January – satellite scares, and getting ready for Biscay

At the Royal Institute of Navigation’s small boat conference in Lymington earlier this month, I learnt a lot about  new risks of error  in satellite navigation : I did not know, for example, that it is possible with quite cheap local equipment to fool the GPS on a plane, ship or even a missile into thinking it is somewhere other than its real position.

There are now tens of thousands of reported incidents of errors, deliberate, accidental or of unknown cause, with a substantial number of them unsurprisingly in sensitive areas such as the Gulf, and the Black Sea near Ukraine, suspected to be hostile activity.

Reports of accidental errors include a couple of local failures when US naval vessels arrived in the port of San Diego, apparently forgetting to switch off unspecified electronic equipment, which interfered with satellite-derived positions for miles around.

These are serious issue in defence circles, and of course for boats and ships of any kind near a source of interference or one of the ‘spoofing’ attacks. It is easy to imagine some disruptive force deciding to get hold of the equipment and blocking position-finding in a sensitive commercial area such as near an airport or in a vital shipping lane.

Satellite positions are integral to the operation of every form of commerce, from planes and ships  through mobile phone masts and everyday driving, Amazon deliveries and Uber – you name it and somewhere in the business location finding is vital. So there is increasing pressure to redevelop  an old ground-based system called Loran as backup. Loran has not been switched off, but would now need a lot of development and investment. If you want to know more, look at the website of the Washington-based Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation.

GPS is just one of five satellite position-finding systems in operation, all now called GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System). GPS, like the word hoover, is a US name that is in danger of wrongly becoming the label for  a whole range of products.

Other GNSS now running include the Russian GLONASS and the EU’s GALILEO – so in one sense there’s a lot better backup against total failure. GALILEO was completely out of operation for a while last year after operational mistakes were made by its staff. It was only in the start-up phase but the fault  proved that a single system can go down.

The cover of the current 5th edition of Pass Your Yachtmaster

I was at the conference because I have been commissioned to update an excellent sailing book, David Fairhall’s Pass Your Yachtmaster, illustrated with hilarious cartoons by the late Mike Peyton.

Completely coincidentally, the cover of the current edition has a nice but anonymous photo of a Sigma 362, the same model as Spring Fever. Having done 11 seasons polishing and antifouling, I recognise the detail of that bow!

David has updated previous editions of the book, first published in 1982, but asked me to take the baton for the next.  The book is a primer for students doing the Royal Yachting Association yachtmaster exams and tests.

I have to say that re-reading  David’s book and many others on navigation has reminded me of several things I ought to remember, and certainly knew when I did the exam and practical test in the 1980s, but had forgotten, so it’s a good exercise for more than one reason.

Back at the yard, plans for sailing to Spain are firming up so we’re making a couple of small improvements to the boat and some minor repairs. We’ve also booked for the Cruising Association’s Biscay Day in London in March where we will meet others sailing that way.

One annoying issue on Spring Fever has always been the need to lift the anchor from the bow roller a couple of feet along the side of the boat when retrieving it to stow in its locker. I’m always afraid that this is going  to damage someone’s back, holding a 15 kilo weight plus chain at a very awkward angle on a potentially rolling boat.

The reason is that the drum of the Furlex reefing gear almost touches the deck, a feature from the boat’s racing days to maximise sail area, so it blocks the anchor from being lifted straight from the bow roller. We are looking for a rigger willing to shorten the forestay with the mast up, to lift the drum 8 inches so the anchor can be pulled up through the roller, and if necessary lashed and dealt with later. Our usual rigger is not keen because he works alone and it needs two experienced  people, he says.

The sail luff can be shortened at the head because it is very narrow there. Our sailmaker is taking 9 inches off but we will lose only about a square foot of sail area.

We’ve also decided to install a holding tank, so the lavatory can be used when we’re somewhere, er, sensitive to such things eg a marina or swimming bay. Nobody ever asks in the UK or France but Spanish authorities are thought to be more vigilant in checking that boats have holding tanks to store their waste on board, an EU requirement. Very few places have pump out facilities to empty tanks so the usual procedure is to empty them by opening the discharge valves a few miles out to sea.

Spring Fever is ashore this winter at Kingston, the Cowes Harbour Commission yard, rather than at Cowes Yacht Haven, whose prices have been creeping up by the addition of extras. The Haven also focuses on expensive racing boats whereas the Kingston yard, which is very friendly, is mainly full of older boats like ours, so we immediately felt more at home. It is not as conveniently sited, but it is looking like a good switch.

