Crossing the Channel

Setting Course for somewhere further than Cawsand

It is hard to know just how many small boats there are in the Plymouth area, sitting on trots and in marinas. It must certainly be likely that there are several hundred yachts people who have, or have been tempted to, set out across the English Channel and shape a course for France.

This is not intended as a definitive guide, but if one considers that without a sense of adventure there is little point in being a boat owner, we thought we might take a first look at the kind of things one might consider before pointing the sharp end Southward.

As we all know, there is a thrill at sailing away from land, watching it fall away from view, seeing the sky and light change as the weather patterns form over cold flat sea rather than warm bumpy land. To be on the sea out of sight of land, not lost but certainly not pinned down, is, as the great French yachtsman Loick Peyron remarked at the start of the Transat bakerly starting from Sutton harbour Marina recently ‘one of the last remaining true luxuries that you can experience’. Somebody else commented that while loneliness is to be fought against, solitude is most definitely a thing to be fought FOR.

You may sail solo, more likely you won’t, but the idea makes sense. And to haul up into a small French harbour and pick up your supper from the boulangerie, washed down with cold bieres from the fridge-net dangling off your stern, is a quiet joy that awaits you just a day’s voyage away.

The first question is probably where to?

The Channel is about 350 miles long, and from 21 to 150 miles across; you’ll need to do some research, work out where takes your fancy, pick up the experiences of others on where is good to head for.

Cherbourg is easy with great facilities, and English-speaking harbour staff. The Channel islands offer a charming balance of France and England. Smaller ports may be more challenging and exercise your language skills more strenuously, but that might be half the fun!

You might also choose to ‘find a friend’ to cross with, or even go with an organised group in a small flotilla, with the guide taking some of the strain – great for first-timers.

That will then inform your next phase of operations – charts, tides and courses, timings, weather, supplies and fuel to suit, and all the other details that will see the boat from Plymouth to La belle France and back again, safely, in time for work on Monday morning (if you are that unlucky), and the skipper and crew suitably fed and watered.


What to take with you?

Paperwork! From Passports to Euros, paper charts (in case your electronics decide not to play the game), almanacs and guides, a log, and relevant vessel documentation – list it, package it safely, and take it.

From radios to binoculars, phones and nav devices – as well as entertainment if technology is your bag – you’ll need all the bits and bobs that they need to charge and function. Spare batteries too.

Contact numbers?

Emergency credit card – with the bank informed of the possibility of foreign use?

Medicines – preplanned and emergency.

Seasickness remedies – drugs and old standbys like rich tea biscuits or ginger nuts.

Food and drink for proper meals, and in the form of thermos hot drinks and snacks in case the weather turns lumpy or you need a boost.

Don’t forget water and cold drinks.


Course of Course

Think carefully about your cross Channel course; if you have ever been through that busy, narrow stretch in a vessel with radar you will have seen how incredibly busy the Channel is – day and night. Make sure that you are visible to the eye, and to radar. The big boys won’t be able to do much to avoid you, so take care – and plan for a swift crossing to be in the shipping lanes for as short a time as possible.

Know where you are and make sure that the Separation Lanes are crossed swiftly and at 90 degrees.

Use AIS, watch their wake as a judge of speed, don’t think you can outrun them!

You MUST plan your passage; if you do not, and an accident ensues, you will be liable.

Build spare time into your plan, just in case. Never cut corners when pressed by unforeseen weather or other snags.

Plan to arrive in daylight! It’s so very much easier.

Plan for the tides – which can be fierce in places.

If you came from Sutton Harbour you’ll be familiar with locks and sills – many French ports operate a similar system.


While many French people will speak some English, many will not! Take a phrase book or app if fluency is not your forte, and at least TRY to open a conversation with a little police school time French! The effort will go a long way. Have your courtesy flag ready, and use it. And when you get within range to do so, use the best tool in your communication armoury – a broad smile and a ‘Merci Monsieur!’ 

Bon Voyage, send us a postcard and she your travels with us via our social media channels!