Solo Sailing the English Channel

“The Hell of Solo Sailing” – is a fitting title for the English channel.

The English Channel is one of the most treacherous bodies of water in the world. With several internationally important cargo ports in its region, it is one of the densest shipping routes worldwide and the strong low-pressure systems coming in from the North Atlantic provide rough weather.

The English Channel is known for being a big challenge for solo sailors. Last summer, from 17. August to 5. September I sailed 1,000 nautical miles solo from the Netherlands to the island of Guernsey on the southern end of the English Channel and back. Here is my experience.

My route from the Netherlands to the Channel Islands. 570 nautical miles and 4 days nonstop.

The Challenges of the English Channel

One of the biggest factors for solo sailors is the massive lack of sleep. The English Channel has one of the densest shipping traffic worldwide, which makes it pretty much impossible to sleep at night, sometimes not even 10 minutes at a time.

The other critical factor is the weather systems developing over the North Atlantic which are moving east towards the North Sea. Those can often be very strong with short intervals between several systems.

The third factor is the tidal currents, which can develop up to 4 kt in the Strait of Dover or other Capes along the channel.

A common sight in the English Channel – a lot of cargo vessels.

Sailing to the Channel Islands

I set off from the Netherlands to sail the 520 nautical miles down to the Channel Islands nonstop, which I estimated to take around 4 days. First, it was on to leave the Ijsselmeer (inland water in the Netherlands, where my homeport is located) to the English Channel through the North Sea canal and Amsterdam.

After the first sleepless night motoring through the canal, I could finally set sails and turn Wolfs’ bow in a southerly direction. The next day the first problem appeared. While motoring across the Oosterschelde the engine suddenly shut down. Now I was floating without propulsion directly next to the shipping area. I managed to get it working again and divert to Zeebrugge in Belgium. After finding the cause of the failure I set sail again towards the Strait of Dover, which I reached on the fifth day in the morning after tacking against light winds along the French coast for the whole night.

Retreating the gennaker in low winds.

Then the next problem occurred. The engine wasn’t charging Wolfs’ batteries, which I urgently needed for the autopilot. So once again it was on to head into port to find the problem and solve it. This time I sailed into Boulogne-sur-Mer in France. Exactly on the halfway mark to the Channel Islands.

Wolf moored in the marina of Buologne-sur-Mer.

The next day, after it seemed like I fixed everything up, I once again headed south. Just to change plans once again the following night with the batteries not charging once more.

After heading into Dieppe, a charming French town, I ordered a new charging controller for the generator, which turned out to be the problem, to Cherbourg some 60 miles south. The following evening while sailing to Cherbourg, I got a bit too close to a windfarm and got a call from a guard vessel over the VHF. After a bit of chatting, I changed my course and the next night fell.

With Cherbourg finally being in reach the next day, everything went differently than planned. (I’ve gotten used to that at this point.) With just about 15 miles left upwind, I anticipated to take about 3 more hours to port. The tidal currents had other plans and turned against us with 4 kts. It took us the whole day to finally reach the marina of Cherbourg.

Fighting against strong currents near Point de Barfleur.

With my parcel already waiting at the harbor office and a short walk through the town, which also has a big role in offshore sailing with the Rolex Fastnet Race finishing here, I had Cap de la Hague left, which is famous for its strong currents and rough waves, from which I got a taste while rounding it into the night.

Huge waves while round Cap de la Hague into the final night.

After navigating through the channel between Herm and the main island of Guernsey I fastened my lines in the middle of the night at the waiting pontoon of the Victoria Marina in Saint Peter Port, the capital of Guernsey.

Wolf moored in the Victoria Marina on Guernsey.

The next week was spent installing the new charging controller and exploring the Island until it was time to head back the way we came. Sailing back went pretty much according to plan, except bashing against 6 bft of wind and strong current for the whole second night and taking one night break in Calais in the Dover Strait because of the lack of sleep over the last nights.

The whole series of this journey with its ups and downs can be watched on YouTube.

Similar Posts