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”

Channel migrants

An anxious thought after watching the news yesterday: what do we do if we come across a dinghy full of distressed migrants in mid-channel? Do we follow our instincts and get them on board, put the heater on, wrap them in warm sleeping bags and offer sympathy? Or must we stand off, watch, and wait for help?

I am sure the very firm advice from the authorities will be to call the Coastguard on VHF/DSC, and stand by till the Border Force vessel (there is only one near Dover at the moment), a lifeboat or some other help arrives. But if the dinghy were swamped and people were in the water, nobody, surely, would hesitate before trying to get them on board: in the Dover Straits it would take only a moment to tell the Coastguard what we are up to and where, and professional help would come soon after.

Border Force patrol boat in Cowes, seen from Spring Fever

It is more complicated further down channel, where often our VHF/DSC radio is out of range of the shore and so we could not call for help and ask for advice.

Will the smuggler gangs invest in bigger, faster boats, so they can cross further west? There has already been one case of a quite substantial catamaran arriving in Dover, (spectacularly, because it hit the harbour wall). The second shortest crossing is the 63 nautical miles from the Cherbourg peninsula to the Isle of Wight, which a motorised catamaran could probably manage even in inexpert hands. Might they even try the 100 mile crossings of the West channel? I heard a suggestion that a migrant boat had already made it to Plymouth, though I don’t know whether that is true.

So it is not at all impossible that next spring or summer we’ll come across a dinghy or a larger boat struggling along when we ourselves will be out of VHF/DSC range of the shore. We can hear the Coastguard quite a lot of the way between Cherbourg and the Needles, because of their powerful elevated transmitters, but they can’t hear us beyond about 15 miles, and maybe 25 in the very best conditions. The further west we cross the Channel, the longer we are out of touch.

What should we do if we can’t call the Coastguard?

If nobody ashore knew where we were or what we were doing, I would hesitate to take between six and a dozen desperate strangers onto a small yacht, even if we could physically manage to get them aboard – unless they were already in great danger, for example capsized or swamping, in which case excessive caution would be wrong.

Another reason to reflect carefully before acting is the non-negligible possibility of being mistaken for people smugglers if we take them on board and then encounter a patrol boat. (See the Cruising Association comments in a Mediterranean context at the end of this post). Yachts have already been caught people smuggling so are not above suspicion. It could be an unpleasant experience having to prove our innocence. So my first priority would be to get a message ashore.

How can we do that? The best bet in my view is a Mayday Relay call, on the migrants’ behalf – whether or not they ask for it – which would force all vessels in reach to pay attention. With DSC, the procedure is to send a digital ‘Urgency – All Ships, All Stations” alert and then use VHF on Channel 16 to speak the Mayday Relay message. (I had to look up the procedure – it is so long since I did the DSC course I had forgotten the digital urgency message should be first). I read that DSC has a 15 per cent greater range than a voice call, so it is possible the digital alert at least might be picked up by the coastguard, if not the voice message. But in the crowded channel, there is bound to be a ship in range, and when one replies it could be asked to pass on the position and the circumstances to UK coastguard.

An alternative to a Mayday Relay would be to check our chartplotter’ s AIS function for the nearest ship’s MMSI, call them direct on the VHF/DSC, and ask them to give the details to the Coastguard, but I think that would be slower and less reliable than a Mayday Relay.

Once a message about our position and actions is through to the shore, we could follow whatever advice comes back through the same route, which may be to stand by the migrants’ boat. But we would not feel so nervous about taking people on board if we then absolutely had to rescue them. That would be extremely difficult from a small yacht in bad conditions, of course, but that’s another story.

This is what the Cruising Association said three years ago about yachts in sensitive areas of the Mediterranean:

There are reports of small yachts being chased by migrant boats. Amongst the genuine migrants are almost certainly a number of traffickers who will not want you giving away their position, and may even try to commandeer your yacht to save themselves. Not only would this place you in some danger but most of us are neither trained nor equipped to deal with this number of desperate people.

Our advice would be to alter course away from any migrant vessel and to only make a VHF call when several miles away – preferably over their horizon.

With so many boats crossing though the well-trodden Mediterranean, there is a chance blue water cruisers will come across one of these boats. However, while it may be human nature to help, care should be taken to ensure the safety of those on board the pleasure boat.

In every case [in Greece at least], you should note that, in principle, it is forbidden to carry onboard anyone else other than those specifically mentioned in a yacht’s crew list. In a rescue situation, Skippers will have to provide assistance, but only after they inform the authorities, as they risk their yacht being confiscated up until proven extra passengers onboard were part of a rescue operation, not human trafficking.

We should make it clear I think that if a small yacht picks up migrants (or anyone for that matter) at sea without first informing the Greek authorities the yacht owner runs the risk of being prosecuted as a people trafficker and the confiscation of their boat. Similar rules may also exist in Italy.

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.

Sunk by Red Funnel


This is what’s left of a 32 foot yacht that was cut in two at the weekend by Red Falcon, one of the Red Funnel car ferries to the Isle of Wight.

Anyone familiar with the Solent would immediately suspect it was yet another yacht trying to dodge in front of the busy shipping – but no, it was on its own mooring near the ferry terminal when it was hit in thick fog. Thankfully, no one was on board, though another boat was also damaged.

