A congested sea
Authors: Louis Shurmer-Smith, Frédérique Turbout



Southampton - © Guy Milledrogues, 2007.


When he was inspecting the French coast in 1686, Vauban noted in his report: “When one leaves the port of Cherbourg, before one is six leagues seaward, one discovers everything that is happening in England and on our coasts.” Three centuries later, whoever finds themselves at sea after nightfall will perceive dozens of light sources of all sizes and intensities, ahead, astern, to port and to starboard, in all directions, all moving over the surface of the water, the most distant gliding silently along the horizon, the largest accompanied by the muffled rumble of engines. By day, replacing these lights, ships several tens of metres long, twenty - and thirty-metre - high cliffs of sheer metal, sometimes doubled in height by towering cargoes of multicoloured boxes, follow each other in close succession. Car ferries, the size of small transatlantic liners sitting high in the water, hasten across the big ships' routes, on perpendicular headings. Fishing boats twelve to twenty metres long with a few crewmen on board trail their nets at low speed, only hauling in the trawl after several miles of fishing; they sometimes come very close to the big vessels, while leisure yachts, under sail or power depending on the weather, cross their paths in a plethora of trajectories, the numbers of leisure boats increasing with proximity to the harbours.

In such places, one's attention is caught on all sides, by sails, colours, boats of very different shapes and speeds: a veritable ballet, decidedly aesthetic under the summer sun, during calm nights or at sunrise, and unavoidably intriguing. Where have all these boats and ships come from? Where are they heading? How do they manage to perform this strange dance, in which each of them seems to find its place? This intense activity, this permanent occupancy that is tending towards saturation, from the first to the last day of the year, peaking in summer with regard to leisure sailing, makes the English Channel the busiest sea in the world.

Coming from around the planet, and leaving in the direction of Asia, Africa and America, nearly 500 ships of over 300 tons enter and leave the Channel every day. The volume of traffic is even more spectacular when considered relative to smaller units of time: 20 craft on average per hour and 1 every 3 minutes… The cross-Channel traffic is no less intense: 4 million lorries per year, equivalent to 1 lorry every 8 seconds, 90 to 120 daily rotations by ferries between the continent, the British Isles and the Channel Islands, and over 17 million passengers annually. If we add to that the 2 300 fishing craft and a portion of the 350 000 leisure craft licensed in the area, we have all the ingredients of the maritime ballet that can but attract the attention of all those who sail this sea.

The entire sea is in use along its 600 km length between Ushant and Lizard Point at the western end and the Dover Strait in the East, but this usage nevertheless varies in intensity. It is in the Strait, of course, where the greatest level of activity is concentrated. The passage narrows for in-bound and out-bound traffic at the point of the shortest distance between the coasts, and where the cross-Channel traffic is most intense. Of the 120 rotations per day that take place throughout the Channel, 40 take place in the Strait. Of the 17 million passengers that cross the Channel by sea, 14 million cross in the Strait. A lorry crosses the Strait by sea every 13.25 seconds and by the Tunnel every 22.5 seconds. Even so, other parts of the Channel are also busy. The level of activity remains high everywhere, but with one focal point of maximum concentration.

In the central part of the Channel, the East-West traffic adds to the intensity of movement. Most of it is in transit, but a part turns south towards the Seine Bay, Le Havre, the Antifer oil terminal, and Rouen, further up the Seine, or northwards towards Portsmouth and Southampton. With growing cross-Channel traffic exceeding 2 million passengers annually, freight operators would welcome the opening of new routes between the ports of Cherbourg, Caen-Ouistreham, Le Havre, and Dieppe on the one hand, and Poole, Weymouth, Southampton, Portsmouth, and Newhaven on the other. The opening of the Channel Tunnel temporarily raised fears that traffic in this sector would suffer as a result. However, whereas it led initially to a profound reorganisation of cross-Channel traffic in the Strait and had a strong impact on the Newhaven – Dieppe route, the Tunnel has, above all added new traffic. Traffic in the central and western parts has been eroded, but threats in the future derive more from its own organisation and competition from
low-cost airlines.

