The Solent is one of the top yachting hotspots in the world. It has seen the sport of sailing grow from a time when only kings and their acolytes were wealthy enough to sail for fun to today's global yachting centre. On a sunny day, they say you can walk across the water to the Isle of Wight, stepping on yachts all the way!
Though not quite as crowded as the myth would have it, thanks to the double high tide and reliable, steady winds that funnel through it, this is one of the best sailing destinations in the world. Whether standing ashore and watching America’s Cup, Vendee Globe and other cutting edge craft fly at impossible speeds or simply pottering about afloat yourself, you cannot ignore sailing on this crucible of British yachting.
Competition is one of the core elements of sailing on the Solent. From bases like Cowes, the Hamble, Portsmouth Harbour, Gosport and Lymington you will see some of the best sailors and yachts in the world in action on the best craft marine architects have ever developed.
You don’t, however, have to be a Ben Ainslie, Alex Thomson or Robin Knox Johnson to have fun on these waters. At about 20 miles long (even more including nearby Poole Harbour) there are many marinas and waterways big and small that take craft ranging from 350,000-tonne oil tankers to 15ft RIBs and everything in between.
This area is so diverse in its water sports that almost anything goes. You may charter for the competition such as Cowes Week with or without a professional skipper an even a MOD70 trimaran to break a world record!
However, there are ample opportunities to use the waters as a jumping-off point to explore the UK South Coast on a multi-day trip or even just to venture out on a day sail to the Isle of Wight.
Whatever your budget or plans for a Solent yacht charter there is something for you. You can hire a RIB to take your friends for a blast up Southampton Water or go fishing on the backwaters around Lymington or Christchurch. You can charter to race in one of the hundreds of sailing events that take place from there from club events to the Round the Island Race and Cowes Week.
The South Coast and Isle of Wight have so much to offer in terms of hospitality to yachtsmen that you could just go on a multi-day pub crawl between Lymington and Chichester, challenging your liver with a daily onslaught of fine foods and beer – sometimes with a dedicated pub dock! Just over 100 miles away is Normandy and the Channel Islands for those seeking adventure and a change of scene.
If you have the right qualifications for the vessel you need (we will discuss these later) then you will find it easy to rent the boat you want. You just need to pay the fee for the boat, a security deposit and off you go.
No matter where you go in this area by sea nowhere is more than an afternoon’s journey even on a plump cruising monohull. There is so much to explore – and the sailing is so varied – that you could revisit these waters for years and still have a lot to learn!
Both on the English mainland and the Isle of Wight there are a large number of places from which to charter from. Let’s look at the main areas to sail out of.
Southampton Water: This is a major waterway in its own right. Stretching from Calshot Spit right up to the River Test it has deep, navigable waters with channels up to 30 metres deep even at low tide. That means everything that floats can – and often is – seen on this waterway. The yachting centres of the Rivers Itchen and Hamble both feed into the estuary – you will see every vessel here from Optimists to container ships.
Chichester, Poole and Christchurch: These are three natural harbours that are big enough to sail on and not really need to leave in their own right! Whether fishing, serious sailing or just poking around the backwaters these are some of the best water sports venues in the world bar none. The River Lymington and Beaulieu River are nice retreats from the hustle and bustle of the main channel area.
The Isle of Wight: This is home to Cowes Week and has a long boating history. Many pubs serve food in sufficient quantity to sate a hungry sailor yet don’t skimp on quality – though some are hard to book a table at even a year ahead! Circumnavigating the island can be done in just hours on a carbon race machine, though most sailors try to time it by the tides so the wind isn’t the only thing that drives them!
Below is a list of the main towns from which to hire boats from:
Southampton: Ocean Village is the main marina in the city that is famed as being the departure point of the Titanic (which left from where the marina is today). Many a major race has been based out of there from the Whitbread to the Clipper Round the World Race.
However, you have the marinas on the River Itchen that may seem quieter but still have an impact on the yachting world.
