Sailing the English Channel requires planning and preparation, but if you haven’t done it before, it’s easier than you might think, says Andy Du Port
Sailing the English Channel for the first time can be a daunting prospect, especially if your sailing experience so far has been in local waters, mostly remaining within a few miles offshore. However, so long as you thoroughly prepare yourself, your crew and your boat, a Channel crossing should be a relaxed and enjoyable experience, with all the attractions associated with ‘going foreign’.
In this article I have assumed that your knowledge is at least that of an RYA Day Skipper and that your boat is seaworthy and capable of offshore passages. That is, she is certified as Category A (Ocean) or B (Offshore) and suitably equipped.
There is a list of recommended equipment which you should have on board in the safety chapter in Reeds Nautical Almanac (affiliate link). Clearly, there is not room here to cover every aspect of planning and executing a cross-Channel passage.
Your First Channel Crossing (affiliate link), published by Adlard Coles Nautical goes into far more detail and, though I say so myself, is well worth reading. The only significant changes since the book was published in 2013 are related to evolving entry and exit formalities as a result of Brexit.
Sailing the English Channel from the Solent to Cherbourg is about 65 miles and is the equivalent of a return trip from Portsmouth to Poole. Most cruising yachts will make the passage in 12-15 hours – easily done in daylight during the summer months.
What follows is equally relevant for any Channel crossing route or other offshore passage of about the same distance.
Sailing the English Channel – Forward planning
Your top concern before setting off is likely to be the weather. Whatever your experience, no one wants to bash into a Force 5 for 12 hours only to arrive tired, cold, wet and miserable.
A typical husband and wife crew in a 35ft yacht will probably draw the line at Force 3-4 on the nose or perhaps Force 4-5 if off the wind.
Good visibility, and ideally sunshine, is a bonus, so you need to study the forecasts for several days ahead and pick your time. Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of sailing to a deadline and taking unnecessary risks.
Your reputation as a skipper will be greatly enhanced if you wisely decide to abandon a trip rather than compromise safety or invite mutiny. Postponing your departure is far less demoralising than beating a retreat with your tail between your legs.
Preparing for your first Channel crossing
There is some equipment which you need for an offshore passage which might not already be on board.
A liferaft should be carried. They are expensive to buy but hiring one for a short period is a viable and much cheaper option.
A fully inflated dinghy on deck and ready to launch is a poor substitute, and is not recommended. If that is your choice, don’t even think of towing it. Not only will it reduce your speed through the water (even ¼ knot over 60 miles will add more than 30 minutes to the passage time), the chances of it misbehaving or going AWOL are not worth contemplating.
A grab bag should be prepared and stowed readily to hand. Contents should include: handheld VHF radio, EPIRB/PLB if carried, handheld GPS receiver (if not incorporated in the radio), seasickness pills, any essential medication, torches, flares and water.
Some of these may already be included in the liferaft contents. The addition of passports, wallets and ship’s papers would greatly ease the admin pain later.
Flares are potentially dangerous and you can only carry a limited number anyhow. LED ‘flares’, which have many hours of active use, are becoming popular.
A Radar reflector is a requirementof SOLAS V and must be carried ‘if practicable’.
A table of life-saving signals must also be on board – another SOLAS requirement. It may be downloaded or can be found in Reeds and the Cruising Almanac.
Turning away from the horrible prospect of having to abandon ship – which is highly unlikely but must be catered for – you need to make sure you have ample fuel to motor for 12 hours or more if the wind fails and enough provisions to keep everyone fed and happy.
There is no need to prepare and cook to cordon bleu standards. We find that a more or less constant supply of snacks backed up with some more substantial sandwiches at about the halfway point fits the bill nicely. If it is a bit chilly, a mug of something hot – tea, coffee or soup – is a real morale booster.
Remember that France is an hour ahead of the UK, so don’t bargain on shops or restaurants being open for supper when you arrive.
Paperwork for a Channel crossing
The documents you need for leaving the UK and entering France post-Brexit can be found at www.gov.uk and also the RYA website. Electronic methods of submitting these documents are still being refined. At the time of writing, you still need to complete a C1331 and post it, or an e-C1331 form, which is an Excel file you download, fill in and email.
Other documents that you must carry onboard are: n Passports for every crew member:
- Certificate of registration (usually SSR)
- Proof of VAT status if applicable
- Ship Radio Licence and Authority to Operate (Short Range Certificate)
- Proof of insurance (original certificate, not a copy)
- Certificate of competence (ICC)
- RCD Declaration of Conformity (for vessels built after June 1998). Given the ongoing worries of having red diesel on board (only in the main tank, never in cans), a record of all fuel receipts and engine hours is strongly recommended.
