It’s 6am and a gentle breeze is rustling through the reeds banked either side of our home for the night: a 30ft wooden whelk boat built in the 1950s. Up ahead, the River Yare remains glassy, while the call of a cuckoo sounds against the pale pink sky. Buttered slices of sourdough, plates of organic eggs and a fresh pot of coffee will soon be under way – but the modern reimagining of maritime transport is already shaping up nicely. 

This inaugural cargo-under-sail adventure, the brainchild of the Coastal Exploration Company’s founder Henry Chamberlain, leads the charge for low-carbon deliveries along the east coast. It’s also a new way to explore Norfolk’s wild waterways, with guests hopping aboard at dawn to traverse the scenic saltmarshes of Wells-next-the-Sea, cruise the North Sea swells and wend past windmills in the Norfolk Broads before sculling into Norwich’s historic Pulls Ferry. Here, crates of local honey, beer and wine are offloaded and ebiked to the city’s award-winning Jarrold Department Store.

The Coastal Exploration Company aims to explore the wild waterways of Norfolk
The Coastal Exploration Company aims to explore the wild waterways of Norfolk © Ian Finch

It’s a slow, slick operation that perfectly emulates the heyday of sustainable transport in the 1800s, when wind-powered wherries carried goods along Britain’s coastline – but Chamberlain says the idea was born out of frustration rather than nostalgia. “There’s a big focus on sustainable farming methods and millions being pumped into offshore wind farms right now, but no one is talking about green transportation. This felt like the missing link.” Reviving cargo deliveries under sail “is one way to help reduce our impact on the planet”, he says as he guides the tiller. “It all goes hand in hand: we’re promoting local produce, supporting independent companies, restoring traditional boats and transporting goods by harnessing the power of the wind.” 

A Royal Marine Officer for seven years, Chamberlain went on to work with the UN for more than a decade, leading humanitarian projects in Chechnya, Darfur, South Sudan and Afghanistan before a suicide attack in Mogadishu led him to change tack. “I realised I wanted to be back in Norfolk with my kids, but I still wanted an adventurous life,” he says. He started researching large boats to take people out into the North Sea, before realising that Norfolk’s coast was too shallow to accommodate them. It wasn’t until he discovered a 20ft local crabber that his vision for an altruistic sailing company began to take shape, finally launching in 2016. 

Today the Coastal Exploration Company charters a crab boat, a whelk boat and two mussel flats (from £385) to guests coveting everything from saltmarsh safaris to acoustic sets at sundown. Those boarding the trade sail can break the 50-mile route down into a one-day leg (from £250) or book the full two-day experience. Mooring overnight near Norwich’s historic sugar beets factory, you’ll dine on a hearty stew and local cheeses before camping in the belly of the wooden whelk. You’ll also be an active part of the crew, helping to tiller, cast off and, yes, row into the city centre. 

The Coastal Exploration Company’s whelk boat in the North Sea
The Coastal Exploration Company’s whelk boat in the North Sea

On top of creative partnerships with coastal clothing company Yarmouth Oilskins and cheesemaker Hodson & Co, Chamberlain’s 10-skipper-strong team collaborates with a number of charities too, whether it’s the Norwich International Youth Project, which supports young asylum seekers and refugees, or the Purfleet Trust, a homeless charity in King’s Lynn. “We’ve seen people grow in confidence as they reconnect with the natural world around them. It can have an amazing impact on mental health,” he says, as a majestic heron glides overhead. “Everything feels quite tenuous in the world right now. But out here on the water, with the sails up and the engine off, it feels like we’ve stepped back in time – and sometimes you need to look back to move forwards.” 

The Coastal Exploration Company’s next trade sail runs in October; coastalexplorationcompany.co.uk

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