October – the shortest season ever

That’s that, for the moment: new lockdown, can’t go to the boat for an autumn mini-cruise or even to do some maintenance, so sum total of this year’s sailing is 5 days in the Solent. I try not to contemplate the cost per day.

We have however decided to leave the boat fully in commission in Chichester Marina (above) over the winter and into next season, with sails bent on and engine not winterised. This is because Spring Fever was launched only in mid-September, so gear and antifouling have not just finished a long, hard season.

Perhaps there will be an opportunity for a real winter sail after lockdown, encouraged by the fact that the diesel heater is now working again. In any case, we need to air the sails as often as possible, by raising them on a calm day in the marina, and also run the engine from time to time. That does not look likely before December.

Meanwhile, I’ll get on with a few little boat jobs at home, including repairing the leak in the dinghy, which I’ve brought home, finishing the smart canvas cover I’m making for it, and repairing the battered Dan Buoy.

New Brexit chaos for yachts

Just when most yacht owners thought they had understood the impact of Brexit, the government has changed the rules on Value Added Tax, with expensive consequences for some.

Last year there were assurances that, after Brexit, a yacht that has been away from the UK on a long term cruise, typically a few years in the Mediterranean, would not have to pay VAT on returning.

Now it looks as if many will have to pay up, even if the boat was bought VAT-paid in the UK before it left – in other words, owners could find themselves paying VAT twice on the same boat. The second charge would be based on its market value at the time of its return.

Needless to say, cruising yacht forums are full of anger and anxiety, though this is not an issue that will get much sympathy anywhere else because yacht owners are not exactly an under privileged minority.

However, many are far from rich, living aboard on tight budgets for much of the year, often after retirement – ‘fulfilling their dreams’ as the yachting magazines love to put it – a far cry from the superyacht owners everybody hates (who in any case probably arrange their affairs so they do not pay European or UK VAT). And while it is very much a minority problem, how many other much more important parts of the economy are being hit by similar administrative chaos 10 weeks ahead of final departure from the EU?

Both the Royal Yachting Association and the Cruising Association are rather desperately seeking clarity from the government. The Treasury’s position seems to be that under EU rules we already charge VAT on a returning yacht after an absence of more than 3 years. It has decided this will continue to be part of the UK rulebook after Brexit.

But until now the practice has been to suspend the rule in many cases, by exempting private yachts that come back after more than 3 years, as long as they are under the same ownership and have had no substantial upgrades (eg a new engine). In these circumstances, the VAT charge has not been levied. The latest indications are that this concession may go.

Just as alarming for many people, the government has changed the point at which the clock starts on the 3 VAT-free years. Last year the RYA was told that a boat currently kept in an EU-27 country such as France or Greece would be treated as if it had left the UK at the point the UK itself finally leaves the EU ie at the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020. That would give a full 3 years to get back.

Now departure has been redefined as the point at which the boat physically left the UK. Any boat already kept abroad for more than 3 years will be liable to VAT if it returns to the UK after 1 January 2021. This led to howls of protest from the RYA and a promise that there would be an extra year – but no clarity about what that meant.

Would it allow a yacht that has already been abroad more than 3 years another year up to the end of 2021 to come home VAT free? Or would it just add one year to the 3 year grace period, so a yacht that has been away 4 years or less will not pay VAT after 1 January next year, but one that has already been away 4 years and a month will pay?

There’s another set of EU rules that make this even more onerous, if the UK imports them into its own post-Brexit system after we leave, as it seems to be doing with the 3 year rule.

Currently, as long as the importer of a yacht is not an EU resident, the yacht can be temporarily imported for up to 18 months without paying VAT. But if the importer is an EU resident, VAT becomes payable on arrival. (Nationality of the importer and registration country of the yacht are irrelevant – it is the country of tax residence of the importer that matters).

In the past, the UK has taken a tough line on this, with no grace period, though there has been at least one exception among EU countries – Greece in the past certainly allowed a month. If the rule is kept by the UK after Brexit, and applied strictly, it would be risky for a UK resident yacht owner to call in for a day at home in a yacht that has been abroad more than 3 years. The VAT would be chargeable immediately.

