The morning sun shines over the English Channel as passengers arrive for a ferry crossing to France.
With a light offshore breeze and blue skies, this seems like the perfect conditions for a trip over the sea from Dover.
Exceptionally, the captain and crew welcome us personally, before handing us life jackets and harnesses designed to prevent us from falling overboard.
Obviously, this won’t be a service that most of us are used to.
I’m aboard the Mago Merlino, a 40-foot catamaran that’s experimenting with a new, green way to cross the English Channel. It is believed to be climate activist Gretha Thumberg’s favorite form of transportation.
Sailing across the English Channel dates back centuries. But the very first commercial passenger ferry service across the sea is said to have started in 1821.
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Almost 100 years later, the first car ferries entered service. Ships gradually became larger and more luxurious, with tax-free goods attracting more and more people.
But the Mago Merlino and the new SailLink service to Boulogne could be a step back into the future. It only carries 12 foot passengers, two crew members and up to a dozen bicycles.
There’s nowhere to buy perfume or cheap liquor, seating is outdoors and onboard catering consists of tea, coffee and biscuits.
There is a cabin and berths, but it is not recommended to go below deck as it aggravates seasickness.
The best way to see it is a more adventurous, low-pollution way of crossing the sea.
Yes, it takes longer than a normal ferry – but not as long as you might think – and costs more.
Being a sailboat – although it has a pair of electric motors for maneuvering in harbors – voyages are left to the mercy of wind and tides.
It is this element and other logistical and financial aspects that SailLink founder, Andrew Simons, tested during the pilot phase of the boat, before the planned launch of the service next spring.
In that sense, we are latter-day pioneers, testing the waters, so to speak.
Our skipper, Jim Duerden, reassuringly tells us that our catamaran is “unsinkable”.
I’m sure I remember reading this about another, albeit larger, passenger boat that didn’t end well. But this one was steel and ours is fiberglass.
He also has tips for minimizing seasickness – but I took a Kwell, just in case.
As we move forward, he points to the yellow haze of diesel fumes emitted by the many ferries and freighters we pass in the Strait of Dover.
Part of SailLink’s appeal is the proximity to the sea, wind and waves that passengers experience.
They can even try to steer the boat, under Jim’s watchful eye, and adjust the sails, which a novice sailor like me – who, shamefully, didn’t know a genoa from a jib – was all about. instructive fact.
Andrew believes there is a market for those wanting to travel more sustainably across the Channel, and early signs indicate he could be onto something.
During its short pilot phase last month, Mago Merlino carried 45 passengers, many with bicycles, which he says gave encouraging feedback.
“In a changing world, why not rethink the way we travel? he ventures.
“There is so much to discover around us.
“Reconnecting with nature, the sea and people can create new experiences and with them beautiful memories.”
In addition, the town hall of Boulogne supports the service, having proposed to associate it with attractions like its center of marine life, Nausicaa.
We even receive a cheerful visit from an enthusiastic deputy mayor of the town as we dock in the harbour. Border officials are also quickly with us to stamp passports.
Within minutes we are on dry land heading for lunch at a sustainable fish restaurant near the marina.
Of course, the weather dictates whether the boat can travel. But SailLink aims to run from Easter through October, to avoid mother nature’s extremes.
Despite this, Andrew admits there can be days when it’s impossible to sail and others when it can take longer than usual – up to five hours – due to unfavorable winds.
And he is well aware that it will not be for everyone, including vehicles, which represent the vast majority of cross-Channel passengers.
He therefore does not see SailLink as a competitor for P&O, but rather as an alternative.
After testing the waters, he is now looking to buy a slightly bigger and faster boat for the official launch next year. He also prepares a business plan to present to potential investors.
If the service is successful, other routes from Ramsgate to Dunkirk and Newhaven to Dieppe could even be explored.
But let’s get to one of the most important details – the question of cost.
My one-way ticket to Boulogne cost £85 – around three times the price a foot passenger would pay for a P&O ticket. But SailLink is offering half-price “supporter” tickets for a pre-booked crossing anytime next year.
However, Andrew says his service cannot be rated on the crossing itself, but on the whole experience.
The Mago Merlino remained in port for the night. But as I had decided to return the same day, I booked myself a P&O round trip from Calais.
While the journey itself was quicker – only 90 minutes in total – the whole process proved frustrating and laborious.
To start, foot passengers must check in at the port 90 minutes before departure.
I arrived just in time and was assured at reception that I would have been denied boarding if I had been five minutes late.
And then there’s another 30 minutes delay on the other side to allow vehicles to disembark first.
Add to that the bus journeys around the ports themselves and UK border controls and the time difference is actually quite negligible.
Andrew’s aim is to provide an “unforgettable travel experience, at an affordable price and with smooth border procedures”.
And it is delivered, at least in my experience. It’s exhilarating, engaging and refreshingly simple.
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