It could have been much worse: I was told by one of the harbour staff who gave me a lift in the water taxi up to Spring Fever that a couple of moorings away was a Moody 43 with a man, a woman and a young child on board. The man was on deck shouting at the ferry as it approached, but unsurprisingly no one heard.

I arrived back at Spring Fever, moored well away from the ferry terminal in Cowes, just after divers had finished clearing the remains of the sunken yacht from the bottom, and depositing them on the dock at Kingston Marine, further up river near our pontoon.

The water taxi took me up close to have a look. It seems the yacht was cut in two forward of a bulkhead at the aft end of the saloon. The back bit, presumably including the engine, is in a heap of broken pieces nearby on the dock.

According to the account I was given, the ferry approached the terminal in very poor visibility and, for reasons unknown, was heading for Cowes Yacht Haven on the wrong side of the river when it realised it was off course. Cowes Yacht Haven is very near the terminal.


The Red Falcon, seen at its terminal.

At that point it tried to turn but, during the manoeuvre, again for reasons unknown, it managed to hit the yacht moored on the other side of the river from the haven. (I’m not entirely confident in this anecdotal report, because a recent email from the harbourmaster simply states that the ferry ran aground among the yacht moorings as it entered the harbour).

The channel at that point is probably not much wider than the length of the car ferry, which never turns in the river. It is designed to run equally well backwards or forwards between Cowes and Southampton.

The day after the accident, a pointed notice was put out by the Cowes harbourmaster, announcing that he had the right to stop any vessel leaving in very poor visibility. He didn’t mention the Red Funnel ferries by name, but it was obvious who he meant. A day too late, unfortunately.

The skipper and mate have been suspended. The Marine Accidents Investigation Board report will make interesting reading for those of us who frequent Cowes.

I always thought ferry skippers must be the most reliable of all, because they cover the same ground so often, which is why this accident is so baffling. Even our cheap chart plotter is accurate enough to show which side of the River Medina we are on.

…a 2018 Adriatic success

Here’s the certificate for third in class in the 2018 Transadriatica race – the second time in the race for me – from Venice to Novigrad and back, overnight each way in Martin Walker’s Spiuma. The certificate was presented to Martin recently, tbough the race was the weekend at the end of May and beginning of June.

This time we were third in both directions. The return leg was called off early and almost everybody retired, but our times were measured to the turning mark off the Italian coast, which we reached before the wind disappeared.

Martin on the left, Spiuma in the middle next to the motor boat.

A great weekend, with a dinner in Novigrad and a vineyard tour the next day before the 8pm start back to Venice, which was in very light winds (below).

A tasting session at a vineyard

Here’s Martin in Novigrad being presented with one of the prizes for the first leg, in which Spiuma was third in class and also awarded the smallest boat prize.

It was just the two of us on a 26 footer so with the chute up all night we were both pretty tired by dawn on the way home. But it was a really enjoyable weekend.

Big tides in Brittany

For the last couple of weeks we’ve been pottering around the Channel Islands and the nearby French coast, reminding ourselves what really big tides are like. It’s our very own Bay of Fundy, the place in Canada with the world’s biggest tidal range.

The marina pontoons in St Malo climb the huge posts (below), and the tide outside can still go a few metres lower because the water inside is held back by a sill.

We were in St Malo on Tuesday near neap tides when the range from low to high was 10.6 metres, though by spring tides at the weekend it will be 12.8 metres there and 13.5m at Granville, our last port of call before Jersey, where we are now. At Granville last night the sea receded into the distance over the sand, leaving yachts in the harbour floating behind a sill.

In a Force 4 on the beam on our way from St Malo to Granville we crossed the mouth of the bay of Mont St Michel, with the monastery very clearly visible, an area where the rising tide is said to advance across the sand at the speed of a galloping horse.

It’s all an interesting exercise in planning because the strong tidal streams rotate round the islands in each rise and fall, and no ordinary sailing yacht can make much progress against them, so we go with the flow. In the most famous of the tide races, between Alderney and Cap de la Hague, it can run at up to 13 knots.

This is of course basic knowledge for any south coast of England cruising or offshore racing sailor, but having spent five seasons away, and coming back here with a fresh eye, it is impressive that for thousands of English, Channel Islands and French yachts, these tidal conditions are every day sailing.

We first sailed round the channel islands and north Brittany in 1971, in a scary two week charter from Lymington – scary because we were dinghy sailors out on the high seas for the first time, not realising we had chosen an area with among the most challenging tides in Europe – see Duffers dodging the US Navy

This time we had our own challenge even before we left the Solent when the propellor picked up this tangle of blue rope.

That lump was dragging behind and we got it out with a boathook. The rest was round the prop.

We anchored and waited for 2 knot tide to ease and then Jean-Jacques heroically went down with snorkel and knife to cut it off with our ultra sharp Sabatier bread knife – recommended for this purpose instead of a sailing knife, which was why we bought it. It took him half an hour and multiple dives. By the time I had a go all I had to do was pull the last fragment off because the cutting had all been done: I escaped lightly.

Jean-Jacques thought it only right to give it back to the fishermen from whom it came, though 30 miles away in Weymouth they might have been a bit puzzled. It’s in the bin bag next to the nets.