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.

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?

Philosopher of sailing

The letter below was published in Cruising magazine this month:

If it does not prompt a few cross letters from traditionalists in the next edition, I’ll be surprised, especially after the recent finish of the Golden Globe round-the-world race using sextants and traditional navigation – just as they did on the first race 50 years ago, which was won by Sir Robin Knox Johnston in Suhaili. It was also the race in which the sad figure of Donald Crowhurst cheated in desperation and then disappeared from his yacht.

A victorious Knox-Johnston 50 years ago

Electronics were banned in the anniversary race, though I did read somewhere that they all had to sneak in a satellite phone just in case.

If the old guard don’t complain about my letter, then things have changed more than I expected….

 

PS I know I’m more than old enough to be part of the Old Guard, but I think modern electronic navigation is wonderful, and it leaves more time for actually handling the boat.

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.

Race fleets hogging marinas

Three times on our cruise to southern Brittany we were turfed out of marinas and harbours because of race fleets: at Torquay Marina, where we arrived just before dawn, we were ejected as soon as staff arrived because the marina was fully booked for a Figaro single-handed race; at Port Tudy, on the Ile de Groix, we were turned away for the another race fleet; and at L’Aber Wrac’h we were refused a second day when we  wanted to stay, because a 120 strong race fleet was arriving that afternoon, which was going to more than fill the marina. Each of these fleets were closing a succession of ports, day by day over anything up to a week. With L’Aber Wrac’h in particular, there isn’t anywhere convenient near, and tired arrivals that day from Falmouth or Dartmouth must have been furious, since it is the standard stopover when heading to the Chenal du Four.

It would be great to find a way of broadcasting the information about closures more widely: maybe something for Reeds Almanac or the Cruising Association to pursue?

Salen to Puilladobhrain and Oban

We had planned to go from Arisaig or perhaps Canna round the West of Mull to Iona, past Staff and Fingal’s Cave, but the weather was doubtful for the exposed anchorages on that side of the island so we decided to head back down the Sound of Mull again and maybe make a dash for Iona from the other direction the following day. However, half way down Tony had a call to go home to deal with a family emergency, so we diverted to Oban, first stopping at one of the best known anchorages on the Argyll coast, the tiny, tucked away Puilladobhrain.

This is the point to mention the excellent large scale charts produced of West of Scotland anchorages by Bill Bradfield using his own new surveys. Judging by a talk he gave to the Cruising Association in London in February, amateur surveying has become a passion with him, and he must now be very close to being a full professional judging by the quality of what he produces. His charts come with lots of health warnings, but we found them very accurate the dozen or so times we used them. They are available from Antares Charts.

We stayed at Oban Marina, where five years before we wintered Pepper, and Tony caught the train south early the next morning. Oban Marina, which is attractive and has a free ferry service to the town, seems to be rather more expensive than last time we were there in 2007-8, though it was still full this summer.

All the yards near Oban (including Ardoran, which is very close – a £10 taxi ride or 15 minutes by car down a  winding lane – have the advantage of the railway. Though it is nearly three hours to Glasgow, the time passes rapidly, because it is one of the great scenic railway journeys Oban is the.home of the best seafood stall anywhere, on the quay, facing the ferry terminal, where mussels, scallops, crabs, lobsters, prawns and other shellfish are served ready to eat at benches outside. (Following the example of a group of Japanese tourists, I persuaded myself to have a bowl of mussels for breakfast – excellent idea.)

Passage notes: 41 miles, 8 hours including lunch stop at Puilladobhrain, max NW 5 min NW 3, drizzle then sun. Antares charts extremely accurate, as they were in the half dozen other places we tried them.

Med charter disaster?

Since looking into chart accuracy following the Orkney cruise (see previous article) I’ve spent a couple of months in the Mediterranean. It’s much worse there.

I vaguely knew that, but previous sailing in the Mediterranean had been without chartplotters and on the earliest occasions without GPS. More recently, chartplotters seem to be standard on charter boats as well as private yachts. We amused ourselves by doing some checking.

In the Ionian and South West Turkey (but only rarely on a cruise round the Peloponnese) we noted numerous position errors, often a tenth of a mile, and a couple of times as much as a quarter of a mile; there were very noticeable – almost random – variations in the size of position errors, measured by GPS, within the area of a single paper chart, so it was not a simple matter of the datum being wrongly set (which of course we checked, as well as satellite coverage.) The errors were clearly the result of using an accurate GPS on inaccurate paper and electronic charts based on old surveys.

Rod Heikell, the pilot book author, in a  talk at the Cruising Association in London in February 2013, amused the audience with a plot of a yacht track running up the hill behind a Mediterranean town as the boat approached the harbour. That was exactly the kind of anomaly we picked up, in one case in the Ionian with the boat moving down a road on the island we were coasting.

Now none of this is new to old hands in the Mediterranean, with some of whom I have recently discussed it on a Cruising Association forum. Charts based on old leadline surveys can miss underwater dangers and sometimes have large position errors, mainly of longitude.

The advice, of course, is that GPS should always come second to older methods of pilotage, using eyes, handbearing compass, clearing lines and depth sounders, because while the longitude on charts may be wrong, the relative positions within a single area of a chart – for example a bay and harbour – tend to be accurate. The best a chartplotter and GPS can do is get you out of somewhere by using a plot of the track, once you have safely got in by conventional means. The better equipped Med sailors also talk of radar and forward looking echo sounders. Pilot book authors give GPS waypoints they have checked themselves.

However, it is very different for new arrivals in an area, and for holiday charterers it can be positively dangerous. A couple of recent trips were on bareboat charters with a large UK operator. After a series of chartplotter and GPS checks at known chart positions for a week, we found large and variable errors.  But neither the technical staff at base nor a flotilla skipper we spoke to had any idea of the scale of the local chart errors.

When we checked the equipment on arrival at one base in Turkey, we found the plotter showed the boat nearly a quarter of a mile from the marina. The company sent a technician to rebase the chartplotter’s boat icon onto our pontoon in the marina. It was an older type of instrument which we had not come across before, which allowed recalibration. (This was not a datum adjustment, which we also checked). The technician announced that the plotter was now fine.

That night, 15 miles away, the plotter was a tenth of a mile out; for the rest of the cruise, the charted positions within a cruising range of no more than 50 miles fluctuated from zero to a tenth of a mile and in one case approaching a quarter of a mile, simply because the GPS was more accurate than the charts. Back at base at the end of the week, the error was zero, so there was nothing to show the next customer that there was a problem.

The base clearly thought we were imagining it. I got the impression they were not even conscious of Rod Heikell’s pilot book warning of the size of longitude errors in Turkey. Skipper briefing at the base did warn about chartplotters, but it was not specific to the area, and was the kind of routine mention you hear in the UK. Visiting charterers might well assume it meant the relatively modest range of inaccuracy found at home, rarely more than 100 metres.

One lesson is that specific warnings with numbers attached are vital for getting the message across: for example the Imray Ionian chart used to have a general note warning that there were longitude inaccuracies, and I suspect not much notice was taken. A quantified warning was recently added saying the errors could be up to a minute of longitude, which has a much greater impact. Suddenly you realise what you are up against. The errors could be as big as the gaps between some of the islands. In these circumstances, chartplotters are an accident waiting to happen for holiday charterers. It would be safer to switch them off.

Next, how do we find out more about survey accuracy and chart errors?