Hamble le Rice: At the mouth of one of the most popular sailing rivers in the world, Hamble le Rice has a number of marinas that are home to everything from multimillion-pound racing yachts to modest tubs sailed at the weekends by locals. It has some brilliant pubs and restaurants frequented by yachting types that help make the village one of the yachting Meccas of the world.
Hamble River: With the marinas of Hamble le Rice, Warsash and Swanwick, as well as its easy access to Southampton Water and Port Hamble, the River Hamble has been used for sailing over hundreds of years. Royal Navy and merchant ships used to be built and repaired on its shores and today the Warsash Maritime Academy teaches merchant and leisure sailors the skills they need to travel the world safely. Many a boat lies on its mooring buoys – a privilege for the owner to get that can involve years on waiting lists!
Lymington: Home to some of the top yacht designers and even a leading sailing publication or two Lymington sits on the western edge of the area itself. Though shallow in spots and there are speed restrictions further up, this is one of the jumping off points for many a sailing adventure. You can even take a trip by car ferry to the Isle of Wight and Yarmouth across the water
Poole: Poole Harbour is a boating centre in its own right, just a decent couple of hours’ reaching away. This natural harbour with its islands and beaches is widely held as one of the best places to potter about in boats in the world, and is home to the RNLI and superyacht builders Sunseeker.
Chichester: Another stunning natural harbour on the eastern edge of the area, much of Chichester Harbour is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and has much to explore without going into open water.
Portsmouth and Gosport: Portsmouth has long rivalled Southampton as the nautical centre of the United Kingdom. The city itself is an island, and is a busy commercial, naval and leisure harbour with Gunwharf Quay at the heart of the scene. The UK’s America’s Cup team base is here, and across in Gosport you may notice a boat or two that’s designed to take on the world too.
Cowes and the Isle of Wight: The Royal Yacht Squadron is based on the northern shore of Cowes, a 10 minute walk from the fast catamaran ferry to Southampton. That’s not the be-all and end-all of sailing on the Isle of Wight. The River Medina is navigable almost to Newport, while Bembridge and Yarmouth are major sailing centres in their own right.
Almost everything that can float has been on these waters, here's a list of options below:
Sailing Yachts: Yachts come in a variety of sizes from 150ft+ monsters to lightning-quick dinghies. Traditionally the monohull sailing yacht is comfortable if slovenly charter yacht of choice. You can charter for a week or two to explore the South Coast and beyond. There is a variety of vessels beyond that fit this description too.
Motorboat: Motor cruisers or a motor yacht come in different sizes from a comfortable 35ft right up to the fully crewed superyachts or luxury yacht charter. They are simpler to drive than a sailing yacht and are a good way of covering a decent daily distance. Plymouth or even Le Havre aren’t outside a day’s motoring on a motorboat.
Catamaran: The catamarans most commonly chartered are luxury yachts with all the comforts you need yet can be sailed without a professional crew. They are spacious and comfortable with great entertaining spaces, perhaps after watching the events on the water that day or for business networking.
RIB: You can hire a RIB of different sizes for getting about the area in speed and style. On a larger rib charter, you can large inboard engines and water jets for speed and manoeuvrability, and have the space to take more than five guests with you – sometimes even in an enclosed bridge. The smaller ones can be fun either as workboats or just for a jolly.
Speedboat: A speedboat is more of a day boat than a machine for powering across the Channel. These are fun for entertaining guests and watching the world go by as you sprint around this famous waterway.
You don’t need to know much to enjoy life afloat in this area and you can hire a skipper for as little as £150 a day.
Skippered Yacht Hire: You may have the experience but not the confidence to go it alone, or you may just want to do something completely different to live ashore by going sailing for a day, week or more. For a fee that differs according to the size and type of vessel, you can have a skippered yacht charter. You can also do a sailing course in this way as there are many RYA training centres which run RYA courses in the area or focus on relaxing – the choice is yours.
