In July 1964 the sailor Frank Dye set out from a fishing port in western Scotland on a 16-foot wooden dinghy. He was travelling with crew member Bill Brockbank across the Northern Seas to the Faroe Islands and on to Norway – a journey of some 650 nautical miles.
Frank kept a video diary of their perilous, exhilarating journey, during which they encountered a force nine gale, endured acute seasickness and capsized four times. He documents their preparations for the voyage, including the 700-mile journey via land from his hometown in Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk.
Eighteen days of unrelenting offshore cruising follows, during which time the shipmates stick to a rigid regime of three hours on, three hours off. We see them taking it in turns to sleep on deck under a makeshift cockpit tent that barely covers the top half of their bodies. On day four, the sun emerges for the first time and Bill peels off his oilskins so he can dry out the layers of damp clothing he wears underneath: “... three fisherman’s jerseys, quilted underclothes, a short pullover, quilted jacket, two pairs of padded trousers, long woollen vest and pants.”
This description of their clothing captured the imagination of Catie Palmer, Menswear Designer at TOAST. Catie had come across a description of Frank Dye whilst researching ideas for the Spring Summer ’23 collection, Open Water, a theme which explores the rhythm of the tides and the expansive nature of the sea. “The spirit of him really drew me to him,” Catie reflects. “He became my muse for the season and I began to see how the new collection might piece together.”
Outside of the sailing world, Frank’s name is little-known. In Wells-next-the-Sea, however, a plaque bearing his name is fixed to the cottage in which he once lived with his wife, Margaret, who was also a keen sailor. Their cottage overlooks a small fleet of traditional wooden fishing boats owned by the Coastal Exploration Company – an organisation that promotes the exploration of the north Norfolk coast to both novice and experienced sailors alike.
Its founder is Henry Chamberlain who also cites Frank’s pioneering spirit as a source of inspiration. “He is one of our sailing heroes,” Henry explains. “Sailing wasn't about money or racing or status for him. It was about going out and facing the elements with what he had, which is what I love and what we try to do here. It’s about finding these magical spots and testing yourself in nature. That’s the important part.”
Henry first learnt to sail in the Royal Marines. After several years of service, he joined the United Nations World Food Programme and was posted to Mogadishu, South Sudan, Chechnya and Afghanistan – “intense” conflict zones that gradually took their toll on Henry’s mental health. Twelve years ago, with a young family at home in Norfolk, Henry started to reassess his career. “At the end of a long day, I sat down on a beach in Mogadishu with a sheet of blank paper and I wrote down what I wanted to do,” he recalls. The Coastal Exploration Company is the result of that twilight brainstorm.
“We’re not really a sailing company,” Henry explains. “We offer everything from day trips, to overnight experiences to week-long sailing courses, but really, we’re about disconnecting from whatever challenges you’re facing on land and immersing yourself in the salt marsh. It’s about connecting with your immediate surroundings and resetting the mind in a rounded experience that’s based on these beautiful boats.”
Over the years, Henry has restored a fleet of six traditional, wooden fishing boats – working vessels that represent “the soul of the Norfolk coast.” Initially, he had looked to Cornwall and Essex for larger boats with below-deck accommodation, discounting the small crab boats, whelk boats, Norfolk punts and fishing smacks that characterise Norfolk’s restless shoreline. Eventually, a fisherman friend encouraged him to take out a 20-foot crab boat: “Once I’d started exploring the local creeks and salt marshes on that I realised: ‘Hang on – this is the magic of Norfolk.’”
The skies, the sand banks, the saltings and the dunes form a palette of muddy browns and cloudy greens and blues. Cutting through this landscape on shallow drafts are the burnt sienna sails of the Coastal Exploration Company fleet, which are made by Steve Hall of North Sea Sails – a traditional sail maker based in Essex, who stitches each seam by hand. It was an image of these angular, burnt sienna sails cutting through the glaucous sky that inspired some of the colourways in this season’s collection.
For Henry, the wide-openness of the Norfolk landscape brings a new perspective: “Everything is incredibly flat here, so the sunrise and the sunset are visible as soon as they happen. This means we get a full perspective of the Earth because nothing is obscuring the sun.” Below the expansive nature of the skies is the mutable landscape: “It's constantly changing. On a spring high tide, all of the salt marsh will be flooded by the sea. Then, when the tide goes out, you're left with sandy, muddy, creeks… That constant fluctuation brings with it a real energy. You get a sense of these much larger forces at work in the universe.”