Department for Transport

The Dover Strait

Crossing the Dover Strait
Traffic Separation Scheme
National Laws
Unconventional crossings of the Dover Strait
CNIS, COLREGS, and the law

The Dover Strait is one of the busiest international seaways in the world, regularly used by over 400 commercial vessels daily.  It became the first International Maritime Organization (IMO) approved Traffic Separation Scheme in the world in the early 1970s, and was the first to come under full radar surveillance.  The Channel Navigation Information Service (CNIS), introduced in 1972, provides a 24 hour radio and radar safety service for all shipping in the Dover Strait, and is jointly operated by the UK and French Administrations from the Dover Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) and CROSS Gris Nez in France.  The Dover Strait is a mandatory reporting area, meaning that vessels over 300 gross tonnes are required to report to either Dover MRCC (South West Lane) or CROSS Gris Nez (North East Lane) before proceeding through the service area.

The functions of CNIS are to keep the Dover Strait Traffic Separation Scheme under observation, to monitor the flow of traffic and to detect and report vessels which contravene the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea 1972, as amended (COLREGS).  

The UK responsibility for operating CNIS is vested in HM Coastguard at Dover MRCC.  The modern technology installed will support the MCA and HM Coastguard in promoting Safety of Life at Sea, enhance Counter Pollution measures and provide improved support for enforcement activity.

Crossing the Dover Strait

In the past, many attempts have been made to cross the Dover Strait by unconventional means and/or in unorthodox craft. Unfortunately, several of these attempts have ended in tragedy, and for this reason it is important to ensure you meet the legal requirements of any Channel crossing (compliance with the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea) as well as ensuring your crossing does not put yourself, or other people at risk.  

The Dover Strait is the busiest shipping lane in the world. Many of the ships passing through the Strait carry dangerous cargoes. These cargoes, if accidentally released into the sea, could have disastrous effects on the environment, marine life and the coastlines of England, France and the North Sea States. The passage of ships through the Dover Strait is further complicated by the presence of strong tides, sandbanks, shoals and a great deal of concentrated cross-channel traffic. Much of the crossing traffic is made up of high-speed ferries carrying as many as 2400 passengers.

The very large vessels passing through the Strait can be difficult to manoeuvre. They may take several miles to stop or turn. Some new container vessels are 318 metres long, 42 metres wide and service speed is 24 knots (35 mph). They have to commit themselves to a course of action long before they can see a swimmer or detect on radar his escort boat, a small rowing dinghy or any other small craft.

Weather conditions in the Strait are liable to rapid change. Even in comparatively light winds, the strong tides can give rise to rough seas with steep breaking waves. Visibility is often poor, changing quickly to dense fog, even in strong or gale-force winds, rendering navigation difficult.

Traffic Separation Scheme

Recognising the dangers of navigation in the Dover Strait, a Traffic Separation Scheme, approved by the International Maritime Organisation, has been established. Two lanes akin to motorways run through the Strait for inward and outward-bound traffic. The Rules for navigating in or near a Traffic Separation Scheme are internationally agreed. The basic guidelines to be followed are set out in Rule 10 of the Merchant Shipping (Distress Signals and Prevention of Collisions)(Amendment) Regulations 1991. Taking into account that the word ‘vessel’ includes every description of watercraft used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water. Rules 10(c) and 10(j) of the Regulations are particularly relevant to any plans to cross the Strait in an unorthodox craft or by unconventional means.

Rule 10(c) first requires that a vessel shall so far as practicable avoid crossing traffic lanes or a Traffic Separation Scheme. Secondly, it requires that if a vessel is obliged to cross traffic lanes it should do so steering at right angles to the direction of traffic flow. Rule 10 (j) requires that a vessel of less than 20 metres in length or a sailing vessel shall not impede the safe passage of a power-driven vessel following a traffic lane.

National Laws

The National Laws of both France and the United Kingdom require compliance with the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea. In addition, according to French law, vessels are classified according to their characteristics, such as beach amusement craft, which in French waters are not allowed to sail more than 300 metres from the coast. Moreover French Law makes it compulsory for organisers of any regattas, racing events, etc., to inform the French Administration in advance.

Unconventional crossings of the Dover Strait in unorthodox craft

Most of the unorthodox craft used in attempts to cross the Dover Strait are very small and have limited speed and ability to manoeuvre. They are not adequate for deep-sea navigation in a heavy traffic area. Their presence, or that of a group of them in the Dover Strait, will dangerously impede the vessels in the traffic lanes and may lead to a marine casualty. It is the view of the Anglo/French Safety of Navigation Group that such crossings are highly irresponsible, and that potential participants must be persuaded to look for a challenge elsewhere, in areas where they do not constitute a hazard to other people going about their lawful activities.

As clearly stated above the Maritime Prefect of the Channel and the North Sea has issued an order (No 14/93) expressly forbidding swimming and associated activity of an unorthodox nature within the Dover Strait Traffic Separation Scheme, within French territorial waters. The sole events excluded from the prohibition are those Cross Channel swimming attempts organised and approved by the Channel Swimming Association (CSA) and the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation(CS&PF). Unorthodox craft, which are characterised by slow speed and poor or non-existent manoeuvrability, such as tyres, bathtubs, rafts and pedalos, are not authorised to proceed more than 300 metres from the French coast. As a consequence they do not have the right to sail in French territorial waters within the Pas de Calais Traffic Separation Scheme. The French Maritime Authorities prohibit crossings of the Pas de Calais by unorthodox craft setting out from the French coast. The same applies to beach pleasure craft. However, in exceptional cases the French Maritime Authorities may grant authority for unorthodox craft to cross French territorial waters within the Traffic Separation Scheme when these craft set off from the British coast, on condition that the request for authorisation is sent to them with the opinion of the British Maritime Authorities.

Once you are certain you have met the above requirements you must also inform Dover Coastguard and CROSS Gris Nez of your intentions. You will find their contact details below.

Dover Coastguard

Dover Coastguard
Langdon Battery
CT15 5NA

Telephone:01304 218500
Fax:01304 218505

French Coastguard

Centre Régional Opérational de Surveillance et de Sauvetage (CROSS) Gris Nez
Audinghen 62179

Telephone:(00 33) 3 21 87 21 87
Fax:(00 33) 3 21 87 78 55