New engine calculations

A new engine is a big challenge, not just financially but in the thought process running up to the decision.

Our Volvo is 30 years old and we had it taken out and largely rebuilt 10 years ago. It has been reliable since then but this winter it has been increasingly difficult to start, and the expert verdict was that the valves probably needed regrinding.

There is no space to do this without taking the engine out, and so the bill would be at least £1,500. Experience tells us that whenever you take an engine out and the cylinder head off, other problems turn up, and since the engine is already out (expensive in itself) it then makes sense to put them right.

That was exactly what happened 10 years ago, and the cost escalated so we ended up spending nearly half the fully-installed cost of a new engine. That has in the end proved worthwhile, because it has lasted 10 years.

The fine judgment this time was whether to take that risk again, or put the money towards a brand new engine with a 5 year parts guarantee. The idea of a new engine proved in the end more attractive than a second reconditioning, mainly because of the uncertainty about what else we would find out about the old one, but also because it would be more reassuring at sea.

One other factor is the rule of thumb one often hears that the value of a boat improves by roughly half the cost of a new engine. Evidence for that is hard to come by because there will rarely be a counterfactual (in the shape of an identical old boat for sale with identical equipment and condition but an old engine). But it’s a good way of persuading yourself that the true cost is only half what you are paying out.

The engine itself is only the beginning, of course. I’ve only bought one new engine before, for a previous boat, but this is repeating the same pattern: very broadly, professional labour costs are in the region of 40 per cent of the cost of the engine itself. Then there are the costs of converting the engine to fit, though in this case we chose a Beta Marine engine marinised in Gloucester from a Japanese Kubota truck engine, partly because they are pre-adapted to replace Volvo Pentas at only modest extra cost.

Almost inevitably we needed a new propeller to match the new engine, and a rebuild and partial replacement of an old exhaust system. Then we had to add new parts to connect up the boat’s hot water system and finally a new prop shaft because the old one on close inspection turned out to have some corrosion pitting. The total cost is heading for nearly twice the cost of the engine itself, similar to the outcome for the previous new engine, which also had the additional expense of a rebuild of the engine bed. This time there’s one vital difference: shared ownership, so 50% of the cost each.

Installation is not finished yet, but we hope to launch and test the new engine next week. Fingers crossed!

In place, not yet jnstalled

Hard Brexit and boat VAT – Treasury response

The Treasury has finally decided that if a yacht is in the European Union on Brexit day, it will not be liable for VAT if it is brought back to the UK later.

As reported before, the Commission said recently that British yachts would lose their EU VAT-paid status unless they were in the EU on the day of a hard Brexit.

If they were in the UK they would no longer have the status of union goods and would be liable for VAT on visiting the EU, so the best they could do would be to apply for temporary importation for up to 18 months.

But the UK Treasury stonewalled requests to say the reverse was not true ie that return to the UK after being in the EU on Brexit day could lead to a 20% VAT charge on the value of the boat, leading to anxiety among owners already in the EU. It made us go cool on the idea of going over to France to establish EU VAT-paid status (though only possible if there’s a big hard Brexit delay, because the engine’s still out!)

This is what the Treasury told the RYA:

“HMRC has said that it has made plans to replicate Returned Goods Relief (RGR) into domestic law in the event of a no deal Brexit. RGR allows those resident in the UK to return with their belongings (including pleasure boats) to the UK without paying customs duty or VAT as long as the items have not been changed since their departure and follow the guidance given in Notice 236: Returned Goods Relief.

The UK Government has undertaken that RGR will be available in respect of UK pleasure craft not moored in the UK on EU exit day. They may return to the UK after exit and be subject to Returned Goods Relief as long as the person responsible has evidence that the VAT was paid on the purchase of the boat in either the UK or the EU. The types of proof needed are shown in Notice 8. VAT accounted for in the UK would need to be shown in respect of vessels purchased after the date of EU exit”.

There are still loose ends. Do we have to pretend once back in the UK eg that we haven’t claimed EU-VAT status while we have been away?

Bang goes our EU status

It has now been confirmed that we will lose our boat’s VAT-paid status in Europe on Brexit day, leaving us with only the possibility of a temporary importation licence for up to 18 months.

Only British boats actually kept in the EU on that day will be treated as if the VAT paid on them in the UK is still European VAT. If they are in the UK on Brexit day, then they lose that ‘union goods’ status and can only apply for temporary importation.

