Eco Travel Floats Your Boat? U.K.-To-France Sail Ferry Seeks Investors

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Startup SailLink is seeking investment to start a pioneering wind-powered cross-channel ferry for cyclists and pedestrians between Dover and Boulogne. During the pilot phase for the proposed service last year, all of the crossings were fully booked, suggesting strong demand for the service when it starts for real next summer.

SailLink founder Andrew Simons said he’s seeking an initial fixed-term investment of $43,000 repayable with interest after five years with further raises of $447,000 and $152,000 on similar terms. The bulk of the funds raised will to buy the 12-passenger catamaran sailing yacht. After five years, he plans to sell the vessel and replace it with a purpose-built one. Simons said investors will receive a healthy return plus complimentary cross-channel travel.

I was on the first test crossing to northern France. We left at 5 pm, landing on schedule four hours later in Boulogne. There was no border control to endure – I climbed to the marina clubhouse and showered in the Schengen Area untroubled by passport checks. By arrangement, border police from Calais arrived mid-morning the following day, proving this would be a more relaxed entry into France than the often fraught journeys on the car ferry services between Dover and Calais, only one of which is currently open to foot traffic.

The demonstration crossings used the Mago Merlino, a 12-metre catamaran certified to carry six paying passengers and two bicycles.

“This is a new form of public transport,” Simons told me as we entered the southwest-bound shipping lane of the Dover Strait’s traffic separation scheme.

“And we’re providing a serious sailing experience at the same time,” he added.

The Dover Strait is one of the busiest seaways in the world, plied by hundreds of large vessels daily.

“You’re sailing across international waters on the open sea on a very tidal stretch of water,” stressed Simons.

“You can only normally get to do this if you know experienced people with boats or you’re part of a club.”

It’s also a hands-on experience, should you wish to help. Early in the voyage, skipper Toby Duerden entrusted me with a measuring device to train on container ships bearing down on us, and by calculating the changing angles of attack, he modified our course to steer us clear. The task was shared with other passengers, and at other times I was glad to kick back and relax, dozing in one of the two “trampoline” nets at the front of the catamaran.

The 31-mile crossing relies on prevailing winds; consequently, there’s no guarantee the journey will stick to the schedule. The crossing from Dover to Boulogne, with the breeze at our back, was straight; the return journey on the following afternoon involved zig-zagging to catch the gusts.

The Mago Merlino was fitted with an electric motor for powering the boat’s electronics. Solar panels recharged this and, when speed through the water allowed, so did a submersible hydro turbine generator.

SailLink’s pitch to would-be passengers is more than just the catamaran’s eco credentials.

“We have to be careful about such claims,” said Simons.

“Conversion to electric propulsion will take place during the winter layup. Until then, we will endeavour to at least use biodiesel.”

The eco calculation per passenger mile is “complex,” admitted Simons, an environmental scientist specializing in the lifecycle assessment of transport and energy systems.

“I know how misleading those calculations can be, so our sales pitch to customers is based on the experience and the adventure, not just the green aspect.”

Being out on an open deck (looking at the horizon and nearby ships helps prevent sea sickness) and close to the waves also gives passengers a greater appreciation of the dangers faced by channel migrants on their inflatable boats. But Simons is keen to prevent the SailLink service from becoming what he calls a “migrant safari.”

The plight of migrants is “very, very sad,” he said, adding that “every ship operating in the Dover Strait is under obligation to report sightings of migrant boats to the coast guards of either the U.K. or France.”

On previous crossings, he has come across empty inflatables, with the occupants probably rescued by the authorities.

“Under maritime law, we must go to the aid of people in distress, but we also have to think of our own seaworthiness; we’re also quite a small vessel,” said Simons.

“The Dover Strait is not a friendly place.”

In rough weather, SailLink might have to cancel, transferring passengers to the car ferries, but the there-and-back crossings I experienced were calm, balmy even.

“This could be the Mediterranean,” I mused, only half joking.

Margate removals man Wayne Godfrey was one of the five passengers on the Boulogne-Dover crossing and, like me, he brought a bicycle on board.

“I read about the trip in a local newspaper,” he told me.

“What a fun thing to do, I thought. And combined with the opportunity to ride my bike, this is making the most of my time on the planet.”

Godfrey would take this journey repeatedly because “it’s therapeutic and it’s environmentally friendly.”

A car ferry service from Dover to Boulogne stopped in 2008. SailLink plans to start its foot passenger service in summer 2024 with the one-way fare likely to be about $100, nearly three times the price of P&O’s 90-minute Dover-Calais crossing. The operating season will be April to October.

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