Every day, more than 500 ships from all corners of the globe set out to navigate the bustling waters of the English Channel.

Huge merchant vessels carrying every category of cargo imaginable — from iron ore to wheat, and from crude oil to sugar — sail amongst fishing vessels, passenger ferries, pleasure craft and more unorthodox traffic such as swimmers.

Keeping this narrow body of water that separates England and France clear is vital for a wide range of economic as well as recreational travel purposes.

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But as passenger and cargo vessels become longer, wider and more frequent, ensuring a smooth passageway in a straight just 34 kilometers (21 miles) across at its shortest navigable point has come to represent a considerable logistical challenge.

“It is the busiest shipping lane in the world,” explained senior watch manager of the Dover coastguard, Tony Evans.” And this is not including small pleasure craft (and) motorboats.”

“Today we have 12 attempts at swimming the Channel. Obviously that has some bearing on the traffic in the fact that vessels may need to take action to avoid them,” he added.

Given the waterway’s strategic importance, it is perhaps little surprise that the English Channel has long been at the vanguard of maritime planning and safety.

The world’s first sea-traffic separation scheme was set up here in 1972 creating two lanes of traffic that ships must follow to avoid collisions.

Vessels traveling north have to use the French side, whilst the English lane is used for those traveling south. The basic premise of this system still exists today.

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Further lanes that dictate the flow of traffic from east and west — east towards the North Sea and ports in Northern Europe and west towards the Atlantic Ocean — have also been formed on both the English and French sides of the Channel (see traffic movement in video below).

Today these routes are regularly plied by some of the biggest cargo ships on earth, including the recently launched Maersk Triple E which at 400 meters long is the world’s largest operational vessel.

Coastguard duties

According to Kaimes Beasley of the Dover based Channel Navigation Information Service, such high-value ships passing through the Channel mean coastguards in both England and France must be more organized and vigilant than ever before.

“The nature of the vessel traffic over the years has become significantly larger,” Beasley explained.

“The navigational challenges remain the same, (in terms of topography, sandbanks and congestion). It is the job of the officers on watch of the vessels to make sure they navigate safely.”