The rule seems to be aimed at stopping UK residents keeping their yachts VAT-free in tax havens such as the Channel Islands but using them in the UK – an obvious tax loophole if it were left open.

In fact Spring Fever was first registered in Guernsey in 1988. We have the VAT certificate to prove it was paid when the boat was imported into the UK a few years later, a vital document we guard carefully, especially in these new circumstances. With the first owner on the documentation shown as being a Guernsey resident, we may well be asked to prove VAT has been paid.

Not the East Coast

I last saw Sir Francis Chichester’s round-the-world yacht in a rundown state displayed next to the Cutty Sark at Greenwich. Last week we passed Gypsy Moth IV on the Beaulieu River in Hampshire, in fine condition after another circumnavigation.

We were pottering around the Solent after our cruise to the East Coast was abandoned because the forecast was days of strong easterlies and north easterlies. Fighting nearly 200 miles to windward in that would have been miserable for a crew of two.

For a small payment when Gypsy Moth IV was at Greenwich, you could go on board, and visitors saw she was badly neglected. She was rescued and rebuilt after a campaign by Yachting Monthly, and sailed round the world again in 2007 for the 40th anniversary of Chichester’s solo voyage, for which he was knighted.

The new voyage was rather too exciting – stranded on a Pacific reef and badly damaged, she was salvaged and rebuilt in New Zealand, her second restoration since she left Greenwich.

Gypsy Moth IV, now owned by a trust, looks beautiful. But by Chichester’s own account she was a terrible boat for single-handed sailing because of poor directional stability, making her exhausting to manage downwind. Various modifications were made to improve her.

While this boat’s history is celebrated, there’s a yacht hulk moored on Southampton Water that intrigues me every time I pass on the ferry or in Spring Fever, from which I took the photo below. Or rather, I assume from the shape that this derelict vessel was a yacht, because it has the look and size of the J-Class built by the zillionaires of the early 20th century. I may be wrong about that, and will try to find out more.

Southampton Water hulk

The leak that stopped our earlier departure to the East Coast turned out to be simple to fix with a little GRP work, so Spring Fever was launched again on 14 September. We ended up spending a week on day-sails battling round the Solent, testing the recommissioned gear in winds of Force 5, 6 and 7. It is never quite as sheltered as it looks in the Solent, especially with the short, sharp chop you get with wind against tide. It made for some exhilarating sailing.

We spent the first afternoon in Newtown Creek – where the water was warm enough for a swim, and the wind had not got up, which it did overnight.

Nice, but not the Med

We spent the other nights in Beaulieu River, watching beautiful sunsets over the saltings, and Gosport, across from Nelson’s Victory and the UK’s still planeless new aircraft carrier. Then we headed for Itchenor in Chichester Harbour to leave Spring Fever on a mooring until the end of the month. On 1 October we go into Chichester Marina for a 6 month winter berth, because diaries don’t now allow enough time to get round to Suffolk this year.

We are temporarily abandoning the Isle of Wight because of the emergence of a serious second wave of corona virus nationally and the risk of further lockdowns and restrictions. We were already uncomfortable with using the crowded ferry, given our age and high vulnerability to the virus. The advice is that we should be much more risk averse than younger people.

All in all, it seemed sensible for the moment to leave the boat somewhere where we could drive straight from home without using trains and ferries.

In fact, just after we left, we were offered a long-term mooring on a pontoon in the best part of the River Medina, at Whitegates, but we have turned it down, though we have been kept on the waiting list. We had given up our old mooring on the river when we were planning to be in France and Spain for a couple of years – that now seems aeons ago. It is impossible to say now when we’ll be sailing freely to France and Spain again without quarantines.

That leak was because of a fitting to deflect weeds which was apparently on the skeg long before we owned the boat. It was removed, but the filling had dropped out of the old screwholes. With the high cost of lifting out and in again, they were very pricey screwholes.