Spring Fever in Cowes, awaiting a new engine

For summer cruise visitors, 18 months is more than enough. But anyone planning to go to the continent for several years, for example to the Med, faces an annoying obstacle. Every second season they will have to leave the EU for Turkey, Montenegro, Albania or Gibraltar (I’

Continue reading “Bang goes our EU status”

Brexit and our boat

We’ve been looking into the impact of Brexit on our sailing, on the assumption that at some point we will be treated as a third country, just like US and Canadian sailors who cross the Atlantic to visit the EU. If there is a hard Brexit at the end of March, this could all be upon us next season. The result is likely to be a long term increase in paperwork and bureaucracy and a permanent annoyance for British yacht owners.

Even as EU members we have not been bureaucracy free. Because the UK is outside the Schengen zone, we have been obliged in theory to show our passports on arrival, though some Schengen countries such as France often do not bother to enforce passport checks on yachts. (That might be changing, because in July, for the first time in many years, we were boarded on a mooring by French customs officers in a RIB, whose only interest was in our passports).

View from our mooring at Îles Chausey, where we were boarded by French customs.

The boat itself has the usual paperwork, including evidence that EU VAT has been paid, though we have never actually been asked for this in France, Ireland or the Netherlands. Only in Croatia and Greece (of the EU countries where we have sailed, in those cases on other people’s boats) has it been routine to be asked to show lots of paperwork. Arriving in Italy a few years ago, nobody seemed to care, though they are now tightening up.

We nevertheless treasure the paper customs receipt for the VAT paid when our boat, Spring Fever, was imported to the UK from the non-EU Channel Islands, where it was first owned. It is a very valuable document, and cannot be replaced.

Two EU countries, Portugal and Croatia, currently go further than asking for VAT receipts, and are reported to ask for a piece of official customs paper called a T2S, which declares the boat is Union goods in transit. It does not actually prove VAT has been paid, but we have acquired a T2S from UK customs just in case it is more widely required. (The Royal Yachting Association has a good explanation of how to do it and will supply the official form plus a marked-up copy showing how to fill it in – essential unless you are knowledgeable about goods in transit).

In a hard Brexit a T2S may well be wasted paper, but there are soft-Brexit scenarios in which it would still be useful. The best hope is that post departure negotiations lead to acceptance that boats on which UK VAT was paid while we were still members remain eligible to sail within the EU without restrictions.

If that is too much to hope, then it may at least turn out to be true during the transition period in a soft version of Brexit (including the Prime Minister’s beleaguered plan, if it were miraculously accepted by parliament).

It is safer to work on the assumption for the moment that at the end of March 2019, rather than after a transition period, we will be treated exactly as if we were from the USA or Canada, or some other country outside the EU. There would then be some basic rules to comply with. They treat people and boats very differently. The boats come off best.

(1) As a third country – an EU term for non-members – Britons will be restricted to staying no more than 90 days in the EU within any 180 day period. This will be a nuisance for long term cruisers, who will need to plan their time on their boats in three month sections, leaving in between (unless they apply for residence, which is a long and difficult process, with potentially serious tax implications in most EU member states, and possible requirements to acquire maritime qualifications in the language of the country).

(2) The actual boats will be allowed in much longer. There is an 18 month grace period before they either have to leave Union waters or VAT has to be paid to import the boat.

At that point, the boat would also have to have papers confirming that it conforms to EU standards of yacht construction, which is an expensive business for a yacht built outside the Union without EU certification, as some US owners have found. That would be a big incentive to arrive with a boat built in the EU, with official certification.

For UK-based sailors who cruise to France and back each season, the restriction to 90 days and a maximum of 18 months before VAT becomes payable on the boat should not be a problem, as long as they arrive armed with the correct paperwork . But that 90 day personal restriction and the 18 month temporary importation could be a real annoyance for the thousands of British boat owners who keep their boats permanently in France or other EU countries.

The 18 months temporary importation of the boat is strictly conditional.The boat has to be:

(1) Imported by someone who is not a resident of the EU.

(2) Registered outside the EU and owned by a person who is not a resident of the EU.

So for UK residents who own their boats in the UK it should be straightforward. The word resident is the important qualification, because the passport held by the importer and the owner – not necessarily the same person – is irrelevant.

So it looks as if an EU national who is legally resident in the UK can still apply to keep a boat temporarily in the EU for 18 months as long as condition (2) is also met.

Conversely, there is a trap lurking here after Brexit. A skipper resident in the EU taking a boat owned and registered in the UK across the channel may be ineligible to claim the 18 months because the two main criteria above have not been met. There is a risk of a VAT charge.

