Is this the ecological Channel crossing of the future? | french holidays

VSCrossing the English Channel from England to France has gotten bad press this summer – huge queues at Dover, trains stuck in tunnels, ferries cancelled. But a new startup, SailLink, is aiming to deliver an eco-friendly alternative – a pioneering wind-powered catamaran option for cyclists and pedestrians 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 four-hour crossing. The one-way fare is likely to be £85, almost three times the price of P&O’s 90-minute Dover-Calais crossing. Additional routes from Ramsgate to Dunkirk and potentially from Newhaven to Dieppe could follow. “It would be a new form of public transport,” said SailLink founder Andrew Simons, “and a serious boating experience at the same time.”

Pilot voyages only carried two bikes and six passengers, but a larger ship is planned. Photography: Carlton Reid

The launch is dependent on securing sufficient funding and a suitable boat, but SailLink is supported in business development by Blue Living Lab in Boulogne-sur-Mer, and with a mix of sponsorship, crowdfunding and support. a loan, Simons is confident the project will go ahead as planned.

A series of pilot trips took place last week – and I joined the first to leave Dover. We left the charter pontoon of the new marina at 5 p.m., disembarking on Quai Chanzy in Boulogne as planned four hours later; the sails of the catamaran bathed in the faint orange glow of a rising harvest moon.

Our boat, the 12-metre Mago Merlino used for the pilot phase, was licensed to carry just six paying passengers and two bikes – but SailLink aims to launch with a larger vessel for 12 passengers and 12 bikes, with space for wheelchairs rolling too. The company plans to adapt an existing boat first 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 recharge by on-board solar panels and night in port.

“While we will rely primarily on wind power, we will need to use mechanical propulsion when the wind drops and to get in and out of ports,” said Simons, an environmental scientist who specializes in life cycle assessment of marine systems. transport and energy. “We will particularly appeal to cyclists and foot passengers who want the ocean experience, people looking for an alternative but practical travel experience with some adventure, not just the green aspect.”

The Strait of Dover is the busiest shipping lane in the world, used daily by hundreds of large ships. “You’re sailing in international waters on the high seas in a very choppy body of water,” Simons pointed out. “You can normally only do this if you know people experienced with boats or if you are part of a club.”

It’s also a practical experience, if you want to help. Skipper Toby Duerden – commercial yachtsman and sailing instructor – gave me a measuring device to practice on the container ships, and by calculating the changes in angles of approach, we altered our course to get clear. . At 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 tossed about by the waves and was prepared to get seasick; nor arrived. I even ate at both crossings, with Simons providing bread and cheese for those who wanted it (we all did). We never got close to large ships, but being on an open deck, close to the waves, gives a better appreciation of the power of the sea.

The 31-mile crossing depends on prevailing winds; therefore, there is no guarantee that the trip will take place on schedule. And in bad weather, SailLink may have to cancel some crossings and offer passengers a transfer to a car ferry. Our crossing from Dover to Boulogne, with the breeze at our back, was straight; the return trip the following afternoon involved zigzagging to catch the gusts.

The pilot phase also allowed Simons to test the procedures with border control. Passport details must be provided before travel and UK and non-Schengen passengers must have their passports stamped by Border Police who will meet the boat on weekdays. On weekends, passengers requiring a tampon will need to travel to Calais, 40 minutes away by train. Arrivals and departures at Dover will be subject to ad hoc Border Force checks.

With only one car ferry service to Calais currently open to foot traffic – and no bikes (except foldables) currently allowed on the Eurostar, SailLink says it will provide a much-needed car-free alternative. There are no longer crossings from Dover to Boulogne, the car ferry service stopped in 2008.

The Margate mover, Wayne Godfrey, was one of five other passengers on the pilot pass and, like me, he brought his bicycle with him. He said he would make the trip “again and again” because of its therapeutic and eco-friendly qualities. “I read an article about the trip in a local newspaper,” he said. What a fun thing to do, I thought.

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