Bareboat Yacht Charter: If you have the qualifications and confidence to take a boat out yourself then you can book a bareboat charter. Many people choose not to own a big-ticket item like a boat these days but instead charter in different locations around the world. This could be you – whether a blast out to lunch on the Isle of Wight on a sunny day or a week up the South Coast, you’re free to choose.
Unlike many nations of the world, you do not need qualifications to sail on British waters as long as the vessel is under 20 metres or so in size. Smaller, less powerful yachts and dinghies can often be hired on this basis. That said, insurance companies have other ideas where it comes to chartering many vessels. It will be easier to charter a RIB or speedboat if you have at least an RYA Powerboat Level 2. For an overnight yacht charter or a motorboat, monohull or catamaran you will have less trouble if you have an ICC, RYA Day Skipper or ASA 104 Bareboat.
If you are hiring a skipper to sail the boat for you, you again don’t need to be an experienced sailor.
You will see hardier types on the water almost any time of the year. There will be times in March and September when it is very good sailing weather too. April to September is the typical season for many, with July and August the busiest times.
Between early and mid-August you will find the waters at their busiest with Cowes Week and the Round the Island Race a highlight. You may be racing or like thousands, just taking in the atmosphere and marine sights.
The Southampton International Boat Show typically heralds the end of the sailing season in September.
Through most of the year, you will see westerlies process up the Channel as they arrive in Europe having crossed the Atlantic. In Spring, summer and early autumn, these can be the very best sailing weather. At almost any time of the year however a nasty low pressure can blast through, and when strong westerlies hit the Needles on the westernmost point of the Isle of Wight they funnel down through the channel between the mainland and the Isle of Wight and can hit big speeds.
During the summer you can get easterlies and these tend to be rather gentle with flat calms common. As with the westerlies, there can be some funnelling and you will often get more of a breeze than outside of the area.
The Isle of Wight can cause a wind shadow for southerlies that sometimes can hammer the South Coast in summer. That’s good until around Calshot when you can find yourself in bigger winds thanks to the funnelling of Southampton Water. Calshot Spit at least keeps the waves gentler than they might be to the south.
For a Solent charter, a lot depends on your budget but for as little as £50 you can take a smaller day boat out for a few hours on a day charter. £120 a day will get you a smaller boat you can spend the night aboard. £500 a day a mid-sized motor cruiser, and £1000 a day a catamaran. Superyachts with a crew will cost a lot more.
There are seasonal variations to these costs, with supply and demand being a factor that drives the market.
Yes it is. Yachting is a multibillion pound industry in the area and you can legally hire almost anything that you wish, as long as you conform to insurance requirements.
You are typically able to hire catamarans, motor cruisers, RIBs, monohull sailing yachts, and speed boats. These come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes and a lot depends on your budget, most options can we chartered with crew or bareboat.
Your main consideration should be the purpose of using it. The next thing to consider is your qualifications and experience to take it on one of the busiest waterways in the world. How much can you afford? Between these three you should narrow your decision down.
The best time can be June and early July with great winds and often enough excellent weather. August is far busier and typically pricier, but May and September while the kids are at school can be great times to go afloat too, at a lower cost.
Yes you do. You will have to pay up to 50% on agreeing to book the vessel, and then the balance on the day. You will also have to pay a security deposit or for insurance against damage.
If you are in grave danger and are about to sink or have had a serious collision you should call MAYDAY on VHF Ch16. If you can get to a mooring first, do so then phone the charter company who will help you with your problem.
What’s your experience in taking a boat out? This might lead to you getting a skipper or a smaller craft. Are you qualified to take a boat out of this type? What’s your budget? Have your crew experience sailing? This might limit your plans if none. Think of the younger and less mobile folk you have with you.
If you are from North America, Australasia and much of Europe you should be alright without one. Do check with the UK Embassy in your country if you are uncertain.