Planning your first cross-channel trip

“The thought of skippering your first cross channel passage can be daunting if you’re used to hopping around the Solent. Mileage weekends provide a good opportunity to plan and skipper a passage with the safety net of a skipper or instructor on board. But if you’re ready to charter a yacht and skipper your own cross-channel trip then here are a few tips about planning your passage from the comfort of your living room.

I’ve assumed that you don’t have a full set of Solent and cross-channel charts or an English Channel Tidal Atlas lying around at home so I’ve also recommended some apps that can be used for pre-planning. See our new Apps webpage for more details.

I’ve used Hamble to Cherbourg as an example passage as it is probably the most straightforward cross-channel passage.”
Good luck, Alex.
Chief Instructor, Hamble Point Sailing School

Starting your planning
Once you’ve made your charter reservation, and have set dates, you can start to consider the tides for your cross-channel journey. At this point you can plan to expect the prevailing south-westerly winds but keep an eye on the forecasts nearer the time of the charter and be ready to change your plans accordingly. I’ve used Saturday 22nd August in my example. This date is a little after springs but the range of tide on that date is greater than the mean range so I will need to extrapolate the tidal rates.

Distance and duration
The online Navionics Web App is free to use and is great for basic planning before you have access to the on-board HPYC charts. A quick Navionics route shows that the whole trip, is around 80NM with the longest leg, from The Needles to Cherbourg being around 60NM.

Assuming a boat speed of 5 or 6 knots this will mean a total journey time of around 15 hours. In all likelihood this will mean that some of the trip will be in darkness hours. For your first crossing, it is a good choice to depart in the early hours and arrive in Cherbourg during daytime. My plan assumes leaving Hamble at an eye watering but sensible 0300!

Tides – Hamble Point to The Needles
There are no tidal height constraints between Hamble Point and Cherbourg for any of the HYPC yachts. Therefore, timing wise its simply a case of finding a favourable tidal stream for the 20NM, 3 to 4 hour journey, from Hamble Point Marina and out through The Needles.

This is where the interactive tidal atlas within the Imray Tides Planner app is incredibly useful. This tells us that the tidal hours of Portsmouth HW to HW+4 are favourable to leave Hamble and exit The Needles. If you choose a specific date then the app will also give you the actual times of the tidal hours.

The animation shows an extract from the app. At the top you can see how easy it is to scroll trough the tidal hours to find a window that works.

Tides – cross channel

The cross channel part of the journey, at 60NM is likely to take around 10-12 hours and that’s a lot of tide to consider. In this cross-tide situation the most efficient method is to average multiple hours’ worth of tide and prepare a course-to-steer based on the offset as shown below.

  1. Work out your likely time, or tidal hour, of arrival at the The Needles Fairway buoy. I’ve assumed arriving here between 0600 and 0700. Note that the cross-channel tidal atlas refers to Dover HW (the Solent tidal atlas refers to Portsmouth HW).
  2. Find the tidal rate for the next 12 hours (or however long you expect the 60NM passage to take based on your estimated boat speed). You will need to estimate where you will be en-route at each hour. I’ve drawn a very basic sketch of the cross-channel leg and roughly divided it into 12 hours.
  3. If the date of your intended trip is between springs and neaps then you will need to interpolate or extrapolate the tidal rates. There are various methods:
    1. This can usually be done using some basic mental arithmetic … springs plus a little bit.
    2. The textbook approach is to use a ‘Computation of Rates’ table (downloadable below).
    3. Alternatively, use a calculator. Enter ‘Today’s tidal range’ ÷ ‘Mean springs range’ x ‘Today’s springs rate’ = Today’s interpolated/extrapolated rate (see below).
  4. Whichever method of extrapolation you have used, the next step is to add up the east-going tidal rates, add up the west-going tidal rates then subtract the difference. This gives you the net tidal rate for the tidal vector of your course-to-steer (once you have access to paper charts).

Other bits of planning you can do in advance:

  1. If you own the Navionics App you can identify the latitude and longitude of some waypoints and draft some pilotage plans including light sequences for the Hamble to Needles leg. Looking at satellite photos of Cherbourg may also help you to visualise the layout.
  2. Identify some suitable ports of refuge
  3. Plan a watch system (especially if you are getting up at 0200!). It is highly recommended that the skipper is on watch when approaching and crossing the shipping lanes.
  4. Plan your menu … and maybe a good point in the journey to make bacon sandwiches!

Navigation tools and documentation
The HPYC boats all have the Reeds Nautical Almanac, Admiralty charts that cover the English Channel, a Shell Channel Pilot, a Portland plotter and dividers on board – as well as an electronic chart plotter! The English Channel tidal stream atlas can be put on board on request.

The yachts carry a French courtesy flag (and the ’Q’ flag for the Channel Islands). Every boat has the necessary boat paperwork on board (SSR Registration, insurance, Bill of Sale, VAT status and Ship’s Radio Licence). As skipper, you need to ensure that you carry your Marine Radio Short Range Certificate (SRC) and your sailing qualification such as RYA Coastal Skipper. Every crew member should also bring their passport and, at the time of writing, their European Health Insurance Card. Don’t forget some Euros!