In 2023 a new low-carbon ferry service called SailLink is set to offer a new, greener way of crossing the English Channel. The service is currently in its pilot phase before the official launch – so we tried it out to see what all the fuss is about.
‘This boat is unsinkable.’ Uh-oh. You don't need to be a maritime historian (or Leonardo DiCaprio) to know how that story ends.
Our 40-foot catamaran is in the middle of the English Channel. It’s clambering up and then slapping down on what we’re assured is a “slight to moderate” sea state. At times, though, it feels as if the turquoise waves are auditioning for a disaster movie. Celine Dion must already be booking studio time.
I’m on a pilot crossing for SailLink, a new low-carbon ferry service between England and France. Serving foot passengers and cyclists with a sailing catamaran, it will officially launch in 2023. On today’s maiden voyage, the wind is favourable, whistling through the boat like a gale and swelling the sails. And skipper Jim Duerden is still talking about how our vessel is definitely, absolutely, not going to sink.
‘Even if she were to break into tiny pieces, those pieces would still float,’ explains Duerden, a Yorkshire-born raconteur with more than 25 years of sailing experience. ‘It's like a fibreglass sandwich with foam inside.’
Which isn’t entirely reassuring, particularly as another cargo ship the size of a housing estate motors on past. But between the mercy of the weather, the spirit of adventure and Duerden’s stories, this is certainly an exhilarating way to travel.
The minimal carbon footprint is a big draw – but the ride is all-action as well
Company founder Andrew Simons, who’s on board alongside us today, knows that exhilaration well. After all, he’s sailed all around the globe on Dutch cargo clippers powered only by the wind. He believes there’s a gap in the market for a daily crossing between the ports of Dover and Boulogne on a 12-person catamaran.
If you need to cross a large body of water, sailing is probably the most sustainable way of doing it – even if you don’t go as far as Greta Thunberg and sail across the entire Atlantic Ocean, twice. Sailing emits less than 1g of CO2 per passenger, per km, compared to 19g for foot passengers on a ferry and 156g for short-haul flights.
However, SailLink isn’t only about flight-free travel and climate action. Sure, the minimal (conceivably invisible) carbon footprint is a big draw. But the ride is all-action as well: the spittle from the sea; the rapid winching of ropes; the opportunity to actually helm the yacht. You don’t get any of that with P&O.
For now, though, Duerden is steering. The white cliffs of Dover are disappearing behind us and the calmer waters of Boulogne are still several nautical miles ahead. Then, in the background, a ‘pan-pan’ incident crackles over the radio. A vessel off the French coast is in trouble.
Our captain explains that it’s the duty of any boats nearby to help. It’s worth mentioning at this point that SailLink tickets cost £85 ($96) one-way and £150 ($170) return, and that playing coastguard isn’t really part of the deal. Luckily, it turns out that other ships are better positioned to lend a hand – plus it’s time for us to change course.
Suddenly, we’re gliding alongside the curved hillocks of the French coast
We slurp the remains of our tummy-settling mint tea and nibble one last biscuit as the deckhands get ready to tack. Fellow passenger Jerry stands ready by a guide rope too.
Duerden suddenly barks instructions in yacht-speak and the wind drops from the spinnaker. Simons drags the sail down from the mast and bags it up. The yacht slows, Duerden swings the bow around and suddenly we’re gliding alongside the curved hillocks of France. Land ahoy!
The boat soon settles and I’m given the task of bringing it into Boulogne Marina. It takes me a while to get used to the helm – there’s plenty of corrective oversteering. But I aim for the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Boulogne, a nineteenth-century dome that rises high above the city, and we soon slide past a cherry-red lighthouse and down towards the mooring berths. Two French border authority officers are awaiting our arrival.
In total it’s taken four-and-a-half hours to zigzag across the Dover Strait. That’s about the same amount of time as it takes to fly from London Heathrow to Paris, or to take the regular Dover-Calais ferry, once you’ve factored in all the hanging around at either end. But neither beats sailing for that pure adrenaline rush. And we didn’t even sink.
You can find out more about SailLink’s services and register to take part in the pilot phase on the official website here. Regular services are due to launch in 2023.
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