Crew for sailing the English Channel
For your first crossing, choose your crew carefully. If sailing two-handed, your mate should be Competent Crew standard or, preferably, like you, at least Day Skipper qualified.
Consider a situation where you become incapacitated; would your crew be able to call for help and/or get you and the boat to a safe haven?
Carry out a comprehensive briefing before sailing to ensure that everyone knows the plan, how long you estimate it will take, the expected weather and your thoughts on alternative destinations if the weather deteriorates. They also need to be familiar with emergency radio procedures and the operation/deployment of safety equipment.
If you have children on board, involve them as much as possible.
English Channel crossing navigation
As Sir John Harvey-Jones said: ‘Planning is an unnatural process; it is much more fun to do something. The best thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression.’
Another truism is that time spent planning is never wasted. Having sailed across the English Channel more times than I can remember during the last 50 years or so, the only times when things have got messy were when the skipper/navigator’s homework ‘could be better’.
At best, it would be a late arrival due to ending up downstream of the destination; at worst, the chosen destination becomes unachievable. If you get it badly wrong when making for Alderney, for example, it is quite possible for a spring ebb stream to whisk you to Guernsey whether you like it or not.
You will have your favourite books and publications. The examples below are some of mine, but I would not wish to recommend any particular publisher over another.
Space prevents elaboration, but you should consult:
Admiralty Small Craft Charts and Imray Chart Packs give ample coverage on paper while Navionics and C-Map are good options for electronic charts.
Personally, I would never sail without paper charts as a back-up even if navigating primarily by electronic means.
Any trusted tide tables. Admiralty Tide Tables and Tidal Stream Atlases are excellent, and the same data is available on, for example, the Imray Tides Planner app.
Both Reeds and the Cruising Almanac (affiliate link) have tide tables and small scale tidal atlases.
For this passage, the Reeds Channel Almanac or the Cruising Almanac are invaluable for the plethora of information they contain. I wouldn’t be without one of them.
Otherwise known as Cruising Companions or Sailing Directions, they give opinions and information about facilities ashore as well as useful navigational guidance. Imray’s Shell Channel Pilot (affiliate link) edited by Tom Cunliffe is hard to beat.
Allowing for the tides
Apart from the weather, the next item on your list of concerns will probably be navigating out of sight of land. Yes, we all think we know exactly where we are thanks to GPS, but is that good enough?
It is all very well knowing your current position; you also need to be able to predict your position at least an hour ahead, work out the course to steer, and decide what other actions to take if you are set off track – which you will be. Indeed, if you try to stick rigidly to the line on the chart while sailing the English Channel, you will sail considerably further and take much longer to reach your destination.
Let the tides take the strain. On a passage like this, it would be easy to think that you just need to clear the Needles Channel, steer south, wait 12 hours and arrive in Cherbourg. That might work if the tidal streams flowed at the same rates throughout the Channel, and if you took exactly 12 hours to get to the other side – six hours west; six hours east.
In reality, the streams near the French coast and off headlands run very much faster than in mid-Channel. The solution is to make an informed guess about your passage speed and, therefore, your expected time underway. Then, having decided when to leave, plot your projected positions and look up the tidal stream rates at hourly intervals.
Some will be setting east, some west. Take the smaller from the larger and the result will be your net set in that direction. You must then work out the course to steer to counter that set.
If you are very lucky, you will steer a constant course for the entire passage and wind up at your destination having been set off track, to east and west, in the meantime.
As there are no navigational dangers in that part of the Channel, being off track is no problem.
In practice, you would be wise to aim to arrive a mile or so upstream of your destination in order to reduce the risk of having to bash into the stream for the last few miles.
At Cherbourg the distance between Passe de L’Ouest and Passe de L’Est is about 2.5 miles, so aiming for the middle of the breakwater will put you upstream of one of the entrances. As you get close to the French coast, it becomes more important than ever to monitor how you are being set. Make adjustments accordingly, allowing for any predicted changes in tidal stream as you get close to land.
Having drawn the track on the chart (paper and/or electronic) and measured the distance, you will need to decide the best time to leave before calculating the course to steer for the main part of the passage (as described above).
The shortest distance from the Solent to Cherbourg is via the Needles Channel, so the previous night in Yarmouth or Lymington is a good option. If leaving from the east, you might consider anchoring for the night in Priory Bay off Bembridge which will save about 5 miles if you are based in Portsmouth or Gosport.
