The Solent is a major shipping lane for passenger, freight and military vessels. It is an important recreational area for water sports, particularly yachting, hosting the Cowes Week sailing event annually. It is sheltered by the Isle of Wight and has a complex tidal pattern, which has benefited Southampton's success as a port, providing a "double high tide" that extends the tidal window during which deep-draught ships can be handled. Portsmouth lies on its shores. Spithead, an area off Gilkicker Point near Gosport, is known as the place where the Royal Navy is traditionally reviewed by the monarch of the day.
The area is of great ecological and landscape importance, particularly because of the coastal and estuarine habitats along its edge. Much of its coastline is designated as a Special Area of Conservation. It is bordered by and forms a part of the character of a number of nationally important protected landscapes including the New Forest National Park, and the Isle of Wight AONB.
The word first appears in the Saxon record as Solentan, but predates the English language and is first recorded as Soluente in 731. This original spelling suggests a possible derivation from the Brittonic element -uente, which has endured throughout the history of Hampshire, being present in the Roman city of Venta Belgarum, the medieval kingdom of Gwent (or Y Went), and the modern town of Winchester.
A pre-Celtic and supposedly Semitoidic root meaning "free-standing rock" has also been suggested as a possible description of the cliffs marking western approach of the strait. This Semitic origin may be a relic of the Phoenician traders who sailed to Britain from the Mediterranean as part of the ancient tin trade.
Another suggestion is that the name may reflect the number of Northern Gannets (previously known as Solans or the Solan Goose) along the coast.