It’s 6.10am when I arrive at Wells-next-the Sea. I’m ten minutes late and there’s a nervous energy as Henry Chamberlain, owner of Coastal Exploration Co, loads Salford, a restored Norfolk whelk boat, while crew Terry and George ready My Girls, a 20ft Norfolk crab boat. Henry checks his watch and eyes the water in the harbour. “We’ve got four hours of tide to work with,” he says, stacking the last of six wooden crates and untying us from the staithe. “After that, all of this will be sand.”
When sailing along the north coast of Norfolk, it pays to revere the tides. The water here is deceptively treacherous; what it lacks in sharp rocks, it more than makes up for with perilous sandbanks and brisk tidal races. “The banks are constantly shifting,” Henry tells me. “New channels open and close; within a year, the entrances to a harbour can shift by 100 metres.”
For now though, all appears calm. The sun, yet to rise, paints a peach line on the horizon; grey clouds stack above. A soft wind puckers the surface of the water and sandwich terns dive around the boat. A seal swivels its head to watch us pass. To our right, the salt marsh is flooded, a green carpet of seablite appearing almost to float. “The shape of the land changes daily; it’s almost like a living area,” Henry says.“Back in the day, those channels would have been ideal for smuggling.”
In the 18th century, the East Anglian coast was rife with smugglers, bringing in brandy, lace and wine from the continent to avoid paying importation tax. Over the next 15 hours, Henry would be reenacting such a ‘smuggling’ mission, taking me on an adventurous sail that promised to provide all the necessarily skills for engaging in a 18th century contraband operation from navigation and seamanship to foraging and wild swimming.
Henry navigates carefully through Wells Bar, his attention darting between the depth gauge and a choppy area of water to our left. Even without seafaring know-how, it’s clear the water here must be only a few feet deep, the waves cresting over the submerged sand.
Salford, the last whelk boat built in King’s Lynn in the 1950s, was built for waters like these, her heavy oak frame and long, flat keel honed by generations of fisherman to cope with the unique conditions of the North Sea. Meanwhile, crab boats, such as My Girls, were built to the length of a typical Norfolk wave, so they could glide safely over banks to land on the beaches.
Salford creeks as we reach the open sea. Other than a single mast tilting on the horizon, the wild grey water is ours. Henry prises open one of the crates and passes me a sausage butty. I eye the remaining boxes with interest; the contraband we’ll be delivering is yet to be disclosed.
Sailing past the vast expanse of Holkam beach, Henry talks more freely, explaining how maps and charts aren’t much help in these waters; you have to pay attention to the sea. “Every time you go out the conditions will be different,” he says. “To be really proficient, you need to be out every day, building up a knowledge of the sand bars, creeks and tides.”
Switching to the motor, we navigate through a strait that separates Scolt Head Island from the mainland, then turn up a narrow creek and anchor beside a steep bank. The tide is starting to ebb and 16-year-old George is tasked with keeping an eye on the boats, pushing them away from the edge of the bank as the water lowers while the rest of us go for an adventurous swim.
While Terry and Henry pack warm clothes into the dry bags we’ll be wearing, I perch on the edge of the boat and dip my legs, feeling the current against my calves. Bracing myself, I slide into the water and exhale deeply. It’s cool, but the wind on our sail over felt colder and it’s almost a relief to be in. The tide pulling, we float down the creek, oystercatchers bickering overhead.
As the creek opens into a wide pool, we swim towards our destination: a nose of dunes separated from Scolt Head by a narrow channel. “OK guys, are you ready to put some welly into it?” Henry asks. I feel the current pick up and start to pull our group swiftly towards the sea. Swallowing a knot of panic, I get my head down and swim the final 20 metres to the beach, emerging invigorated, if a little shaky.
Scolt Head is one of Norfolk’s most remote beaches. At low tide, lines of families wade over from the quay at Burnham Overy Staithe, slogging along muddy paths to reach the four-mile stretch of sand. But right now, at 9am, the tide coursing through the inlet, it’s just us and a colony of nesting terns.
