What could go wrong while crossing the Channel? Ken Endean considers possible difficulties

For many first-timers cruising to France, crossing the Channel is an exercise in which all their knowledge of planning, tides, navigation, weather, collision regulations and boat handling will be tested simultaneously.

Several factors will influence the trip’s success, some more predictable than others, but if each is considered that will go a long way towards ensuring an uneventful passage.

Crossing the Channel: Timing

The skipper controls the departure timing and may wish to plan for a daylight arrival.

In the eastern English Channel, given a fair breeze and/or engine use in the lulls, most of the crossing options can be done within a summer’s day, while from the Solent we could shorten the distance to Alderney or Cherbourg by starting from the Swanage anchorage.

Boat moored in a harbour in the Channel Islands after crossing the channel

From the Solent Area, the shortest crossing distance is from Swanage to Braye Harbour in Alderney

At the western end, the crossing distance will be more than 100 miles with night sailing.

For easy pilotage at the destination, a daylight arrival would seem best, while taking into account tide times and tidal streams.


Tides are predictable and in the eastern Channel most of the destinations are port towns; some rely on gated or drying harbours that are only accessible for a few hours either side of high water, so there is no point in planning for an evening arrival if the gates will be shut, unless there is a suitable waiting berth.

The effect of tidal streams can be more subtle.

Over most of the Channel, the predominant flows are to east and west and it is not difficult to work out their net transverse effect on the course.

A woman sitting on a boat while crossing the channel

The predominant flows in the Channel are to east and west. Note: It is advisable to wear a lifejacket when sailing. Credit: Hamish Southby-Tailyour

However, local currents may assist or hinder progress where they flow into or out of coastal bays.

For example, a boat leaving Torquay or Poole during the east-flowing Channel flood could be plugging against a north-east-flowing stream before reaching the open Channel, south of the headlands.

At the turn of tide, the currents close to headlands often reverse earlier than the general flow in open water.

For instance, during the Channel flood, a vigorous counter-current develops downstream of the Cotentin Peninsula, then pushes out around Pointe de Barfleur towards the north, and a boat heading south for St Vaast, Carentan or Grandcamp might be delayed by this adverse stream.

If we want to be confident about our ETA, we should take account of all those factors, and double-check source data.

Strong winds when crossing the Channel

Gales and near-gales are moderately predictable in the short term because forecasts usually give enough warning for coastal and Channel sailors to reach shelter before the wind speed picks up.

The main variable is in how much we decide to push our luck.

For instance, a gentle southerly breeze could suggest an opportunity for a north-bound crossing but that wind direction implies a depression is coming in from the west and conditions will worsen – possibly earlier than forecast.

A screenshot showing a weather forecast

Monitor weather forecasts in the week before you Channel crossing to see if you can identify any trend

If the depression passes close to the north, dragging a westerly airflow over the Channel, that will offer a beam reach towards home but might be followed by an unwelcome veer to north-west or north.

Forecasts are pretty good for three days ahead but accuracy over seven days is often too much to hope for.

For a typical summer cruise between fixed dates, bad weather at the start merely means an unwelcome delay, but if a strong blow is predicted towards the end of the holiday that could cause a quandary.

Continues below…

Cross back early, or hope for a late improvement but risk a delayed return to work?

It’s still worth monitoring the forecasts a week ahead, to detect trends.

Most forecasts are based on a combination of factual meteorological data and educated judgement (human or by computer) and any glitches will decrease in subsequent forecasts, as more factual data is collected.

Local winds

On many summer days, there will be different winds in different parts of the English Channel.

These part-predictable variations are induced by thermal effects and a yacht crossing the Channel could sail through several zones.

As a simple guide, on a hot day with clear skies and a gentle background wind, sea breezes are likely to develop, usually blowing on to the English South Coast from the south-west quadrant, and from the north-east along the French north coast.

The yacht could find a calm zone in the middle and then an intensifying breeze from a new direction as she closes the far shore.

A good passage plan will anticipate the shift.


AIS is helpful but is not a sure safeguard because the tear-along trimaran that comes out of the murk at 20 knots may not be transmitting AIS data.

A yacht sailing in fog

Even if you have AIS on board, you need to maintain a good lookout in fog. Credit: Graham Snook/YM

Maintaining a good lookout is vital and keeping your boat moving at a good pace improves the chances of taking avoiding action.

Shipping when crossing the Channel

Most ships in the Channel follow predictable tracks, conforming to the separation schemes, and in good visibility, yachts should be able to avoid them.

Complications arise when a vessel diverges to a local destination or alters course to avoid the yacht, which could increase the collision risk if the yacht is about to take her own avoiding action.

Her skipper needs to be alert to the alteration. I prefer to cross shipping lanes in daylight when it is easier to observe any change in a ship’s heading.


Passage planning for crossing the Channel is a standard Yachtmaster exercise and plenty of detail is desirable.

A chart showing route for crossing the Channel

Most of the eastern crossing options can be done within a summer’s day, while western passages will include a night. Remember, you will need to enter France through an official Port of Entry

However, past mid-channel it is usually out of date, on account of wind shifts, surface drift, collision avoidance manoeuvres etc, so it should be re-worked.

For a perfect arrival, monitor your position at intervals.

Boat handling

Life on board is far less stressful when sailing with sheets eased, rather than thrashing to windward, and if there is a choice of routes it is worth choosing the off-wind option.

For example, Swanage to Alderney looks tempting but in a stiff west-southwest wind, the longer hop to Cherbourg might be more relaxing.

Or when heading for L’Aber Wrac’h in a wind backing to south-west, it may be easier to bear away to a more eastern destination such as Roscoff or Port Blanc.

Given a fair wind from abaft the beam, a spinnaker will gain miles and save time but could be a liability in shipping lanes if we need to make a 90° alteration of course at short notice.

And finally…

The single most likely trouble for a yacht on a Channel crossing is machinery failure.

It might be caused by the reliable diesel that isn’t, or a disconnected drive train, or by fouling of the prop, but it is always embarrassing, sometimes dangerous, and is best avoided by correct installation and planned maintenance.

Enjoy it

Crossing the Channel is actually a low-risk activity, undertaken safely by hundreds of yachts each year, which can take us to very pleasant places.

Don’t be put off by all the precautions; they just make it safer.

A note on Ports of Entry in France

The above chart shows popular crossing options, depending on weather, tide and conditions.

Please note that all boats coming from the UK need to enter France via a Port of Entry.

Permanent Ports of Entry along the French Channel coast are: Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne, Dieppe, Le Havre, Honfleur, Caen/Ouistreham, Cherbourg, Carteret, Granville, St Malo, St Brieuc/Légué, and Roscoff.

A new protocol came into effect on 1 June 2024 which granted 53 marinas in France, which are not Ports of Entry, the rights to handle boats arrive from or departing to outside the EU/Schengen area.

Full details can be found here.

Enjoy reading Crossing the Channel: 10 factors for a trouble-free voyage?

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