards, dropping anchor in Burnham Overy Staithe and rowing ashore in the skiff.
Our contact is on time. He opens the bag, glances inside, nods and disappears. We set sail for home. As with all the best adventures, it feels like we’ve been gone for weeks, but nothing’s changed at Wells. Crabbers are crabbing, sailors are sailing and holidaymakers are watching our red sail from the shore. We smile and wave.
We’re just tourists, remember?
And if you’re wondering what was in that bag, you’ll have to find out for yourself.
Chris Haslam was a guest of the Coastal Exploration Company, which has overnight smuggling courses for six people for £300pp (coastalexplorationcompany.co.uk). Stay in Wells-next-the-Sea with Norfolk Country Cottages. It has 18 properties in the town, with prices starting at £344 a week for a cottage sleeping two (norfolkcottages.co.uk)