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Walking on water

In the first of a new series of “unusual challenges” we ask readers to devise a concept system that could enable a person to walk across the English Channel.

From Louis Bleriot’s maiden cross-channel flight, to the construction of the vast sub-sea tunnel linking Dover to Calais; the short stretch of water between England and France has long driven engineers to greatness and eccentrics to adventurous lunacy.

Over the years, people have ballooned, sailed, swum, hovered driven, skid, flown in jet packs and even rowed in a bath-tub across the thin arm of ocean separating us from our continental cousins. But, to our knowledge, no one has succeeded in walking across the surface to the other side.

Ashley and Matt, who work in the same building as The Engineer, hope to change this, and have asked us to ask you - our readers - to help devise a system that will enable them to stroll across the Channel later this summer.

Our first thoughts were that it might be possible. We envisaged some form of floating “hamster wheel” with paddles on the outer-surface, or perhaps a device that would translate walking motion into some form of rotary propulsion.

But the pair quickly shot these ideas down. They want - as far as possible - to rely purely on the direct motion of their own legs. They want to walk.

Our engineering instincts tell us it’s going to be tough. Without any auxiliary propulsion, they’ll be at the mercy of the wind and the waves. We’re worried that they could be spat into the North Sea, tossed unceremoniously back onto the beach, or blown into the path of a cross-channel ferry. But we’d love to be proved wrong.

Here are the key criteria:

  • The device must be based on a standing up walking motion. A cross-country skiing motion is also allowed.
  • Poles are allowed for stability but not propulsion
  • Human power is the only allowed energy source - not wind, solar, batteries etc
  • There must be a ‘shoe’ on each foot not a single platform - stabilisers on each shoe are allowed
  • No propellers or wheels
  • Fins / trim / tracking / steering aids allowed


What do you think? Could it be done, or are our spirited colleagues setting themselves up for a fall (or perhaps that should be “a drown”)

Let us know your ideas in the comment box below. You can also email detailed concepts, with images / sketches to

The most promising designs will be submitted to a panel of experts for further evaluation.


Readers' comments (7)

  • The limitations set out restrict any form of design to just one. Thus:

    A pontoon for each foot with flaps underneath that lie flat on each forward foot movement and extend for each backward movement of a foot. Hand held Poles with floats may be used for stability and the pontoons may be flexibly linked to stop uncheckable spreading.

    With single platforms and prop drives ruled out that's about it

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  • umm - Design number two.
    .... coupled with a bellows/syphon arrangement that jets water out the back as weight is transferred to each foot?

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  • Hi John

    I'm the (crazy evidently) Ashley mentioned in the article.

    What you describe is the kind of thing we also imagined... but would it actually work? And we wonder if we're missing other ideas so look forward to further comment and input.

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  • Snakes do it. Think about some way of generating a serpentine movement where the push results from the width of the serpentine portion.

    Maybe a deformable plastic membrane between two pontoon like skis? Or a means of creating undelating movements of a long fin beneath each foot, like an eel?

    The serpentine movement seems to be one of natures key solutions to movement in liquids of all kinds, so maybe there is an overlooked efficiency there?

    Yet another is a skating like action, using smaller floating foot pedals, with the body held up by a central bouyant platform. Vertical fins beneath the feet would produce the motion.

    Yet one more is the horizontal fin. Put one on each end, where the foot actions will produce the vertical motion similar to a diver's swim fins.

    Should I go on?

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  • @Anonymous

    Some interesting ideas there. Yes, do suggest others if you have them!

    The serpentine motion certainly sounds like an idea worth pursuing.

    As far as possible we are trying to 'walk', with 'shoes' on each foot, rather than having any kind of pontoon or paddle device. But I can't see how we'd actually lift our feet out of the water so we're imagining there would have to be some kind of sliding, skating motion involved.

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  • Friday, so thanks for the diversion....

    Try two long-span hydrofoils with their own horizontal stabilisers in aircraft configuration. These attach to feet via vertical struts of differing length, ie, one shortish, one longish and probably bifurcated for reasons to be expanded upon.

    If the longitudinal position of each foot attchement is slightly ahead of the mean quater chord line of each hydrofoil plus stabiliser, and the stabiliser is rigged to make it pitch-positive, ie, increased pitch moment with speed, the putting weight on either foil will cause it to glide forward in the water. Unloading it will result in a pitch up and a short climb back to its original depth.

    The bifurcated strut could allow the higher of the two foils to pass between the struts allowing feet to take a natural side by side position if they need to such that your walking action would be enabled.

    Progress would be to place weight on each foot alternately while pushing that foot aft. This would glide the loaded foil downwards while simultaneously accelerating the body of the rider and allowing the unloaded foot/foil to lift.

    Quite close to "Yet one more is the horizontal fin. Put one on each end, where the foot actions will produce the vertical motion similar to a diver's swim fins." but probably a little more achievable as a decent foil span would be needed, probably at least two metres on each foot, hence the different heights of the foils.

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  • They should have a look at this, as seen in Gizmag:

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