Either way, it is a good idea to get an initial tidal lift for the first few miles.
Leaving via the Needles, this is essential in order to get through the Hurst Narrows with a favourable stream. At springs, an early departure on the last of the ebb is perfect for a late afternoon arrival in Cherbourg.
Execution of the plan
Before leaving, remember to tell someone ashore of your plans and estimated time of arrival (ETA). Just as important, brief them on who to contact (usually the Coastguard) if you are overdue. It is also a good idea to call the Coastguard just before departure with a ‘traffic report’.
You should call Solent Coastguard on Channel 67, which saves clutter on Channel 16. They will need to know: vessels’ name, callsign and MMSI; when and where you are departing from; where and when you expect to arrive; and the number of people on board.
They may well ask you if your vessel details are saved in their system, via the RYA SafeTrx app, which replaced form CG66. However, the app isn’t recommended for live tracking when crossing the Channel as it is not GMDSS approved.
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The Coastguard will record all your details but they will not take any action if they don’t hear from you again! That is up to your shore contact. If you remember to do so, and are able to raise Solent GC from Cherbourg, a call confirming your safe arrival will be much appreciated.
Once clear of the Needles, the best advice is to fix your position regularly, using GPS and any other source available. Even a sounding may give a rough north/south position, and the shipping lanes also give an indication of progress across the Channel.
Visual fixes are a good back-up when in sight of land. A fix every hour on the hour is about right. Plot it on the chart and work up an EP for at least the next hour.
Record the position in the log, along with course steered and distance run, so you always have the information available to be able work out your position if the electronics fail. At the same time, make a note of the actual wind speed and direction, and the pressure from the barometer. The latter can give you an early heads up of an un-forecast deterioration of the weather.
Collision avoidance sailing across the English Channel
The Channel is full of ships! Luckily, they tend to follow the recommended lanes which are shown on the charts: roughly 255° for the northerly west-bound traffic and 075° for the southerly east-bound ships, but beware of ferries, fishing boats and other traffic which don’t follow the lanes.
Nothing beats a good lookout and lots of visual bearings. AIS is invaluable but not all vessels are fitted with it, some might not have it on, and others might be showing false information.
AIS increases the temptation to call ships on VHF. Try to resist this, and thereby prevent a radio-assisted collision.
Strict adherence to the Colregs will keep you safe, and don’t be afraid to comply with Rule 17(a)(ii) which basically allows you to take appropriate action to avoid a close quarters situation even though, when sailing, you are invariably the stand-on vessel when crossing the shipping lanes (not to be confused with Traffic Separation Schemes (TSS) when you are not!).
If you can keep well clear of multi-tonne container ships hammering down Channel, so much the better. In poor visibility, you are required to use radar if it is available.
Take every opportunity to practise monitoring and plotting other ships in clear visibility.
Sailing to France: Arrival
As you enter French territorial waters – 12 miles offshore, but look at the chart to confirm – you should hoist the Tricolour at the starboard spreaders. If you are flying a burgee to starboard, shift it to the port spreader as a courtesy flag should not be flown with any other flag in the same hoist.
You must also fly a Q flag until cleared by the French immigration authorities. Opinion is divided, but I suggest the Q flag is flown on the port spreader over the burgee. If for some reason you have lowered the ensign during the passage, remember that the law requires you to wear it when entering a foreign port.
Cherbourg is an ideal place to enter on your first time sailing across the English Channel. The western entrance is wider and has fewer outlying dangers than the eastern entrance, but neither is navigationally challenging.
Once through the entrance there is plenty of room to lower sails, prepare lines and fenders, and generally get the boat squared away. On entering the marina, be prepared to berth either side to, probably on a finger berth which is significantly shorter than the boat!
Arriving in Alderney for the first time – which can be a sensible alternative to Cherbourg if you are then bound further south – you also need to fly a Q flag before being cleared by Customs/immigration.
The only snag with Alderney is that the harbour is wide open to the NE, and any wind from that direction can make life very uncomfortable. Otherwise, apart from the tidal streams, the entrance is perfectly straightforward, and the leading marks/lights are easy to spot.
Although you have only just arrived, now is the time to start thinking of the return passage if you are not going anywhere else in France or the Channel Islands.
Whatever you do, don’t get yourself into the position where you are running out of time – for work or other pressing engagements. It is a common mistake to sail into marginal weather conditions just to meet a deadline at home.
The safety of you, your crew and boat is paramount, and there are plenty of ferries back to the UK.
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