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

The water glitters, rippled by a rising wind, and Victorious glides silently on three huge, maroon sails. We’re the only boat in sight, surrounded by grey sea and vast sky. Every direction offers a subtly different picture: patches of blue and fluffy clouds, billowing blue-black clouds, occasional rays of sunshine beaming into the Wash. A flock of Brent geese flies across our bows.

Wash map

“It just feels like she’s made for these waters. It’s magical,” purrs one of my five fellow sailors, . We’re taking potatoes from the Fenland channel of Fosdyke to make chips in Norfolk, and the hold of our immaculately restored 42ft shrimping smack will be packed with extra goods when we reach King’s Lynn.

I’m more supernumerary than sailor, lacking any real knowledge of sails, ropes or knots, but if this is sailing, it’s the most beautiful and exhilarating thing. 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 past our mast with brooding menace.

  • The Wash is a vast and fickle tidal estuary that shimmers yellow with treacherous, thinly-submerged sandbanks. Mirages appear and disappear, as do views of the low Lincolnshire and Norfolk coast.

Then, suddenly, everything changes. The horizon vanishes, the waves chop, and the wind whips up. A squall. A sail bangs like thunder; Victorious lurches. We’re taking on too much wind. Everyone springs into action. I’m asked to loosen one set of ropes and bring the stay-sail round to the port side. The windchill makes it very cold. My waterproofs aren’t actually waterproof; my numb hands won’t do my bidding. The deck pitches crazily. My sail is loose and writhing like a wild beast. A rope wraps around my leg like a snake. I nearly trip. A wave washes over the deck. I’m genuinely scared we might capsize or, more likely, I’ll stumble overboard.

It all started so serenely. We travelled by electric van to meet Victorious and her cargo. 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 provides nature-friendly sailing trips on gorgeous old boats out of Wells-next-the-Sea.

My mission is a two-day voyage freighting potatoes from Fenland field to north Norfolk, where they will be turned into chips at Eric’s Fish & Chips. The idea arose after Henry chatted with Eric Snaith about the madness of Lincolnshire potatoes being driven by diesel trucks to distribution centres hundreds of miles south before being returned north to Norfolk.

Our crew appears seriously overqualified for a spring sail across the Wash. Henry is a gentle but awesomely capable former royal marine who mixes sailing with UN work in Afghanistan. Nick has just sailed across the Atlantic and is a focused, serious sailor. David has raced around the Isle of Wight. Laura has sailed the Southern Ocean. And Pete, the photographer, was a lifeboatman on the Wash, so knows all about its perils.

All is grey and calm when we depart at high water along with Mermaid, a fishing smack restored by another enthusiast. Together, these boats make up two-thirds of the surviving Wash fishing smacks, graceful wooden sailing boats supplanted by cruder diesel-powered machines and discarded in the 1980s.

We’re in good cheer. David prepares ropes, Laura fries bacon for breakfast, and powerful Victorious flies along at 9.3 knots. We enjoy leaving Mermaid far behind. “It’s like every disaster movie – they start out light-hearted and fun,” jokes Henry.

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

When the squall hits, it’s all hands on deck, even my useless ones. Then we receive a call: Mermaid’s bowsprit has broken, she’s taking on water and her back-up engine has failed. We’re halfway across the Wash in a storm and now we must turn back, and help. We reach her and the waves lessen but it’s too rough to transfer any passengers. We wait alongside for several hours until it’s clear she’s not taking on more water; she’s towed back to Fosdyke when the tide rises. We turn again and head east towards King’s Lynn.

This time, we are less gung-ho with the sails and set a modest pace. As suddenly as it was wild, it’s mellow again. The mast creaks gently. Sailing is the best thing ever! I become marginally less incompetent with some very minor rope-tasks and make myself useful washing up.

  • The idea to transport potatoes arose after Henry Chamberlain chatted with Eric Snaith, a Norfolk chip shop owner, about the madness of Lincolnshire potatoes being driven by diesel trucks to distribution centres hundreds of miles south before being returned to Norfolk

The low wooded hills of Norfolk hove into view, and we turn south into the tranquility of Bulldog Channel. A spoonbill crosses the bows. I’m exhilarated when we slip into the port of King’s Lynn. Land feels so good, even though my body still thinks I’m at sea and sways for several hours. We lug more cargo onto Victorious (Norfolk Natural Living perfumery products made in King’s Lynn and sold in Wells; Sandringham apple juice; and coffee that’s been sailed across the Atlantic for Henry’s trips) and head to the Crown and Mitre for a welcome pint. Fish and chips has never tasted so good. My hands are swollen pink; I dry my wet clothes on the pub radiator.

Back on Victorious, we shift potato sacks and sleep on mats below deck. The falling tide makes gentle slopping noises and the cool air feels so fresh. I have the best night’s sleep ever, wake at 5.30am and savour a dawn stroll through deserted Lynn, whose old town is a historic marvel that is mystifyingly ungentrified.

We depart on the high tide at 8am and our second day’s sail is gloriously smooth. Sinister black clouds amass to the north, and I’m now scared by what they might deliver, but there’s no sudden squall, just a gradually rising swell. The weather front passes through, and we enjoy fine views of the marshes, beaches and islands of north Norfolk. Just as we brave the now-six-foot swell to shoot into Wells harbour that evening, the sun finally emerges.

Victorious is warmly greeted by passersby, local businesses and children, who excitedly help heave our cargo ashore. I’d always thought “A Safe Haven” on Wells town signs was an eccentric choice of words but now I appreciate its full meaning.

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

Coastal Exploration Company offers a range of sailing experiences on restored fishing boats from Wells-next-the-Sea. Two-day cargo sails from Fosdyke to King’s Lynn and Wells-next-the-Sea on Victorious from £175 per person per day (excluding extras such as transportation and hotel stays)

The Guardian