From the introduction to my book, Tide by Tide, much of which is based on stories in this blog. It was privately published. The photograph is of a fishing boat on Aldeburgh beach, Suffolk, in 2018
Why do we go down to the sea, again and again? It’s uncomfortable, risky, time consuming and expensive, and interpreting the language makes the offside rule in soccer seem as simple as the basics of a game of snap. That’s before you get on to the deeper question of motivation and emotional attachments to the sea and boats.
After years of trying to work out what Brexit means for yachts, there are still some annoying issues yet to be cleared up, a month into the new regime.
The most vexed question is still VAT. Most of us do have an answer, though not the one we wanted: our boats lost their EU VAT status if they were not moored in a continental port when the transition period ended. That means that in future they can only be temporarily taken to EU countries.
But a minority is still in a potentially expensive limbo. These are the owners who have been away from the UK for more than three years, who may have to pay VAT for a second time if they return with a boat they bought and paid VAT on here.
With the new lockdown – boat and our home both in the highest tier of antivirus restrictions – winter sailing plans are off for the moment.
So the only boating thing getting done here is proof correcting for the new edition of Pass Your Yachtmaster, by David Fairhall and the late Mike Peyton, the cartoonist.
It involved writing a lot more new material than I expected – or perhaps I should have realised, given the speed at which electronic navigation, marine communications, emergency location, search and rescue and numerical weather forecasting have developed during the 38 years the little book has been in print.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
In one corner, the Royal Yachting Association, declaring pyrotechnic flares are obsolete. In the other, the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency, pointedly renewing for another 2 years its ruling that flares are mandatory under the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention, though softening it a little round the edges.
What does it actually mean for a typical small yacht? The crucial issue here is that SOLAS distress signals are only a legal obligation for yachts above 13.7 m or on smaller craft licensed for commercial use, including sail training. They must carry flares. This means if you charter a yacht, it has to have them. The RYA has, however, won a dispensation allowing private yachts from 13.7 to 24 metres to at least dispense with parachute rockets, easily the least useful and most hazardous in use of the flares. Continue reading “Battles over flares”
It’s the time of year when we recommission Spring Fever, paint the bottom, ready the gear and sails, update the charts and clean and polish the hull. These essential rituals lead up to that perfect moment when we head out from the harbour and the bow first rises to the swell from the sea – a cliché, I know, but it is a spring-time experience always to savour.
That’s impossible with the boatyard shut and we, the owners – as a slightly-older category of person – banned from leaving home. It’s only when I can’t get on a boat as the summer approaches that I realise quite how much it still means after all these years. Sitting here in Suffolk, 20 miles from the coast, the east wind smells of the sea and, if I’m not careful, I’ll soon be reciting John Masefield.