September – the in and out cruise

In we go, gently does it…
…in..
….in….
….and out…
….out….
….out….
…to back where we started

All geared up to ride a spring tide up channel in the much improved weather expected later this week, we ended up dining on board in the yard. The cruise is off for the moment.

A trickle of salt water was running down just forward of where the rudder stock goes through the hull.

It was unclear in semi darkness, after wriggling through a hatch with a torch, where exactly the water was coming from, but best guess was a small crack in the rudder stock housing.

We did the sensible thing, and hauled the boat out again for further investigation. The leak is in an area that sees lots of stress from the rudder, so we need to have a good look inside and out to find out whether it is a symptom of something serious. We have booked a fibreglass specialist to come and investigate.

This has happened once before with Spring Fever, when we launched at Ardoran near Oban in the west of Scotland in 2012. Then it was a corroded and jammed heads outlet seacock,which had to be replaced.

Always an embarrassing and rather expensive thing to happen. In Ardoran we should have checked the seacock more carefully before launch, but this time there was no way of knowing until the boat was afloat. We noticed a tiny trickle of a few litres a month last year, could not locate the source and assumed it was something like a slightly worn rudder bearing. The boat flexes when set ashore on its keel and that could have opened up whatever small leak was there before.

August – still waiting, but planning

For multiple reasons, this year’s launch has had to be put back again to 1 September. We haven’t missed much because of the delay, since the weather has been awful.

Essex and Suffolk are still the objectives, and the delay has given some time for preparations, including buying the latest edition of East Coast Pilot. With its predecessor East Coast Rivers, I have editions going back to 1981.

The current pilot comes with a free download of all Imray’s North Sea charts, from the Dover Strait to Shetland and southern Denmark to Calais. The Pilot’s own website has free downloads of useful updated chartlets and advice, especially important on the rivers around the Thames Estuary, because some of the entrances can change in a single storm.

There are also links to downloads from another website (and book), Crossing the Thames Estuary, so we’ve loaded what we need on to a tablet and printed the most useful chartlets. The printouts include the short cut through the Thames Array wind farm.

The final bit of online preparation at home is to download and print the predictions from Admiralty Easy Tide for various points out in the Thames Estuary, essential for the short cuts (or swatchways) across the sandbanks.

That’s all we can do this month, apart from watching how the long-term weather forecast changes day by day.

July – launch date at last

So far the only boating I’ve done the entire year is rowing my little dinghy to harvest some luscious but otherwise inaccessible early blackberries hanging over the water.

This lovely little lapstrake boat, a Roger Oughtred design called a feather pram, is too fragile to want to knock it about on beaches as a yacht tender, so I keep it safe on our pond.

We have at last been able to book a date to put Spring Fever in the water. Most of the jobs we commissioned have been done, apart from some rigging work and a long-overdue gas service. August 18 is now the target date, the latest by a long way that we have ever launched.

The plan with Spring Fever continues to be to cruise up the east coast and base her at Woolverstone on the River Orwell near Ipswich for 6 weeks, before returning to Cowes in early October. That means relearning the short cuts across the sandbanks of the Thames Estuary, called swatchways, which is always an interesting pilotage exercise.

The Thames sandbanks

Nowadays as well as longstanding routes such as the Wallet Spitway, Ray Sand and the several routes across the Sunk sands, we have to learn to negotiate the way through a windfarm. The standard route back from Harwich to Ramsgate goes by a shallow passage called Foulger’s Gat and nowadays that means passing through a huge windfarm, the London Array – all perfectly legal and agreed, and even if we strayed underneath one we would feel the draft but not the rotor itself. They are a minimum 25 metres up, 10 metres higher than our mast.

We had thought of wintering on the east coast but could not find anywhere remotely as economical as Cowes, where we can stay in Shepards Marina from November to March for about £175 a month compared with £360 a month at Woolverstone and similar rates at other Orwell marinas. To think the East Coast used to be regarded as the cheap place to keep a boat….

