New carbon-free ferry service sets sail from Dover – and we’re onboard

A new ferry between England and France should significantly reduce CO2 emissions when crossing the English Channel. Positive News tests it

who-bang. The bow of the yacht slaps against the turquoise waves, the spray of the English Channel rains on the deck. We are in the middle of the Strait of Dover, the world’s busiest international sea route.

From shore the water seemed calm, but out here – crossing a motorway with huge cargo ships and a 24-hour ferry service from Dover to Calais – the sea feels a lot choppy.

“This is a light to moderate swell,” says Captain Jim Duerden, which means the waves are between 50cm and 250cm high. It’s relatively quiet in the sailing world.

Nevertheless, the bow of Mago Merlino, the 12 m long sailing catamaran we are sailing on, keeps dipping into the waves. It’s totally exhilarating.

But this crossing is not just for fun. We’re heading to Boulogne-sur-Mer in France on a brand new ferry service set up by SailLink.

Currently in the pilot phase, Duerden and company founder Andrew Simons have spent two years traveling back and forth from England to France, testing and planning the route and streamlining procedures for passengers with the goal of having a green sailing boat service by 2023 to start.

I want to focus on the sailing experience and that the passengers can go home and say that they have actually learned something

“I’m not trying to compete with ferries – I can’t take a truck,” says Simons, who came up with the idea of ​​creating an adventurous, green travel option between the two countries. “I want to focus on pedestrians and cyclists, the cultural connection between the hearts of the ports, the sailing experience, the real closeness to the ocean and much more [for passengers] go home and say [they’ve] actually learned something too.”

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This cross certainly ticks all of those boxes. Passengers are encouraged to lend a hand if they wish – there is rope to be pulled, sails hoisted, tacked. You can even try helming. The feedback so far is positive.

“We had a mixed group of passengers, some locals who have been coming over for a few days and some who are really trying [travel] much further. We even had commuters,” says Simons.


Captain Jim Duerden on the Mago Merlino en route to France. Image: Daniel Fahey

François Loeuillette was one of the first passengers to use this service. A local in Boulogne-sur-Mer, he used SailLink to cross the English Channel and head to London for the night before catching the car ferry home.

“I love traveling between France and the UK and wanted to try this new way of traveling as it’s positive and eco-friendly,” he says. And did he like the crossing? “Yes very.”

Although exact details are yet to be announced, the Dover to Boulogne-sur-Mer route is expected to operate from Easter to October. A second route between Ramsgate and Dunkirk is planned for 2024, with a more challenging crossing from Newhaven to Dieppe due to start in 2025.

A new high performance catamaran will be used for the daily ferry service, specially designed to cross the Channel as quickly as possible. It can accommodate up to 12 passengers at a time and departures are timed with the tides to maximize speed. Depending on the conditions, the crossings should take around three to four and a half hours.

As a boat builder and environmental scientist, Simons previously worked with companies such as fair transport, a Dutch company that transports organic and traditionally made goods such as rum and coffee by yacht. Since their boats have no engines, the trips are CO2-free.

SailLink hopes to be carbon-free too, but the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) currently requires commercial yachts to have a diesel engine. The catamaran currently has a solar-powered electric motor and a diesel engine.

I wanted to try this new way of traveling as it is positive and eco-friendly

“I hope – and Andy hopes – that his boat will be [100 per cent sustainable]with two electric motors,” says Duerden.

“It’s not that we can’t, it’s more of a commercial aspect because you have to be able to extricate yourself from engine problems… The MCA that we are all subject to won’t let us in moment have two electric motors [but] I think that will change,” he adds.

Sailing is one of the most environmentally friendly ways to travel. It emits less than 1g of CO2 per passenger per km. In comparison, a short-haul flight emits about 156g and a foot passenger on a ferry emits 19g.

Ticket prices start from £85 per crossing. If sailing conditions are unfavorable, the yacht may need to use its engine. Delays and schedule changes may also occur depending on the weather. However, SailLink will work with local ferry operators to ensure passengers can cross the Channel if they are unable to sail.

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“It should be normal public transport between the countries,” says Simons, “that’s all.”

Main picture: Nici Wegener / SailLink 2022

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