C.The crossing of the English Channel from England to France got a bad press this summer: huge queues in Dover, trains stuck in tunnels, ferries canceled. But a new startup, SailLink, aims to offer an eco-friendly alternative – an innovative wind-powered catamaran option for cyclists and walkers from Dover to Boulogne-sur-Mer – which it hopes to launch next year.
SailLink plans to begin operating its daily round trip foot passenger service from spring 2023 to late summer, with a crossing that will take four hours. The one-way fare is likely to be £ 85, which is nearly three times the price of P&O’s 90-minute Dover-Calais crossing. Additional routes could follow from Ramsgate to Dunkirk and potentially from Newhaven to Dieppe. “This would be a new form of public transport,” said SailLink founder Andrew Simons, “and a serious boating experience at the same time.”
The launch depends on ensuring sufficient funding and a suitable boat, but SailLink is supported in the development of the business by Blue Living Lab in Boulogne-sur-Mer and, with a mix of sponsorship, crowdfunding and a loan, Simons is confident that the project it will go on as planned.
A series of pilot trips took place last week and I joined the first one starting in Dover. We departed from the charter platoon of the new marina at 5:00 pm, landing at Chanzy dock in Boulogne on schedule four hours later; the sails of the catamaran were bathed in the faint orange glow of a crescent harvest moon.
Our boat, the 12-meter Mago Merlino used for the pilot phase, was authorized to carry only six paying passengers and two bicycles, but SailLink is aiming to launch a larger vessel for 12 passengers and 12 bicycles, with space also for chairs to casters. The company plans to first adapt an existing boat and then build its own once the concept has been sufficiently developed and demonstrated. In addition to the power of the sail, the boat will have an electric propulsion system charging with solar panels on board and overnight in port.
“While we will rely primarily on wind power, we will have to use mechanical propulsion when the wind drops and to get in and out of ports,” said Simons, an environmental scientist who specializes in evaluating the life cycle of transportation and energy systems. “We will especially appeal to cyclists and foot passengers who want the ocean experience, people who are looking for an alternative yet affordable travel experience with a little bit of adventure, not just the green aspect.”
The Strait of Dover is the busiest sea route in the world, traveled daily by hundreds of large ships. “You are sailing in international offshore waters on a body of water that is very tidal,” Simons pointed out. “Normally you can only do this if you know people who are experienced with boats or are part of a club.”
It is also a hands-on experience if you wish to help. Commercial sailor and sailing instructor skipper Toby Duerden entrusted me with a measurement device for training on container ships and, by calculating the changes in approach angles, we changed our course to keep us away. Other times I would relax and unwind, dozing in one of the two “trampoline” nets at the front of the catamaran.
Having never been on a yacht, I expected to be thrown by the waves and was ready to get seasick; neither happened. I even ate on both intersections, with Simons providing bread and cheese to those who wanted it (we all did). We have never come close to any large ship, but being on an open deck, close to the waves, makes you appreciate the power of the sea more.
The 31-mile crossing is based on prevailing winds; consequently, there is no guarantee that the trip will stay on schedule. And in bad weather, SailLink may have to cancel some departures and offer passengers a transfer on a car ferry. Our crossing from Dover to Boulogne, with the breeze behind us, was straight; the return trip the following afternoon included the zigzag to catch the gusts.
The pilot phase also gave Simons the opportunity to test border control procedures. Passport details must be provided prior to travel and UK and non-Schengen area passengers must obtain passports stamped by the Police aux Frontières who will meet the boat on weekdays. On weekends, passengers requiring a postage stamp will need to travel to Calais, a 40-minute train ride away. Arrivals and departures in Dover will be subject to ad hoc border controls.
With only one car ferry service to Calais currently open to pedestrian traffic – and no bicycles (other than folding) currently allowed on Eurostar, SailLink says it will offer a much-needed car-free alternative. There are no more crossings from Dover to Boulogne, the car ferry service was discontinued in 2008.
Wayne Godfrey, a moving man from Margate, was one of five travel companions on the pilot crossing and, like me, brought his bicycle with him. He said he would embark on the journey “again and again” because of his therapeutic and environmentally friendly credentials. “I read about the trip in a local paper,” he said. “What a fun thing to do, I thought.”