We’ve applied to have an annual mooring again on Folly Reach on the Medina, having given ours up in January because of the plan to go to Spain and winter there – that was then.

This east coast cruise will be a bit of a nostalgia trip, because at various times over the years with various boats we have had moorings at Woolverstone, Waldringfield, Titchmarsh, Levington, Shotley and Wrabness on the River Stour, where we paid for our own to be laid. For a long time we owned both the mooring at Wrabness and a caravan in a field by the shore, a great place for children to play on the grass, on the beach and in the woods, and a convenient store for boat gear when we weren’t there.

Meanwhile, a designer is about to start laying out the 6th edition of Pass your Yachtmaster. There are many updates throughout the book, some of which have had to be quite long because of the way technology and rules have moved on, plus a whole extra chapter. We’re waiting to find out how many extra cartoons we can insert in the new material, having found some splendidly appropriate ones for the electronic age, even though much of the late Mike Peyton’s work was done before the era of charts on screens. Mike Peyton still makes me laugh because he catches the dilemmas, idiocies, mistakes and obsessions of amateur sailors so well. There are some copyright issues we hope will be sorted soon.

June – tide turning

It looks as if we’ll be free to go cruising on Spring Fever from 4 July, the day the renewed easing of Covid-19 controls starts. While we will not be ready for early July, at least we can now plan a sail, possibly to the Essex and Suffolk rivers.

Pin Mill, near Woolverstone, Suffolk

Following the end of the ban on overnight stays on boats, Cowes, where we are at the moment, has reopened to visiting boats that book a berth in advance.

Weymouth will have a booking system for visiting yachts two weeks ahead with no refunds or cancellations because of weather. Normally, in good summer weather, Weymouth visitors raft out up to 6 deep from the town quay but rafting will be banned to make social distancing easier and reduce visitor numbers. Cowes has adopted the same policy. Further afield, St Mary’s in the Scillies, which we visited last year, has just emailed urging us to visit again, so harbours and marinas seem keen to make up for lost revenue.

In case we go east this year, I checked Ramsgate, where we usually stop, and it is not requiring advance bookings. There are no restrictions other than closing half the showers so users are further apart. Ramsgate usually has plenty of room for visitors , especially if continental yachts on passage cannot show up because of quarantine. Our likeliest destination will be Woolverstone on the River Orwell in Suffolk, where the marina has confirmed that Spring Fever can have a visitor mooring.

There is still work to be done on the boat: three new seacocks have been commissioned and are yet to be finished; we will break the custom of a lifetime and pay someone to antifoul the boat to cut back on our travel to Cowes; and there’s a large amount of gear including sails to get there. Time, however, to think about booking a launch date.

We will still have to be exceptionally careful, because of extra vulnerability at our – umh – rather older than average age. We have even discussed paying someone to bring the boat over to a mainland harbour to avoid having to go on the Isle of Wight ferry in the summer. We can, however, stay in the car when crossing to load the gear, though that’s not much help when leaving for a cruise, because we cannot go by car unless we leave it there for weeks. These are problems we will solve.

At home, the new text for Pass Your Yachtmaster has been delivered to Adlard Coles. Researching it, I am more than ever convinced that it is a mistake to rely completely on electronics for navigation, and that having a portfolio of traditional and modern techniques will always be the sensible approach. I am now reading The Ultimate Navigation Manual by Lyle Brotherton, about land-based techniques, and he makes exactly the same point. The traditional skills involved are far more interesting and sophisticated than I had realised – he teaches desert and mountain navigation to the military among other roles – and he urges people not to over-rely on their GNSS at the expense of their knowledge of other methods.