We had this problem on a cruise in a non-EU owned and registered boat in Greece a few years ago. The skipper and three crew, including me, were EU residents; the Greek authorities said the boat would be liable for VAT if it did not leave for a non-EU country within 30 days. At the end of the 30 days, an extension was requested because of bad weather but was refused, with a threat of impounding, pending payment of VAT.

On checking later with the Royal Yachting Association in the UK, I was told we were lucky, because we would have been allowed only a day or two, not 30 days, in Britain. I can now see why this matters in the UK: without this rule, half the yachts moored on the south coast would be owned in the VAT-free Channel Islands.

All very technical, but we sometimes sail with EU resident crew with British passports, and one co-owner (me) has an Irish passport as well as a British one. Using my Irish passport, I seem to be in the clear on VAT for 18 months after arriving in France as skipper and co-owner, because I am a UK resident. If I lived in Ireland and used an Irish passport, it seems I would not be able to take the UK-registered boat to France because of the risk of a VAT charge.

There are certain tightly defined circumstances in which EU residents may use a non EU boat without losing the 18 months temporary admission. They can be read in detail in Section 5.4 of the official UK guidance by HMRC, updated in November 2018. The guidance note as a whole is essential reading because it sets out the full VAT rules for boats, as they apply to to boats brought into the UK while we remain EU members.

This link is to the relevant pages at UK customs.

An issue to check further is whether other EU countries interpret the rules the same way. The French customs website pages on VAT which include a section on temporary importation, agree with the main conditions as described for the UK, but I haven’t yet found the equivalent of the UK customs notice above explaining the detailed exemptions as they see them. Still working on it.

This link is to French customs.

There’s an awful lot more to find out as the situation develops. The RYA has been doing the main lobbying of government but has been reluctant to advise members on possible scenarios and how to deal with them. On that front, the Cruising Association has been far more active through its technical committee and it’s web discussion forums for members, which have been very useful and are becoming cutting edge on this, certainly compared with the RYA. Worth the modest investment of joining the CA for that alone as we approach a possible Brexit cliff edge.

Compasses and sextants obsolete?

  I like this passage in the latest book by Daniel C Dennett, a celebrated philosopher and writer about cognitive science who specialises in the evolution of the mind:

“Already it would be criminally negligent for me to embark with passengers on a transatlantic sailboat cruise without equipping the boat with several GPS systems. Celestial navigation by sextant, compass, chronometer, and Nautical Almanac is as quaint a vestige of obsolete competence as sharpening a scythe or driving a team of oxen. Those who delight in such skills can indulge in them, using the internet to find one another, and we celestial navigators can prudently bring our old-fashioned gear along, and practice with it, on the off chance that we will need a backup system. But we have no right to jeopardise our lives by shunning the available high-tech gadgets”.

He is giving modern navigation as an example of technologies so far superior to anything humans can do that they “usurp our authority as experts”. There are very good practical and moral reasons for giving way to them. 

Good sense, though not sure it will get into the yachtmaster syllabus.
Daniel C Dennett: From bacteria to Bach and back. Allen Lane 2017. Also the source of the quote in the previous post. He must be a sailor!

Why are (most) boats beautiful?

On our Biscay cruises,  we visited the lovely little Ile de Groix , once home to great fleets of long distance tuna boats. It is only recently that I have come across an intriguing explanation of why the famous fishing boats of Ile de Groix are such attractive little ships.

They are designed by the sea itself, in just the same very serious and real sense that the dolphin and every other fast-swimming sea creature is designed for its life in the ocean through natural selection under pressure from the marine environment. No wonder that a boat that is fit for purpose is very often also a beautiful object and artefact, and that the language of boat appreciation is so full of words and phrases like lovely, or elegant lines or a pretty shear.

Taking Darwin’s ideas and applying them to boats, the French philosopher and journalist Emile-Auguste Chartier wrote in 1908:

“The small decked Breton fishing boats from the Ile de Groix that fish in distant waters are wonderful machines. I have heard an engineer say that the best designed battleship is a monster compared with these gracious and solid hulls, where the curves, slopes and thicknesses are everywhere what they should be.

