Voyages of discovery: from war-zones to north Norfolk
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Once he was alert for ambushes as he searched out routes to take food to the starving and bring peace to war-zones. Today he finds channels through tidal bays and saltmarshes
Henry Chamberlain has patrolled some of the most beautiful and dangerous places on earth. He has monitored war-ravaged mountain borders by ski and crossed African conflict zones by camel. He survived a car-jacking and suicide bombing in Sudan, took scientists to the Arctic and found ways to get food to the starving.
But for his latest adventures he has come home. Home to the ebb and flow of tides through creeks and saltmarshes on the north Norfolk coast. Here he is patrolling shifting channels and sandbanks and monitoring weather and wildlife, as he sails traditional wooden boats out to sea, or inland through a maze of streams, mudflats and marshes.
After travelling the world, first with the Royal Marines and then as a United Nations security expert, Henry has dropped anchor back in Norfolk and set up an adventure sailing business.
The Coastal Exploration Company offers people the chance to sail in traditional wooden boats. Adventures range from four-hour trips to a day of sailing, foraging and survival skills, followed by a chef-cooked gourmet supper and a night under the stars. Creek swimming, cockle picking and even spear fishing can feature, as well as learning about navigation by day and night, and on land and at sea.
Henry grew up, with two sisters and a brother, in a cottage on the Houghton estate, where his parents made wooden jigsaws for a living, and he fell in love with the outdoors, adventure and wilderness. The family sometimes stayed at Burnham Overy Staithe windmill, which had once been owned by Henry’s great aunt.
Here Henry learned to sail and his passion for the sea eventually saw him join the Royal Marines.
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He became an expert in survival skills and for seven years travelled the world as a soldier and sailor before returning to university to complete a masters degree in water engineering and development. After an interlude running a jazz club in the Caribbean, he began working for international, inter-governmental organisations.
In the Caucasian mountains he helped monitor the border between Chechnya and Georgia. “I would be up living in the mountains for a month at a time, and patrolling on skis in the winter,” said Henry. Between patrols he was in a town which was attacked first by rebels and then by Russian helicopter gunships. “That was quite dangerous,” he admitted.
Then there was Sudan, where his role included monitoring conflict in the mountains between the north and south of the country before the formation of the new state of South Sudan. Working with a medic and a translator, his job was to bring rebel and government leaders together. “It was all about building trust,” said Henry. “I did get car-jacked once but I managed to talk my way out and they left me in the bush.”
He came across some shepherds who helped him through territory controlled by the murderous Janjaweed militia. “It wasn’t one of the safer moments of my career,” said Henry.
In Somalia he helped get overseas aid to starving civilians and ended that part of his career as deputy director of field security for the United Nations World Food Programme.
But, with two young children and needing more stability, he realised he could find adventure, exploration and wilderness in Norfolk too.
“I knew I had to be outside. I would be restless in a more office-based job,” explained the ex-Marine. “I love being independent and having the opportunity to work on the North Norfolk coast. And cruising around Wells and Blakeney has its own challenges. It can be just as dangerous. You can’t ever relax.”
Clients range from holidaymakers to seasoned local sailors, fascinated by some of the inland routes 46-year-old Henry is discovering. Wildlife experts love the chance to glide through waters and skies alive with spoonbill, marsh harriers, egrets, oyster catchers and curlew. The boats might be surrounded by seals, seabirds or shoals of silver fish. They can tack out into the open sea or nose down secret shallow channels into a low-lying landscape of reeds, marsh, tiny sandy beaches and wading birds. Soon Henry will have three beautifully-restored traditional wooden boats - a terracotta-sailed whelk boat built in King’s Lynn in the 1950s, plus a Sheringham crab boat and Brancaster mussel boat.
One of his adventures is an innovative and imaginative food and drink delivery service taking local produce under sail from Wells to Yarmouth, and then along the river to Norwich. Next year he might sail the Ouse to Ely.
He also offers corporate team building and, with the Purfleet Trust, gives homeless people the chance to take part in three-day sailing adventures. “Working with the United Nations I have seen lots of distress around the world, but there are people in need back at home too,” said Henry.
And then there are his smuggling adventures. Henry makes it clear that there is no actual contraband, but there is the chance to try sailing, navigation, covert observation and clandestine meetings, combined with wild swimming, hidden waterways and eating and drinking local produce in the landscape where it was grown or made.
The Coastal Exploration Company is based in Wells and will be offering its bespoke sailing adventures from April. coastalexplorationcompany.co.uk