A new carbon-free ferry service departs from Dover – and we’re on board

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A new ferry between England and France aims to drastically reduce CO2 emissions from crossing the English Channel. Positive News is testing it

Wer-thump. The bow of the yacht slams against the turquoise waves, the spray from the English Channel rains down on the deck. We are in the middle of the Strait of Dover, the busiest international shipping lane in the world.

From the shore, the water had seemed calm, but here now – traversing what is effectively a highway of massive freighters and a 24-hour ferry service between Dover and Calais – the sea seems much rougher.

“It’s a light to moderate sea state,” says Captain Jim Duerden, which means the waves are between 50 and 250cm high. In the world of sailing, it’s relatively calm.

Yet the bow of Mago Merlino, the 12-meter-long sailing catamaran we are currently sailing, continues to plunge back into the waves. It’s completely exhilarating.

But this crossing is not just for fun. We are heading to Boulogne-sur-Mer in France on a brand new ferry crossing service set up by SailLink.

Currently in the pilot stage, Duerden and company founder Andrew Simons have spent two years flying back and forth between England and France, testing and timing the route and streamlining procedures for passengers, with the aim to launch a green sailboat service in 2023.

I want to focus on the sailing experience, and for passengers to go home and say they’ve actually learned something

“I’m not trying to be a ferry competitor – I can’t take a truck,” says Simons, who came up with the idea of ​​creating a green and adventurous travel option between the two countries. “I want to focus on pedestrians and cyclists, the cultural link between the heart of the ports, the navigation experience, the real proximity to the ocean and [for passengers] to be able to go home and say [they’ve] actually learned something too.

This crossing certainly ticks all those boxes. Passengers are encouraged to help out if they wish – there are ropes to be pulled, sails to be hoisted, tacks to be made. You can even try steering. So far, the feedback has been positive.

“We had a bit of a mix of passengers, some locals bumping into each other for a few days and some really trying to [travel] much further. We even had commuters,” says Simons.

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Captain Jim Duerden riding the Mago Merlino en route to France. Image: Daniel Fahey

François Louillette was one of the first passengers to use the service. Local to Boulogne-sur-Mer, he used SailLink to cross the English Channel, heading to London for the night before returning home via the car ferry.

“I like to travel between France and Great Britain and I wanted to try this new mode of travel because it’s positive and eco-friendly,” he says. And did he enjoy the crossing? “Yes a lot.”

Although exact details have yet to be announced, the Dover-Boulogne-sur-Mer route will likely run from Easter to October. A second route between Ramsgate and Dunkirk is planned for 2024, with a more difficult crossing from Newhaven to Dieppe due to start in 2025.

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Passengers are encouraged to help out if they wish – so we joined in. Image: Daniel Fahey

A new performance catamaran will be used for the daily ferry service, designed specifically to cross the English Channel as quickly as possible. Able to accommodate up to 12 passengers at a time, departures will be synchronized with the tides to maximize speed. Depending on conditions, crossings should take around three to four and a half hours.

As a boat builder and environmental scientist, Simons has worked with companies like fair transport, a Dutch company that transports organic and traditional products, such as rum and coffee, by yacht. Since their boats are engineless, the trips are carbon-free.

SailLink also hopes to be carbon-free, but the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) currently requires commercial yachts to be fitted with a diesel engine. At present, the catamaran is equipped with a solar-powered electric motor and a diesel engine.

I wanted to try this new mode of travel because it’s positive and eco-friendly

“I hope – and Andy hopes – that his boat will be [100 per cent sustainable]with two electric motors,” says Duerden.

“It’s not that we can’t do it, it’s more the business aspect because you have to be able to get out of trouble with the engines… The MCA, which governs us all, will not allow us to have two electric motors for the moment [but] I think that will change,” he adds.

Sailing is one of the most ecological means of transport. It emits less than 1 g of CO2 per passenger and per km. By comparison, a short-haul flight emits around 156g and a foot passenger on a ferry emits 19g.

Ticket prices start at £85 per crossing. If the sailing conditions are unfavourable, the yacht may need to use its engine. There may also be delays and schedule changes depending on the weather, but SailLink will work with local ferry operators to ensure passengers can cross the Channel if they cannot navigate.

“It should become a normal type of public transport between one country and another,” says Simons, “that’s all it is.”

Main image: Nici Wegener / SailLink 2022

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