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English Channel Cruising

This page deals with matters common to the whole English Channel (French."La Manche") Other pages (right hand menu) describe locations in the East Channel, around the Isle of Wight, SW England, the Channel Islands and nearby France, and West Brittany as far as the Raz de Sein.

Challenging. This tide swept area is crowded with commercial and leisure traffic, and subject to occasional poor visibility. It's the most challenging cruising area we describe (9/10 for thrills and spills, 4/10 for peace and quiet). Ports and anchorages along the south coast of England and along the French coasts are spaced so that day sailing from one end to the other is feasible - but only if using the tidal streams! Crossing the channel from Isle of Wight westward for smaller, slower boats may call for some night sailing.

Going West. Travelling west you're with the ebb, arriving near low water. No problem on the English side, with plenty of deep water ports. On the French side, many marinas and harbours have no access until half tide. Plan your destinations with this in mind!

Comparing English Channel Sailing Areas

English Channel, East part (2/10) from Dover/Calais to E Solent/Cherbourg offers coasts of passage rather than cruising grounds - densely populated, with much commercial traffic, enough ports (though many don't have access below half tide), no anchorages, and short but very busy crossings between France and England.

Isle of Wight and Nearby, from Selsey Bill to  Weymouth, rates 2/10 for overcrowding,and 8/10 for convenience and yacht support services. It is reasonably sheltered, has a major commercial port and a naval base, and is accessible to large populations. It is thus one of the most crowded cruising areas imaginable, with a messy mix of large commercial vessels, fleets of yachts and dinghies racing, and motor boats and ferries chugging back and forth. Cruising folk weave through the chaos seeking relaxation or escape.

SW England, (7/10), from  Weymouth to the Scillies is much quieter, and probably the easiest area to cruise in the English Channel, with day sailing between ports available at all states of the tide, easy navigation and straightforward pilotage. Pretty villages in drowned valleys provide the attraction, with plenty of settled weather anchorages. Not much commercial traffic, but crowded with leisure craft in school holidays. Some other-worldy experiences with more difficult pilotage around the Scillies. Channel crossings from this region will usually entail some night sailing for boats limited to 6 or 7 kts. 

The Channel Islands and nearby France (9/10) Cherbourg and immediately west, is a most attractive cruising ground. There are lots of anchorages and harbours all within an easy day sail of each other, and challenging pilotage for dedicated rock dodgers. Yachts which can take the ground have an exceptionally wide range of harbours to visit. It's busy in peak season, but the ports and marinas cope well with the traffic. Tidal streams are strong, so you must go with the flow.

French NW Brittany, from Tréguier to the Raz de Sein, will exercise your navigation and pilotage skills further. There are plenty of anchorages and towns to visit, so day sailing is feasible. Catching the tide may mean an early start. This lightly populated holiday country is quiet outside July and August. There are delightful beaches, while offshore islands, reefs and inside passages provide excitement. Big Atlantic swells are an occasional (sometimes dramatic) hazard, as are patches of overfalls.  Two major tidal gates guard the entrance to Biscay. The first is the Chenal du Four, inside Île de Ouessant; the second is the Raz de Sein, notoriously rough with even moderate winds against the tides.

Overall picture of the Channel and its Cruising Regions

Weather and Sea State

For its latitude, the climate is mild due to the Gulf Stream. Fine summer weather is punctuated by the passage of Atlantic depressions bringing periods of strong wind and rain, and sometimes poor visibility. The amount of bad weather varies quite widely from year to year. Sometimes depressions choose to pass further north - and sometimes they don't. Good weather windows of 48hr are easy to predict; longer than that there's an increasing chance of change. Westerly sector winds are the most frequent. Winters see a predominance of wind and rain, but this doesn't seem to put off dedicated weekenders, who like the less crowded sailing out of season. The western part of the channel is exposed to Atlantic swell, and short rough seas are common when the tide runs against the wind. Some areas, charted as 'overfalls', can have really vicious and damaging short breaking seas.

