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The 'unsinkable' Dover SailLink service set to become newest way to cross English Channel

The early morning sun is glinting off the English Channel as passengers arrive for a ferry crossing to France.

With a slight offshore breeze and blue skies, it seems to be the perfect conditions for a journey over the sea from Dover.

Unusually, the captain and crew greet us personally, before handing out life jackets and harnesses designed to prevent us from falling overboard.

Clearly this isn’t going to be a service most of us are used to.

I’m aboard the Mago Merlino, a 40ft catamaran that is being used to trial a new, green way of crossing the Channel. Reportedly, it’s climate activist Gretha Thumberg’s favoured form of transport.

Sailing across the Channel goes back centuries. But the first-ever commercial passenger ferry service across the sea is thought to have launched in 1821.

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Almost 100 years later, the first car ferries came into service. The vessels have gradually become bigger and more luxurious, with duty-free goods luring in ever more people.

But the Mago Merlino and the new SailLink service to Boulogne could be a step back to the future. It carries just 12 foot passengers, two crew and up to a dozen bikes.

There’s nowhere to buy bargain perfume or booze, the seating is outside and the on-board catering consists of tea, coffee and biscuits.

Our reporter Gerry Warren onboard the catamaran
Our reporter Gerry Warren onboard the catamaran

There is a cabin and berths, but it isn’t recommended to go below deck as it aggravates seasickness.

The best way to think of it is as a more adventurous, low pollution way of making the crossing over the sea.

Yes, it takes longer than a normal ferry - though by not as much as you’d think - and costs more.

Being a sail boat - although it has a pair of electric motors for manoeuvring in harbours - journeys are left to the mercy of the wind and tides.

It’s this element and other logistics and finances which SailLink founder Andrew Simons has been trialling during the boat’s pilot phase, ahead of the service's planned launch next spring.

In that sense, we are latter-day pioneers, testing the waters, so to speak.

Our skipper, Jim Duerden, reassuringly advises us our catamaran is “unsinkable”.

The SailLink service heads out of Dover for Boulogne
The SailLink service heads out of Dover for Boulogne

I’m sure I remember reading that about another, albeit bigger, passenger boat which didn't end well.. But that was made of steel and ours is fibreglass.

He also has advice about minimising seasickness - but I’ve taken a Kwell, just in case.

As we bob along, he points out the yellow haze of diesel fumes issuing from the many ferries and cargo ships we pass in the Dover Strait.

Part of the attraction of SailLink is the closeness to the sea, wind and waves which passengers experience.

They can even have a go at steering the boat, under Jim’s watchful eye, and adjust sails, for which a sailing novice like me - who shamefully didn’t know a genoa from a jib - was all informative.

Andrew believes there is a market for those wanting to travel more sustainably across the Channel, and the early signs are that he could be onto something.

During its short pilot phase last month, Mago Merlino carried 45 passengers, many with bikes, who, he says, gave encouraging feedback.

The Boulogne crossing and future potential routes for the SailLink service
The Boulogne crossing and future potential routes for the SailLink service

“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.”

What’s more, the Boulogne town authorities are supportive of the service, having suggested linking it with attractions like its sea life centre, Nausicaa.

We even get a cheery visit from an enthusiastic deputy mayor of the town as we moor up in the harbour. Border officials are also promptly with us to stamp passports.

Within a few 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 operate from Easter to October, to avoid the extremes of mother nature.

The SailLink service leaves Dover. Picture: Nici Wegener
The SailLink service leaves Dover. Picture: Nici Wegener

Despite this, Andrew admits there could be days which make it impossible to sail and others when it could take longer than usual - up to five hours - due to unfavourable winds.

And he is fully aware it won’t be for everyone, including those with vehicles, who account for the vast majority of cross-Channel passengers.

So he doesn’t see SailLink as competition for the likes of P&O, but rather an alternative.

Having tested the waters, he is now looking to buy a slightly bigger, faster boat for the official launch next year. He is also putting together a business plan to present to potential investors.

If the service proves successful, further routes from Ramsgate to Dunkirk and Newhaven to Dieppe could even be explored.

But let’s get down to one of the most important details - the matter of cost.

My one-way journey to Boulogne was £85 - about three times the price a foot passenger would fork out for a P&O ticket. But SailLink is offering half price 'supporter' tickets for pre-booked crossing for anytime next year.

Passengers can even have a go at sailing the catamaran, under the watchful eye of the skipper
Passengers can even have a go at sailing the catamaran, under the watchful eye of the skipper

However, Andrew says his service cannot be valued on the crossing itself, but the whole experience.

The Mago Merlino was remaining in port overnight. But as I had decided to return the same day, I booked myself a P&O return from Calais.

While the journey itself was quicker - just 90 minutes altogether - the whole process proved frustratingly time-consuming and laborious.

For starters, foot passengers have to register at the port 90 minutes before sailing.

I made it just in time and was bluntly assured at the desk I would have been refused boarding had I been five minutes late.

And then there’s another 30-minute 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 experience of travel, at an affordable price and with pleasant border procedures”.

And he’s delivered, at least from my experience. It is exhilarating, engaging and refreshingly simple.

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