We are sailing on eerily calm blue-grey seas a few miles off the north Norfolk coast. There is no sand visible but the hidden banks below us are written in the surrounding water in the form of ripples, white lines of surf and patches of smooth water. These treacherous shallows possess romantic names on the sea charts – Pandora Sand, Thief Sand, Stubborn Sand – but sailors’ lives depend on avoiding them.
- Patrick Barkham aboard the Salford, a restored whelk boat
The captain of Salford, our beautifully restored whelk boat, is trying to do the opposite, however: he’s trying to run aground on one. Our depth gauge drops from 6.9m to 1.4m. We stop and wait for the tide to beach us. Will we soon discover pristine golden sand?
Picnicking and playing cricket on sandbanks at low tide was regarded as a grand day out by hail-and-hearty Victorians but messing around on shifting sands is not favoured in our risk-averse era. When a BBC film crew staged a cricket match on the notorious Goodwin Sands in the Channel a few years back, the in-rushing tide turned their boat over, requiring a lifeboat rescue.
- Skipper Dom takes the Salford out of harbour. Author Patrick Barkham is on the left, seated
So, the decision by the Coastal Exploration Company, a band of capable mariners who take visitors to less-well-known spots on the north Norfolk coast in vintage sailing boats, to restart holidaymaking on sandbanks looks a little reckless. But I had to give it a go.
Dom, the skipper, steers our 30ft boat through Wells-next-the-Sea’s pretty harbour in the morning sunshine. Our plan: breakfast on the boat, while we sail west to reach the Wash at low tide and “find a nice little sandbank to dry out on,” as Dom puts it – for lunch and cricket. “Any kind of waves would pick the boat up and slam it onto the sand but these conditions are nice and calm,” he says.
- Top left, Patrick Barkham (left) listens as skipper Dom (second right) explains their route; chef Charlie Hodson is second left; details and view from onboard the Salford
Wells’ straggly line of colourful beach huts framed by white sand and dark pines slowly diminish as we head into the North Sea. The calm sea may be safe for us but it’s terrible for sailing. Luckily, Salford has a new engine that purrs as we potter along the coast at 4 knots.
- Beach huts on the shore at Wells-next-the-Sea
The seas here are shallow and studded with sandbanks, many of which now house offshore wind farms. It was once Doggerland and even today it sometimes looks like you can walk across the Wash from Norfolk to Lincolnshire at low tide. I’m astonished to learn that this great expanse of low water also contains a section called The Well, which is 47 metres deep.
“Everything about the water is dangerous,” warns Charlie Hodson, our expedition chef and former lifeboat man, which could come in handy. “It’s about how you respect that water in return.”
- Chef Charlie Hodson prepares breakfast
Charlie gives this warning as we pass the black silhouette of a ship wrecked on the sands beyond Scolt Head Island. This vessel was deliberately scuppered and filled with explosives to stop German invaders entering Brancaster harbour but we pass two more authentic wrecks visible on the vast sandy shores of north Norfolk.
- The charts and instruments that help the Salford’s crew
Despite the depth gauge reading 1.4m, the sandbank above which we first float doesn’t appear even as low tide nears. So we sail further along this wild, tranquil coast of sand dunes, windmills and flint church towers and around Gore Point. Ahead shimmies a line of gold: Sunk Sand, rising around two metres out of the water on the lowest of tides. Cormorants stand on the bank, drying their wings like enormous bats; on the far side lounge the banana shapes of a dozen grey seals.
Slowly, cautiously, we head towards Sunk Sand. Just beyond 1.5m, we run aground. The water around us is still chest-deep, so we blow up an inflatable dinghy to carry our lunch. I jump in and swim “ashore”, which is not as glamorous as it sounds – it’s easier to wade in the shallow water.
- Preparing the dinghy, and then taking supplies and utensils to the sandbank
We step onto our own utterly otherworldly, (extremely) temporary island. We can see Hunstanton in the distance to the south and Skegness to the far north but there is nothing else, and no one else, for miles around. The sand is smooth, wet, and scattered with giant starfish and dozens of sea urchins.
- Patrick Barkham and the Salford’s crew arrive on the sandbank for their lunch – and, later, a game of cricket
Abruptly, the sun vanishes and a murk creeps in. Charlie hurriedly lights his stove, showing us how to fillet the seabass in the shallows. As he rustles up lunch we notice his pop-up kitchen is getting closer to the water. The tide is coming in already. Our sandbank island is shrinking.
- Chef Charlie Hodson shows how to fillet seabass and cooks lunch and, bottom left, Patrick helps Charlie move their ‘kitchen’ location
We move the kitchen 50 yards from the sea. It only gives us 10 minutes. The tide seeps over the sand and Charlie blowtorches the locally caught seabass for his take on “fish and peas and ham with a Masala flavour”. It’s delicious, and there is just enough time for a quick game of cricket. Salford is afloat again, and suddenly looking a long way away. Storm clouds build in the Wash’s huge skies.
- Cricket on the sandbank, and Patrick fuelling up with Charlie Hodson’s food
We swim-wade hurriedly back to the boat, and head home. The sea has turned choppy, the breeze gets up, and we fly past Scolt Head Island as sandwich terns dive into the water and emerge, in a twinkle, gobbling silver fish.
Rain arrives just as we enter the sanctuary of Wells harbour, sailing smoothly up the channel on a rising tide.
This surreal day does not feel dangerous in such capable hands. Instead, the grand peaceful arena of this coast is profoundly soothing. And the wilderness of its salt marshes is nothing compared to the wilderness out there, among the sandbanks and cormorants, a strange liminal landscape where sand meets sea and the tide is the master of all.