In the central Channel, the two estuaries, the Seine and the Solent, are areas of dense traffic, due not only to the large ships approaching these ports but also the highest levels of concentration of fishing and leisure craft. The Seine Bay is a sought-after fishing area and whole flotillas of leisure sailing and motorised craft criss-cross the Solent between the Isle of Wight and this estuarine complex of numerous ports, marinas, and river anchorages. The north of the Channel Islands, off Alderney, is another busy section of the chart of this narrow sea; all types of shipping meet here, the Channel Islands generating their own traffic, links with the “mainland” (Great Britain), fishing in relatively well-stocked waters, and the interest in leisure sailing. The strength of currents and dangerous coastlines add to the hazards.

To the west of the Cotentin, between Brittany and Cornwall, the sea traffic is busy, but with more space available, 175 km from coast to coast, without a major port destination in the vicinity. International traffic sometimes sails by, close to these coasts. 10 ferry crossings leave the ports of Saint-Malo and Roscoff every day, passengers and lorries transit in large numbers, but volume of traffic nowhere near approaches the congestion in the Strait. The movements of fishing and leisure craft are greater around Penzance, Newlyn, Plymouth, Brixham, Saint-Malo, Dinard, Paimpol… but with more available space and, each side gener-ating its own local traffic, the western Channel does not face the congestion found around the two estuaries and the Strait further east.

International maritime commerce underwent a significant change when, during the 1960s, containers, 20-foot “boxes,” were introduced for their ease of handling. The bulk of currently transported merchandise is shipped in this way. The rise of the Chinese economy against a background of increased exchange has considerably boosted the demand for transport. This strong growth and the absolute dominance of maritime transport, which accounts for 80% of world trade, constitute two powerful motors of the intensification of traffic that is destined to continue.

The race for giant unit size has been re-launched, with ever-bigger ships, and ever more powerful engines. In 2006, the ship owners Mæsrk commissioned the construction of one of the most powerful for the Europe-Asia route: the Emma-Mæsrk carries 13 000 containers and is 397 metres long. It is powered by a diesel engine and two electric engines with a total of 120 000 horsepower, and is crewed by a team of 13 men. These giants of the oceans move through the Channel several times a year. Most of them are container ships, but oil tankers are numerous as well, ahead of the large group of gas, chemical and bulk carriers of all types and sizes. A not insignificant proportion of traffic in the Channel is made up of empty ships. This situation, which is very surprising at first sight, is explained by the imbalance of exchanges, conflicts of interest, levels of organisation, or disorganisation, of maritime transport. For companies chartering container ships coming from Asia, their immediate financial interests are best served by returning very quickly to reload with awaiting merchandise. Many of the ships delivering to the smaller ports in the Channel also set off empty when heading back to their ports of origin.

The fishing boats that share the Channel with these enormous ships divide into two main categories: large units - which are around 30 to 40 m long, seen as really big for fishing but tiny by the yardstick of commercial ships – and small units around 10 to 20 m long. The largest among them leave for trips lasting several weeks, although the fisheries in question have been greatly reduced over the last few years. Boulogne was – and still is – the largest fishing port on the French coast. The fleet moves through the Channel to reach the fishing grounds in the North Sea, Irish Sea, Norwegian Sea, as well as off the Hebrides. Those of intermediate size leave for a few days and combine fishing in the Channel, off the Channel Islands, with forays into the Irish Sea, while the smallest but most numerous category of boat practises coastal fishing at most a few hours from the home port. The passage to their fishing grounds or when fishing, brings them into close proximity with other shipping. Their main area of activity remains that of the Channel.