We admire the work of bees; but human work of this kind is much like making the hexagonal cells of the hive. Watch the bee or the fisherman and you won’t find a trace of reasoning or geometry: you will find only an unthinking attachment to custom, which is, however,  enough to explain the advancement and perfection  of their artefacts.  Here is how:

Every boat is a copy of another boat; all the science stops there: to copy what  exists is to make what one has always made. Let us think about it the way Darwin would. It’s obvious that a badly made boat will go to the bottom after one or two fishing seasons, and so will never be copied.  They rightly copy only the old hulls that have resisted everything. They understand  very well that, most often, such an old hull is precisely the most perfect of all, the one which responds best to the use that has been made of it: a trial and error method, a blind method, which nevertheless leads to continually increasing perfection.

It is possible, from time to time, by chance, that a mediocre boat escapes the blasts of wind and therefore offers a poor model; but that is an exception. In a huge number of experiments, it is not possible that there are a lot of mistakes. A well built boat may go on a reef; a pile of junk may escape. But in a hundred thousand boats of all types thrown against the waves, the waves will bring back just a few inadequate ones and almost all the good ones; it would need a miracle for all the best ones to be shipwrecked.

So one can say, with complete rigour, that it is the sea herself that shapes the boats, chooses those that are suitable and destroys the others.  New boats being copied from those that return, the ocean keeps choosing among the elite yet another elite, and again thousands of times. Each step forward is imperceptible; the craftsman  is always copying, and will say nothing must change in the form of the boat; improvement results exactly from this attachment to routine. That’s how the instinct of the tortoise overtakes the science of the hare”.

Spring Fever is from a different sailing world altogether, a 1980s GRP yacht, but I’ve always been pleased by how many observers compliment her lines, as I’ve often heard about  all of David Thomas’s designs. I’ve also heard his boats criticised for being old fashioned even when they were launched, in an age of wide bodied competition from France. But Chartier’s explanation reinforces the idea that if it looks right, it is right. I feel better about our 30 year old boat already.

My translation, from Propos d’un Normand, 1908, by Chartier, under his single writing pseudonym Alain. I found the full text after a passing reference in Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and back, 2017.


Maskelyne v Harrison – the longitude show in London

Harrison's third clock
Harrison’s third clock


We finally managed to take in the excellent Ships, Clocks and Stars exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, which runs only until 4 January. Among other things, it puts the record somewhat straighter on the eminent 18th century Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, chief villain of Dava Sobel’s best selling nautical history of the race to measure longitude at sea. Maskelyne was the man who conspired against John Harrison, the genius who built the first true chronometer, or so the narrative goes in Sobel’s book, Longitude.

Not so, it is clear from the detailed story set out in the exhibition, which of course includes the famous clocks, which are extraordinary creations. It seems the rival method using the moon to measure time (and thus longitude) worked perfectly well, though not as accurately. Far from being biased against Harrison in favour of the lunar method, Maskelyne seems to have been rather even handed, encouraging rigorous trials of both.

In the trials, the lunar method turned out to be good to a degree, or 60 miles, which was a lot better than most navigators had been able to achieve before on long passages, but chronometers could reduce the error to as low as 10 miles. By producing an accurate timepiece that could withstand violent movements and large temperature changes over many months, Harrison revolutionised navigation, made it possible for sailors to know reliably where they were, and thus saved countless lives and cargoes from being wrecked.

Both the chronometer method and the lunar method required measurements by sextant followed by calculations using detailed astronomical tables. One of Maskelyne’s great achievements was to set up a system for producing the annual nautical almanac, which is still published today. The calculations were done by computers, a term which in those days referred to people. In fact it was an attempt to automate the calculations in the early 19th century that led Charles Babbage to design the first mechanical computer, a small part of which is in the exhibition. The attempt failed because the costs of building the machine escalated out of control.

Harrison also seems to have been a bit of a curmudgeon, falling out with Maskelyne when pressure was put on him to demonstrate that his watch design could be reproduced by others for more general use at sea. Some of his rewards were held back until he published and publicly explained the details of the clock’s construction and made two copies. In the end, he won the argument by appealing to Parliament, which awarded him more than had been promised originally.

The fourth clock, dramatically smaller.

There was much more to discover in the exhibition. I was particularly interested in the method of finding the time and thus the longitude by observing the moons of Jupiter, which proved impossible to do on a heaving ship, but was accurate on land. This giant solar system clock was used to redraw the maps of Europe. When the French Atlantic coastline proved to be much further east than earlier maps had shown – shrinking the country’s area significantly – the King of France remarked that the cartographers had stolen more land from him than all his enemies combined.

 The new book, published this year to coincide with the exhibition, is Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal, edited by Rebekah Higgitt (one of the curators).