We climb onto the spine of a dune, layer up and brew a pot of coffee. Over the water, silhouettes of walkers move purposefully along the sea wall. As we wait for the sun to warm our bones, Terry and Henry, both former marines, share lessons in map reading and observation, pointing out the shadows, regular shapes and shiny surfaces that give away a person’s position. Then, reinvigorated on caffeine and handmade ginger cake, we re-roll our dry bags and head back to the channel. The tide being out by now, the current is kinder to us and I skull across on my back, staring up at a wide blue sky striped with wispy clouds.
We take a meandering route back to the boats, Henry leading us up sinuous creeks to vast samphire beds (pronounced ‘sam-phur’ in Norfolk), where we nip off the fleshy stems, leaving the roots intact. We pause at a stretch of ankle deep water and listen to the fizzing sound of cockles breathing through mud. I plunge my fingers into the slushy earth and pull up handfuls of the burrowing bivalves.
We cross over the top of the marsh, walking barefoot over cracked mud and scratchy sea lavender, then drop down to the same creek we’d swam down earlier. A curlews fly overhead and we stop to watch it pass; a crab takes the opportunity to pinch Terry’s toe.
We come back to a listing boat – George didn’t quite manage to keep Salford off the bank as the tide washed out. While Terry pulls her straight, Henry gives the next instruction. Setting off alone, I’m to navigate across the marshes to the pub in Burnham Overy Staithe, where I will make contact with “a man in a baseball cap carrying today’s paper” and bring back a note detailing the location of the contraband.
Thirty minutes later, feeling shifty, I start chatting with a couple of weekenders on a bench outside The Hero while darting glances at the pub’s other punters. I notice our man in the cap sitting with a young lad. We nod at each other and, after a few moments, he pulls out an envelope and slips it into a newspaper. By this point, however, my new friends have started to ask questions about what brings me to the area and they’re becoming increasingly intrigued by my vague answers; perhaps not the best time to walk over to a stranger and pick up a mystery envelope.
I spot a framed map just inside the pub and head over for a look, then absently flick through some leaflets as our bootlegger walks over. He glances at the map for a moment, before heading inside. On the table beside me is the newspaper. Mission accomplished.
“Smugglers have to know how to look after themselves,” Henry says, when I return. The wooden boxes are set out as tables and piled high with food and camping stoves. While Terry boils the cockles, I filet and pan fry a couple of mackerel to go with the samphire.
Afterwards, we recline beside the creek, waiting for the tide. An hour later, the water gently prises the boat from the mud and we huddle for a parley. The note directs us to an orange buoy a little way off the coast. It’s decided that I will take the helm, while George leans overboard and hook the goods.
We hook the booty on the second attempt, and quickly motor back to the creek. “We need to spend as little time as possible with the contraband,” Henry says. Once moored, I set off to the drop-off point, a fork in the coast path, feeling furtive with the illicit dry bag over my shoulder. Ten minutes later, our man in the baseball cap shows up, and he’s beaming. Paul tells me he was thrilled to be able to bring his son along, and says he’s been sailing with Henry thanks to the Purfleet Trust, a charity that offers life-changing experiences to its homeless clients. He talks excitedly about his plans to sail again soon and to one day to take his boy along too.
Our skipper has similar ambitions. Come May, Henry tells me after joining us on the path, he’ll be working with Paul and others from the Trust to transport gin, coffee and saffron to small businesses along the Norfolk coast.
“I recently spent 30 minutes explaining to a potential client why it would be a good idea to deliver his products under sail,” Henry tells me on our return journey to Wells. He had told him about their last cargo trip; crossing the Wells bar at three in the morning, feeling sick, overnighting in a hazardous port, and then the two day sail to Norwich. That’s all very well, the potential client had replied, but it took him half an hour to get to Norwich in his van.
“I had to agree,” Henry says to me, “but as I walked out I thought of Paul, who turned his life around after that sail, staying out of prison and getting the chance to connect with his son again. And I thought of all the people sipping Norfolk Gin, who might think twice about the way we transport things nowadays. I think you’ll agree it’s worth the adventure.”