Life & Living

Zoe Dunford launches her own sailing company in North Norfolk, discovers Sarah Hardy

Zoe Dunford is something of a rarity – a female skipper in North Norfolk. The 50-year-old started up her own sailing company, Sail North Norfolk, this summer, aiming to show both locals and holiday makers the many splendours of this part of the county’s ever changing coastline.

Her 15ft boat, a Stiffkey Cockle, was made locally and is called Selkie, the Celtic name for a seal. It has an electric motor but Zoe, who lives near Aylsham, loves to simply use the sail to navigate the creeks and coastal waters. ‘I sail out of Blakeney, Morston and Cley and we go through and over the salt marshes. You have to know your tides and be able to follow the channels and pick your way through,’ she explains.

Selkie holds just four passengers so everyone is guaranteed a very personal experience, with Zoe able to tailor trips to whatever people fancy. She says: ‘We can go wild swimming, to a remote beach, through the creeks to try and spot seals or we can just potter about, maybe stopping for a coffee in Blakeney. I love the custard tarts in Buoy coffee house!’

She adds: ‘We can also just go one way, sailing from say Morston to Cley, so people can stay in Cley, look around, and get the Coast Hopper bus back. I like to create trips to what people are interested in and if they fancy something a bit more adventurous or not – but if the winds gets up, it can become a real adventure!’

She says: ‘I can plan really special trips, if someone wants to propose or celebrate a special birthday and I hook up local supplies for food, like the Thornham Oyster Company and Crate picnics.’

Zoe grew up in London, where she attended a children’s club at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and as a teenager joined a local rowing club, enabling her to spend time on the water. ‘I have always sought out the water,’ she says. ‘I just love it out there.’

During a career in wildlife film production, she pursued her love of the sea by researching films about sharks in the Mediterranean and shark reproduction. While working at the BBC’s Natural History Unit in Bristol, she learned about a shark research project in the Bahamas. After learning to dive in Bovisand, Plymouth, in 1995, she volunteered at the project helping to gather data about the home ranges
and nursery grounds of lemon and
tiger sharks. 

Her work brought her to Norfolk in the late 1990s where she married journalist Simon and they have a teenage daughter called Rosa. She learnt to sail in the county when she had a regular  ‘have a go’ column in a local boating magazine where she tried out numerous water-based activities from kite surfing to being winched onto a tanker in the North Sea during a RAF Search and Rescue helicopter training exercise. 

She was quickly hooked and is now often spotted paddle boarding, wild swimming, canoeing – anything and everything involving water. She says: ‘Sailing keeps me coming back for more, because it’s not easy and there’s always something new to learn – you have to understand the wind, know how to navigate and understand your landscape.’

She worked for the Wells-based East Coast Exploration Co, a well known sailing company, for several years so is experienced at skippering various vessels and, as well as being a qualified skipper, is also a RYA instructor so can teach you how to sail.

The trips on Selkie last for two to three hours and are dependent on tide times, with some of the nicest being sunset tours. They are priced from £25 per hour per person and dogs are not allowed. Passengers are welcome to bring picnics, swim gear and do need an open mind. ‘We might plan one adventure and end up on another,’ Zoe laughs.

She provides great insight into the local wildlife and coastline, spotting spoonbills, hearing the cry of a curlew or pointing out a local landmark on shore. Her passion is infectious and her easy going personality makes the trips something special.

Certainly being out of the tidal marshes is a magical experience. It can be eerily quiet, with not a breath of wind, then, just a few minutes later, you are charging along, very much at one with nature!

Apart from running Sail North Norfolk, Zoe also hires out two beach huts at Wells beach, has a pretty holiday home called Sea Pink in the town and a shepherd’s hut! 

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