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

The water shimmers, rippling with a rising wind, and Victorious glides silently on three enormous maroon sails. We are the only boat in sight, surrounded by gray sea and vast sky. Each direction offers a subtly different view: blue and fluffy clouds, billowing blue-black clouds, the occasional ray of sunshine shining into the Wash. A flock of brent geese flies over our bow.


“It just feels like she was made for these waters. It’s magical,” purrs one of my five fellow sailors. We source potatoes from Fosdyke’s Fenland Canal to make chips in Norfolk, and the hold of our immaculately restored 40ft prawn clap will be full of extra goods when we reach King’s Lynn.

I am more supernumerary than sailor and have no real knowledge of sails, ropes or knots, but if this is sailing it is the most beautiful and exciting thing there is. We feel at one with the water, riding the swell and wind like a bird, and a passing peregrine falcon treats us as such, swooping low along our mast with brooding menace.

  • The Wash is a vast and capricious tidal area that glitters yellow with treacherous, thinly submerged sandbanks. Mirages appear and disappear, as do views of the lower Lincolnshire and Norfolk coasts.

Then suddenly everything changes. The horizon disappears, the waves chop and the wind blows. A shower. A sail claps like thunder; Victorious blows. We get too much wind. Everyone takes action. I am asked to loosen a set of ropes and bring the staysail to port. It is very cold due to the wind chill. My waterproof clothing isn’t really waterproof; my numb hands won’t do what I want. The deck tilts crazily. My sail is loose and writhing like a wild animal. A rope wraps around my leg like a snake. I almost trip. A wave washes over the deck. I’m honestly afraid we’ll capsize or, more likely, that I’ll stumble overboard.

It all started so serenely. We traveled by electric van to meet Victorious and her charge. This is her first sea trial since she was restored, an epic two-year effort overseen by Henry Chamberlain, founder of the Coastal Exploration Company, which offers nature-friendly sailing trips on beautiful old boats from Wells-next-the-Sea.

My mission is a two-day journey transporting potatoes from the Fenland field to north Norfolk where they will be processed into chips at Eric’s Fish & Chips. The idea came about after Henry talked to Eric Snaith about the madness of potatoes from Lincolnshire being driven by diesel trucks to distribution centers hundreds of miles south before being returned north to Norfolk.

Our crew seems seriously overqualified for a jump sail across the Wash. Henry is a soft-spoken but incredibly capable former Royal Marine who combines sailing with UN work in Afghanistan. Nick has just crossed the Atlantic Ocean and is a focused, serious sailor. David has raced around the Isle of Wight. Laura sailed the Southern Ocean. And Pete, the photographer, was a lifeboatman on the Wash, so he knows all about its dangers.

Everything is gray and calm when we leave at high tide together with Mermaid, a fishing boat that has been restored by another enthusiast. Together these boats make up two-thirds of the surviving Wash fishing boats, graceful wooden sailboats displaced by cruder diesel engines and scrapped in the 1980s.

We are in good spirits. David prepares ropes, Laura fries bacon for breakfast and the powerful Victorious flies along at a speed of 9.3 knots. We would like to leave Mermaid far behind us. “It’s like any disaster movie: they start off lighthearted and fun,” Henry jokes.

The Wash is a vast and capricious tidal area. The water can dazzle blue, but also shimmers yellow with treacherous, thinly submerged sandbanks. Mirages appear and disappear, as do views of the lower Lincolnshire and Norfolk coasts.

When the storm hits, it’s all hands on deck, even the useless ones. Then we get a phone call: the mermaid’s bowsprit is broken, she is getting water and her spare engine has failed. We’re halfway across the Wash in a storm and now we have to turn back and help. We reach her and the waves subside, but it is too rough to transfer passengers. We wait alongside for a few hours until it is clear that she is no longer taking in water; she is towed back to Fosdyke as the tide rises. We turn again and drive east towards King’s Lynn.

This time we are less enthusiastic with the sails and set a modest pace. As suddenly as it was wild, it is gentle again. The mast creaks softly. Sailing is the most fun there is! I become a little less incompetent with some very minor rope tasks and make myself useful at washing dishes.

  • The idea of ​​transporting potatoes came about after Henry Chamberlain talked to Eric Snaith, a chip shop owner in Norfolk, about the madness of potatoes from Lincolnshire being driven by diesel lorries to distribution centers hundreds of miles south before being returned to Norfolk.

The low wooded hills of Norfolk come into view and we turn south into the tranquility of Bulldog Channel. A spoonbill crosses the bow. I’m excited as we slip into King’s Lynn harbour. Land feels so good, even though my body still thinks I’m at sea and tosses for hours. We drag more freight to Victorious (Norfolk Natural Living perfume products made in King’s Lynn and sold in Wells; apple juice from Sandringham; and coffee sailed across the Atlantic for Henry’s travels) 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 radiator.

Back on Victorious we move potato bags and sleep on mats below deck. The falling tide makes soft lapping sounds and the cool air feels so fresh. I have the best night’s sleep ever, waking up at 5:30 am and enjoying a morning stroll through deserted Lynn, whose old town is a historical wonder that is mysteriously ungentrified.

We leave at 8am at high tide and the sailing on our second day is wonderfully smooth. Sinister black clouds are building in the north, and I now fear what they might bring, but there is no sudden shower, just a gradually rising swell. The weather front passes through and we enjoy beautiful views of the marshes, beaches and islands of North Norfolk. Just as we brave the now more than two meter high swell to shoot into Wells harbor that evening, the sun finally rises.

Victorious is warmly greeted by passers-by, local businesses and children, who enthusiastically help hoist our cargo ashore. I had always thought “A Safe Haven” on the City of Wells signs was an eccentric choice of words, but now I understand its full meaning.

This two-day sailing trip really feels like life is being lived in full meaning; highs and lows, teamwork, discomfort, safety; one of the biggest and best experiences of my past twenty years. Now I need to buy some good waterproof clothing and learn to sail.

Coastal Exploration Company offers a range of sailing experiences on restored fishing boats from Wells-next-the-Sea. Two-day freight sailing 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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