May – a narrow escape in Venice

Sad news from Venice, where the historic Trabaccolo trading vessel I went to write about for Classic Boat a few years ago has been swamped and damaged by a bad leak. The vessel was saved by the pumps of firefighters who came alongside Il Nuovo Trionfo where she was berthed near the Salute, at the entrance to the Grand Canal. Apparently the boat’s own pumps had failed, though the reasons for the leak in the first place are not clear. The water flooded the engine, and videos show it swilling around at the level of the saloon table top, submerging much equipment.Firefighters alongside with pumps, St Marks Square in the distance

Il Nuovo Trionfo has now been pumped out and towed to a yard for repairs ashore, where she is now. The engine is being stripped down and parts of it soaked in fresh water in the hope that it can be repaired, and the damage is being assessed, according to Il Nuovo Trionfo’s Facebook group. I have lifted these photographs from Facebook, but there’s much more there, including videos (and Facebook translated the texts quite effectively into English).20200526_131307.jpg                                                                  Ashore safely
A Trabaccolo is a sail trading boat which evolved for the northern Adriatic with a flat bottom that can take the ground in the low tides of the lagoons, rather like a Thames barge. Il Nuovo Trionfo had been bought and restored by local enthusiasts, safeguarding a rare nautical treasure, one of very few left. An indication of the design’s seaworthiness is that one has been found in New Caledonia in the Pacific, to which it was sailed after conversion to a yacht, but abandoned after the owner had a heart attack.

The plan for Classic Boat was to write about the Trabaccolo project alongside another in the UK to revive the construction of Thames barges, and to compare and contrast the types of shallow-water trading boat. 

I withdrew from the writing commission in the end because yet another huge problem was found with the Nuovo Trionfo – the tree-sized timber keelson running along inside the boat above the full length external keel was found to have a hidden rotten section, which put her out of action again and required another long round of expensive repairs.

The piece for the magazine would have ended up comparing a successful barge project (at the time) with a sad litany of setbacks on the Venetian restoration, making it seem an odd choice for comparison – perhaps rather negative and upsetting for the Venetians, who had gone to a lot of trouble to show me their project and whose successive misfortunes would be starkly obvious because of the inappropriate juxtaposition.

There were other good reasons for visiting Venice, anyway, so it was far from a wasted journey, especially since I met so many interesting Venetian boat enthusiasts and craftspeople. Like all restorations, the Nuovo Trionfo club was continually  short of money from members and well wishers, and was having trouble raising finance from the Venice local government, which at the time was much more interested in building a replica of a 17th century fast postal galley, at great expense. I wish Il Nuovo Trionfo well.

In easier times, I’d now be packing for this year’s Transadriatica race from Venice to Novigrad and back, on Spiuma, Martin’s boat. At least Easyjet has offered me a refund on my  ticket, having just formally cancelled the flight out next week.


Meanwhile, back home this month Cowes Harbour has given permission for yards to launch boats, but an owner is still not allowed to stay on board overnight. There is at least a day’s work to prepare for launching and another day sorting things out afterwards, so with hotels and AirB&Bs closed, the logistics are difficult. We won’t be doing anything for the moment, but will work out a plan.

The government seems to be hinting at another easing of lockdown soon which could make it simpler. The antics of the Prime Minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings in breaking lockdown and not apologising do anyway encorage everyone to think that it is fine to make your own judgments on what’s best to do in grey areas. The ‘don’t stay away from home’ rule does not mention boats, so we could, if we were feeling bloody minded, use the Cummings defence that it’s not specifically banned. (I may be wrong about that, since the RYA and most harbourmasters think it is banned, but there you go….).

However, the real issue is that we want to continue to isolate ourselves, since we are of a certain age and are therefore at greater risk, and that’s what’s holding us back from fitting out and launching for the moment.The other factor is that most ports are still closed to visiting pleasure craft, so  we could not easily carry out our plan to go to the east coast for the rest of the year. For the moment Spring Fever stays where she is.

Meanwhile, the closest I’m coming to sailing is finishing the updates and new material for Pass Your Yachtmaster. I also need to paint the bottom of the little wooden dinghy we row on the pond, the one I built from a kit 6 years ago. I suppose I could also rig a sail with a sheet and a broom handle, though it would take a well cut bedsheet and some nifty short tacking to make ground to windward!Afloat on the pond, at least