Leisure sailing is an old activity in the Channel. Several factors encouraged its development. Seaside tourism was born in Georgian Brighton and later the resorts of Normandy during the Second Empire, all generating recreational activities. The proximity of large cities created a catchment area for locals interested in sailing and, lastly, the configuration of the coastlines, studded with islands and navigational circuits, often challenging, yet attractive. The design, size and technology of sailing boats have all changed enormously, particularly over the last three decades, with motor cruising now occupying a prominent place. The overall trend has not changed: numbers of leisure craft have grown constantly to reach around 175 000 boats registered on the English side and as many again on the French side. There are no statistics on the number of days spent at sea in the Channel, but it is safe to assume a continuous increase since the 1960s. While the whole Channel area is affected, with concentrations of activity around each port or anchorage, several locations are particularly favoured and always busy.

Foremost is the Solent, ahead of all other yachting venues: thousands of leisure craft, racing yachts, luxury yachts, and smaller boats for amateur sailors regularly set out from the dozens of marinas and anchorages stretching along the coast from Beaulieu to Chichester harbour.

The coasts that border the Brittany-Normandy divide probably come a close second. Less clearly defined, and covering a wider area, between Cherbourg, the Channel Islands, Granville, Saint-Malo, and Dinard, the navigation circuits, the islands, the beautiful scenery and the choice of moorings attract many English and French leisure sailors from the rest of the area. Further to the west along the coasts of both peninsulas into Brittany and Cornwall, and similarly eastwards along the coasts of Normandy and Picardy, Sussex and Kent, leisure sailing remains very popular but does not achieve the same concentration of activity seen in the central Channel area.

In parallel with the steady growth of this recreational activity, the last half century has also seen the unprecedented expansion of cross-Channel ferry traffic plying between Britain and France. With their contrasting and colourful liveries, the ships of a dozen or so private companies have today become arguably the most familiar sight on the Channel. It was the last crossing of the Sealink steamer Caesarea in October 1980 that marked the end of an impressive line of British Railway passenger ferries that dated back well into the 19th century.

Yet it was only some 30 years earlier that saw the development of the first “car ferries,” which were to totally transform passenger transport across the Channel. The first ferry built with this in mind, a rear loader, was launched on the Ostende-Dover route in June 1949. The first English initiative was the Lord Warden on the Dover-Boulogne route in 1952. The SNCF opened its first Dover-Calais link in 1958 with the Compiègne. In 1964, Otto Thoresen imported Scandinavian experience to the Channel in introducing the first bow loading, stern off-loading ferries. A fleet of three ships, still with Norwegian registration (which earned them the nickname “Viking Invasion”) Viking 1, 2 and 3 operated the Southampton-Cherbourg and Southampton-Le Havre routes. The age of the super-ferry had arrived.

The ships got bigger and better equipped. The most recently launched are similar to small transatlantic cruise ships, very comfortable, and a long way from the noisy 1960s ferries, smelling of diesel. Traffic increased from the 1970s to the 1990s, peaking in 1994, with 28 million passengers. The Tunnel opened in the same year, adding several million under the Dover Strait when it became fully operational. Currently, traffic has dropped slightly, but remains high: 17 million by sea, 9 million by tunnel. Freight traffic is increasing steadily, with 4 million lorries per year crossing the Channel, of which 1.3 million cross
via the Tunnel (2007).

In contrast to leisure sailing, maximum intensity focuses on the Strait. 80% of the ferry traffic is located there. This does not mean that the remaining 20%, covering all the other routes from the Newhaven-Dieppe link to Roscoff-Plymouth, do not carry their share of passengers: 3.1 million per year cross the central and western Channel. The opening of the Tunnel really jolted the ferry operators' field of operation, but globally opened up new niches and added traffic. The suppression of intra-European duty-free, differences in social legislation, ferry company strategies, and competition from low-cost airlines, much more than the Tunnel, influenced the constant reorganisation of cross-Channel traffic. History, the nature of shareholdings, and different group strategies contributed greatly to changing the cross-Channel ferry industry.

Bigger, faster, more comfortable ferries, ever greater numbers of lorries transported, cross-Channel traffic will continue to increase its share of usage of this narrow sea. In doing so, it will further reinforce its character as a small Franco-British sea.