Giant oil tankers, a starry sky and a pre-arrival Covid-19 form: What it’s like sailing across the English Channel

An oil tanker the size of a colossal iceberg moved like a slug on the horizon, while a cargo ship with similar giant dimensions trailed slowly behind.

I was about halfway across the English Channel from the port town of Cherbourg in France to Gosport, Hampshire, on the UK’s south coast and just entered one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

It was the maiden voyage in my partner’s new sailboat, a 45.9ft aluminium hull yacht made by the French shipbuilder Allures Yachting.

We were filled with a mixture of excitement and trepidation on making our first crossing and neither of us had sailed the Channel before.

The stretch of water is notoriously dangerous, with temperamental weather conditions and strong tidal currents.

I had learned to sail last year by participating in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, where I had an intensive four-week training course in preparation for crossing the South Atlantic from Uruguay to South Africa.

Sadie seen on deck while crossing the English Channel (Picture: Sadie Whitelocks)

Fortunately, on the day we crossed the English Channel it was a world away from the gnarly grey South Atlantic, with clear blue skies and calm sea conditions.

We had set off just after 2 am as we were unsure how long the voyage would take and we’d heard some people taking as long as 16 hours to make the crossing – some 71 nautical miles, the equivalant of 81 miles – with poor winds.

It was pretty exciting setting off from Cherbourg harbour – the world’s second-biggest manmade marina after Ras Laffan Harbour in Qatar – in the silent darkness.

A giant oil tanker is seen on the horizon while navigating the shipping lane (Picture: Sadie Whitelocks)

It had been a while since I’d seen such a beautiful night sky with thousands of stars twinkling like a sea of glitter and the odd shooting star making an appearance.

Given the lack of wind, we spent the first portion of the journey using the yacht’s engine, which saw us travel at around 8 knots or 9 miles per hour.

It was fairly chilly when we set out but around 6 am, the sun started rising, with a large orange disc on the horizon steadily ascending.

There was no-one else around as we bobbed along on the wash of water, with the odd bird our only company.

It was only when we hit the shipping lane that we had to be careful to monitor the traffic on the yacht’s computer screens with tankers and cargo ships moving in both directions.

Pictured at the helm of the yacht with the sun rising (Picture: Sadie Whitelocks)

The computers tell you the risk of collision and if you need to reroute.

Luckily we made it through the tide of traffic in one piece and put the sails up with the wind speed increasing. We managed around 7 knots or 8 miles an hour at one point.

The most wonderful part of sailing, I learned from my stint on the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, is the excitement at seeing land again.

After a good 10 hours of seeing nothing but water, the Isle of Wight clearly came into view with its milky golden cliffs and green slopes making for an attractive view.

There were a few more sailboats around the island and a foiling catamaran flew past us at one point.

From the Isle of Wight, we rounded the corner to see Portsmouth in the distance, with the distinctive Emirates Spinnaker Tower rearing its head.

The English Channel crossing took Sadie and her partner around 12 hours (Picture: Sadie Whitelocks)

Gosport is located just opposite Portsmouth and there are a good few harbours to choose from.

We opted for the Royal Clarence Marina as a fellow sailor had recommended it for its facilities, especially the sparkling shower block.

The marina operator told us we had to complete a Public Health Passenger Locator Form before we arrived in the UK from France which has been recently introduced as part of the Covid-19 tracking measures.

It was easy to fill out the form online, with passport details and contact information required and the finished document emailed back.

After we pulled into the marina around 2 pm my mum messaged asking, ‘Was it scary?’

I replied saying for us, the 12-hour English Channel crossing had been a breeze.

I will remember that twinkling night sky for some good time to come, along with the colossal slug-like oil tankers stealthily slinking along.

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