Traffic

Commercial traffic of all sorts is dense all year, and special regulations aim to minimise collision risks. Areas designated as Traffic Separation Schemes (TSS) can only be crossed by leisure craft steering at right angles to the traffic lanes (Crossing TSS advice). The Solent (north of  the Isle of Wight) is also dense with leisure boats - and some are often racing. Solent rules prescribe how leisure vessels should keep clear of larger ships. Do your homework before sailing in these places - Reeds Almanac or the Cruising Association Almanac are sound sources. Fishing craft, sometimes laying poorly marked net or pot markers, add to the turmoil.

Crossing the Channel

From the above, it's clear that your first few Channel Crossings will be an adventure. With a few exceptions (larger boats, or boats with more speed) some night sailing is likely to be involved. You will also have to cross busy commercial traffic lanes (advice here), and allow for tidal offsets.  Broadly, there are three crossing options. Of increasing challenge, they are:

Eastern Channel. Crossing where it's narrow from somewhere near Dover guarantees a daylight crossing. However, reaching the crossing point may take too long for your available time. Commercial traffic is also dense (video 30 secs), both along TSS, and with ferries crossing at right angles.

From the Weymouth/Solent ports; to Cherbourg or Alderney. Ports at each end are easy to enter in any conditions, and at any tide. Distances involved are from 55nm to 80nm, up to 14 hours. So, in summer, little night sailing is needed - perhaps just the departure from your familiar port. This is the choice of many making their first crossing. You will cross considerable commercial traffic, but it will be outside TSS.

West Country Departures. Most crossings from west of Dartmouth will call for some night sailing in boats which are limited to 7kts or so, and the routes from Dartmouth and Salcombe to the Channel Islands may cross TSS. The nearest destinations are Alderney and Guernsey, but passages of over 100nm are needed to make NW Brittany ports.This adventure is for robust crews who know their collision regulations, have strong stomachs, can navigate in strong tidal streams and can pilot into rock encumbered harbours and calculate tidal heights correctly. 

Yacht Support

Yacht technical support is first class throughout the region, with accompanying expense. Marina fees are high, but better value on the French side.

Berthing Arrangements

Some moorings and pontoons ("docks" for Americans) are accessible at all states of the tide. However, in many places access is limited by the big tidal range, which can be anything from 4m to 11m, bigger ranges on the southern coasts. Tidal height calculation skills are essential.You'll find a wide range of options:

Visitor Moorings or Pontoons. These are commonly available in busy destinations at all states of the tide. It is common for boats to "raft up" alongside others, occasionally 3 or 4 abreast (techniques). Most are subject to reversing tidal streams, so full sets of springs and breast ropes are needed to keep your neighbours in position.

Anchoring in rivers or estuaries is often subject to reversing tidal streams. A "running moor" will prevent your anchor from tripping on turn of tide. In a few crowded estuaries, anchoring is not possible, or is not permitted.

"Drying Out" considerably widens your possible range of destinations. It's simple for twin keel yachts, lifting keel yachts, or flat bottomed boats - err, where there's an even bottom. Some boats fit "legs" to remain upright. Going ashore can be grubby.

The Leans. More complex for single keel yachts is to dry out leaning against a harbour wall. Good for a bottom scrub.

Wet Basins with static Sills. Some places keep boats afloat in a "wet basin", created with a retaining wall (a sill or cill) whose top is set somewhere at or below the average tide level. There's usually a guage nearby to indicate clearance above the sill. Deeper keel yachts beware - it's possible to enter after spring tides, and discover you're stuck there until the tide heights reach that level again - a week or two later. "Neaped" is the word! 

Movable Sills. A longer period of access is possible with a movable sill, which drops a metre or two once the tide matches marina level.

Locks. The most complex (and flexible) solution is an entry lock, perhaps with a dredged waiting pontoon (dock) outside.

 

Reviewed Feb 2017

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