Is this the eco-friendly Channel crossing of the future?

Crossing the Channel from England to France has had some bad press this summer – huge queues at Dover, trains stuck in tunnels, ferries being cancelled. But a new startup, SailLink, aims to offer an eco-friendly alternative – a pioneering wind-powered catamaran option for cyclists and pedestrians from Dover to Boulogne-sur-Mer – that it hopes to launch next year.

SailLink plans to start running its return daily foot passenger service from spring 2023 to late summer, with a crossing taking four hours. The one-way fare likely to be £85, which is nearly three times the price of P&O’s 90-minute Dover-Calais crossing. Additional routes from Ramsgate to Dunkirk and potentially Newhaven to Dieppe may follow. “This would be a new form of public transport,” said SailLink founder Andrew Simons, “and a serious sailing experience at the same time.”

The launch is dependent on securing sufficient finance and a suitable boat, but SailLink is being supported in business development by Blue Living Lab in Boulogne-sur-Mer, and with a mix of sponsorship, crowdfunding and a loan, Simons is confident the project will go ahead as scheduled.

A series of pilot trips ran last week – and I joined the first to depart Dover. We left from the charter platoon of the new marina at 5pm, landing at Chanzy quay in Boulogne on schedule four hours later; the catamaran’s sails bathed in the faint orange glow of a rising harvest moon.

We will appeal to people looking for an alternative but convenient travel experience with some adventure …

Andrew Simons, SailLink founder

Our boat, the 12-metre Mago Merlino used for the pilot phase, was licensed to carry just six paying passengers and two bicycles – but SailLink aims to launch with a larger vessel for 12 passengers and 12 bikes, with space for wheelchairs too. The company plans to adapt an existing boat in the first instance and then build its own, once the concept has been sufficiently developed and demonstrated. As well as sail power, the boat will have an electric propulsion system recharged by onboard solar panels and overnight in the harbour.

“While we will mainly rely on wind power, we will have to use mechanical propulsion when the wind drops and to get in and out of ports,” said Simons, an environmental scientist specialising in the lifecycle assessment of transport and energy systems. “We will particularly appeal to cyclists and foot passengers wanting the ocean experience, people looking for an alternative but convenient travel experience with some adventure, not just the green aspect.”

The Dover Strait is the busiest seaway in the world, plied by hundreds of large vessels daily. “You’re sailing across international waters on the open sea on a very tidal stretch of water,” stressed Simons. “You can only normally get to do this if you know experienced people with boats or you’re part of a club.”

You can only normally get to do this if you know experienced people with boats or you’re part of a club

Andrew Simons

It’s also a hands-on experience, should you wish to help. Skipper Toby Duerden – a commercial yachtsman and sailing instructor – entrusted me with a measuring device to train on container ships, and by calculating the changing angles of approach, we modified our course to steer us clear. At other times I kicked back and relaxed, dozing in one of the two “trampoline” nets at the front of the catamaran.

Having never been on a yacht, I expected to be thrown around by the waves and was prepared to be seasick; neither happened. I even ate on both crossings, with Simons providing bread and cheese to those who wanted it (we all did). We never got close to any big ships, but being out on an open deck, close to the waves, does give a greater appreciation of the power of the sea.

The 31-mile crossing relies on prevailing winds; consequently, there’s no guarantee the journey will stay on schedule. And in rough weather, SailLink might have to cancel some sailings and offer passengers a transfer to a car ferry. Our crossing from Dover to Boulogne, with the breeze at our back, was straight; the return journey the following afternoon involved zig-zagging to catch the gusts.

Related: Dover ferry passengers advised to arrive early amid fears of summer-long disruption

The pilot phase also gave Simons the chance to test procedures with border control. Passport details have to be provided in advance of travel and UK and non-Schengen area passengers need to get passports stamped by the Police aux Frontières who will meet the boat on week days. At weekends passengers requiring a stamp will need to travel to Calais, 40 minutes by train. Arrivals and departures in Dover will be subject to ad hoc border force checks.

With only one car ferry service to Calais currently open to foot traffic – and no bikes (apart from fold-ups) currently allowed on Eurostar, SailLink says it will offer a much-needed car-free alternative. There are no longer any crossings from Dover to Boulogne, the car ferry service stopped in 2008.

Margate removals man Wayne Godfrey was one of the five fellow passengers on the pilot crossing and, like me, he brought his bicycle with him. He said he would take the journey “again and again” because of its therapeutic and environmentally friendly credentials. “I read about the trip in a local newspaper,” he said. “What a fun thing to do, I thought.”