Zoe Dunford has loved being on the water since she was a child. We discover how she fulfilled her dream of building her own sailing boat, Selkie, and how you can book a charter to explore the coast and creeks of Norfolk yourself.

‘You breathe. Whatever’s going on in your life you get out there and you can’t think about it,’ says Zoe Dunford.

She is reflecting on the magic of being out on the water.

‘You get totally in the moment, you’re in this beautiful landscape, there’s all the wildlife to see, you just have to be present in that environment so it’s quite meditative.’

Zoe is the skipper of Selkie, a Stiffkey Cockle, and takes people on made to measure trips to explore the north Norfolk coast’s hidden beauty spots.

Great British Life: On board Selkie. Photo: Amelia Le BrunOn board Selkie. Photo: Amelia Le Brun

Trips depart from Blakeney and can include wildlife watching accompanied by a local expert, seeing the seals under sail, wild swimming and sailing instruction.

Zoe says that she’s always been drawn to water – when she was growing up there were holidays on the Norfolk Broads.

Encouraged by her cousin, she moved to the county in her mid 20s. She had worked in wildlife film making at the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol and joined Anglia TV’s Survival programme.

When the show ended, she went to work as a science communications officer for the John Innes Centre.

Zoe got a taste for sailing when she wrote a column called In at the Deep End, in which she would try out various aquatic activities, for boating magazine Anglia Afloat.

Great British Life: Exploring the creeks in Selkie. Photo: Amelia Le BrunExploring the creeks in Selkie. Photo: Amelia Le Brun

‘I got to try kite surfing, going up with the search and rescue helicopter, taking the helm of a lifeboat, all sorts of things,’ she says.

‘And sailing stuck and surfing stuck. I think it’s because they’re both really hard, so they stay a challenge. There’s always something new to learn. Whenever you go out sailing it’s totally different - the weather’s different, the wildlife you see is different. The height of the tide is different, so sometimes the marsh will be completely covered and sometimes it will be more muddy to look at. The landscape keeps you on your toes, as well of the difficulty of the skills.’

As well as progressing with her sailing qualifications, including her day skipper qualifications, Zoe and her husband, Simon, enjoyed exploring the creeks of the north Norfolk coast around Scolt Head Island on their kayaks.

‘That was a special place to us, where we’d go to escape everything and find some peace,’ says Zoe.

Great British Life: Zoe serving up a picnic. Photo: Amelia Le BrunZoe serving up a picnic. Photo: Amelia Le Brun

She joined Henry Chamberlain’s Coastal Exploration Company and skippered on his traditional Norfolk fishing boat tours for six years.

Zoe dreamed of having her own boat and, encouraged by Simon and her friend Martin Hayward Smith of North Norfolk Safaris, gained the essential additional qualifications she needed so that she was ready on paper.

Selkie was built for her by Stiffkey Marine.

The Stiffkey Cockle was designed by George Hewitt in the 1980s and has a sail and a silent electric engine.

‘She’s designed for our coast, she’s got a shallow bottom and she can run aground flat. You can sail single handed, so I know I can manage on my own. And she was built specially so I could name her myself,’ says Zoe.

‘I went and watched her being built. It starts with actual sheets of fine glass on a roll, then you over a mold with that and then start applying resin to make it fit the mold. And you do layer after layer until it’s thick enough to take the mold away.

‘I think there have been a couple more built since her, but she was the newest Stiffkey Cockle in the world, sail number 124.’

Great British Life: Exploring the creeks under sail. Photo: Amelia Le BrunExploring the creeks under sail. Photo: Amelia Le Brun

A selkie is a mythical sea creature which resembles a seal.

‘The name came about because of the seals out there - and I love being in the water and Selkie just captures that. My friends joke sometimes that they won’t see me on land once the summer comes - I become half human half seal.’

It was an emotional experience taking Selkie out on her maiden voyage accompanied by friends – her fellow selkies – and her cousin who had encouraged her to move to Norfolk.

‘I just couldn’t believe it, it makes me feel tearful just thinking about it. I was so excited to have my own boat. I had really worked hard at getting it, so I felt lucky, but I also felt like I’d really done the time to get there, Even before I started sailing in that area Simon and I were kayaking it and I walk it at low tide so I put in the hours getting to know it.’

Zoe spent the first month sailing on her own and with friends to practice and make sure that she knew the boat inside out.

‘If people want an explore we can go and see the seals and on the biggest tide we can then do a circular route to get back to Blakeney, or we can go to some beaches, or to Cley Windmill where you go through the creek and brush through the reeds on that final bit. Or if they’re quite adventurous we can do a one way to Wells and we take the mast down and go under a bridge, that’s really fun, I love doing that,’ says Zoe.

Great British Life: On board Selkie during the blue hour. Photo: Amelia Le BrunOn board Selkie during the blue hour. Photo: Amelia Le Brun

She says that she feels a sense of ‘warmth and pride and excitement’ at getting to share the magic of the north Norfolk coast with others – she’s even helped to arrange a marriage proposal on board - and also making it as a woman in what can be a male dominated world.

‘When I did my instructor course there were 11 of us on the course and two women. And I feel proud of setting something up completely on my own. I feel that it’s important so that if women are interested in that sort of thing, they see a woman already doing it and that it is something that they can do,’ she says.

Zoe’s favourite time to be out in Selkie is as the day winds down and night draws close.

‘Sunset tides, I love them. To watch the golden hour and then the blue hour when the moon’s out and the sky goes that deep blue, that’s really beautiful,’ she says.

For more information visit staynextthesea.co.uk/sailnorthnorfolk