My mission? A two day trip along the Norfolk coast to deliver potatoes to a chip shop

The water glitters, rippled by a rising wind, and Victorious glides quietly on three large, maroon sails. We are the only boat in sight, surrounded by the gray sea and the big sky. Each direction presents a slightly different picture: patches of blue and fluffy clouds, drifting blue-black clouds, occasional rays of sunshine streaming into the Wash. A flock of Brent geese flies across our bow.


“It feels like she’s made for these waters. It’s magical,” says one of my five other sailors, . We are taking potatoes from the Fenland’s Fosdyke canal to make chips in Norfolk, and the hold of our refurbished 42ft shrimp smack will be packed with extras when we get to King’s Lynn.

I am more than a sailor, I have no proper knowledge of sails, ropes or knots, but if this is sailing, it is the most beautiful and pleasant thing. We feel in harmony with the water, riding the swell and the wind like a bird, and the passing peregrine falcon treats us like that, swooping low over our tree to threaten to hatch.

  • The Wash is a large and fickle tidal estuary that moves yellow with thin submerged sandbanks. Miracles appear and disappear, and views of the lowly coast of Lincolnshire and Norfolk.

Then, suddenly, everything changes. The sky disappears, the waves roar, and the wind picks up. A shell. A sail bangs like thunder; Lurches victory. We are building too much wind. Everyone jumps into action. I am asked to drop one set of ropes and bring the stay-sail round to the port side. The wind chill makes it very cold. My waterproofs are not waterproof; my numb hands will not do my bidding. The deck stacks like crazy. My sail is loose and flowing like a wild animal. A rope wraps around my leg like a snake. I almost trip. A wave washes over the deck. I’m afraid we might go bankrupt or, more likely, go aboard.

It all started so serenely. We traveled by electric van to meet Victorious and his cargo. This is her first sea trial since her restoration, an epic two-year effort overseen by Henry Chamberlain, founder of the Coastal Exploration Company, which provides eco-friendly sailing trips on gorgeous old boats out of Wells-next-the-Sea.

My mission is a two-day journey carrying potatoes from the Fenland fields to north Norfolk, where they will be turned into chips at Eric’s Fish & Chips. The idea came about after Henry chatted with Eric Snaith about the frenzy of Lincolnshire potatoes being driven by diesel trucks to distribution centers hundreds of miles south before being brought back north to Norfolk.

Our crew seems overqualified for a spring sailing across the Nigh. Henry is a sweet but incredibly talented ex-royal marine who mixes sailing with UN work in Afghanistan. Nick has just sailed across the Atlantic and is a dedicated, serious sailor. David is racing around the Isle of Wight. Laura sailed the Southern Ocean. And Pete, the photographer, was a lifeboat on the Wash, so he knows all about the dangers there.

Everything is gray and calm when we leave at high water with the Mermaid, a fishing smack restored by another enthusiast. Together, these boats make up two-thirds of the surviving Wash fishing smacks, graceful wooden sailboats that were replaced by crude diesel-powered machines and scrapped in the 1980s.

We are very happy. David prepares ropes, Laura fries bacon for breakfast, and flies a powerful win at 9.3 knots. We like to leave Mermaid far behind. “It’s like all disaster movies – they start off lighthearted and fun,” says Henry.

The Wash is a large and fickle tidal estuary. The water can be blinding blue but also shimmering yellow with treacherous, thin underwater sandbanks. Miracles appear and disappear, and views of the lowly coast of Lincolnshire and Norfolk.

When the squall hits, it’s all hands on deck, even my useless ones. Then we get a call: Mermaid’s bow tip is broken, she’s taking on water and her backup engine has failed. We are halfway across the Nigh in a storm and now we have to go back and help. We reach her and the waves subside but it is too rough to transfer any passengers. We stay by his side for several hours until it is clear that she is not taking more water; she is drawn back to Fosdyke when the tide rises. We turn again and head east towards King Lynn.

This time, we are less gung-ho with the sails and we are setting a low speed. As suddenly as he was wild, he is mellow again. The tree creaks gently. Sailing is the best thing ever! I become a little less incompetent with some very small rope tasks and do some useful laundry for myself.

  • The idea to transport potatoes came after Henry Chamberlain had a chat with Eric Snaith, owner of a Norfolk chip shop, about the madness of Lincolnshire potatoes being driven by diesel trucks to distribution centers hundreds of miles south before being brought back to Norfolk .

The low wooded hills of Norfolk are overlooked, and we turn south into the calm of Bulldog Channel. A spoonbill crosses the bows. I am delighted when we slip into the port of King Lynn. The land feels so good, even though my body still thinks I’m at sea and swinging for hours. We unload more cargo on Victorious (Norfolk Natural Living fragrance products made in King’s Lynn and sold in Wells; Sandringham apple juice; and coffee shipped across the Atlantic for Henry’s trips) and head to the Crown and Miter for a welcome pint . Fish and chips have never tasted so good. My hands are swollen pink; I dry my wet clothes on the pub’s radiator.

Back on the buoy, we transfer sacks of potatoes and sleep on mats below deck. The falling tide makes soft sounds and the cool air feels so fresh. I have the best night’s sleep ever, I wake up at 5.30am and I walk until dawn through deserted Lynn, whose old town is a historical wonder with no gentrification.

We will leave on the high tide at 8am and our second day’s sailing is very smooth. Sinister black clouds are gathering from the north, and I am now afraid of what they might deliver, but there is no sudden squall, but a gradually rising swell. The weather passes through, and we enjoy beautiful views of the marshes, beaches and islands of north Norfolk. Just as we tackle the now six-foot swell to shoot into Wells harbor that evening, the sun finally comes out.

Victorious is warmly welcomed by people passing over seas, local businesses and children, who eagerly help land our cargo. I always thought “A Safe Haven” was an eccentric choice of words on the Wells town signs but now I understand its full meaning.

This two day sail honestly feels like life was full of meaning; highs, lows, teamwork, discomfort, safety; one of the biggest and best experiences of my past decades. Now I have to buy some proper waterproofs and learn how to sail.

Coastal Exploration Company offers a range of sailing experiences on refurbished fishing boats from Wells-next-the-Sea. A two-day freight is sent from Fosdyke to King’s Lynn and Wells-next-the-Sea on Victorious from £175 per person per day (excluding extras such as transport and hotel stays)

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