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.

Battles over flares

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.

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A parachute rocket flare


Result: confusion for yacht owners in a scrap that’s been going on now for quite a while.

The RYA case is that modern technology provides reliable, accurate and timely distress location methods at affordable prices without the need for pyrotechnics. A rocket flare burns for only 40 seconds, a hand flare for a minute, the stock on a boat is quickly exhausted, and these brief spurts of light and smoke can easily be missed because of distance or poor visibility.  


Furthermore, there are reliability issues, including cases of them being set off accidentally during testing of liferafts. Modern equipment avoids the operational dangers, mainly of burns, that we face whenever we use flares, and also the difficulty of disposing of them regularly, since they become out of date after only 3 years.


The replacement distress technology the RYA lists is:

  • EPIRBs and PLBs via satellite.
  • Digital Selective Calling by radio with automated distress messages.
  • AIS, which can be a distress homing device as well as its normal use for ship tracking.
  • Electronic Visual Display Signals (EVDS), often called laser flares.
  • Search and Rescue Transponders (SART), which use either radar or AIS as a homing signal.


In summary, the RYA says “The practical drawbacks of flares and their limited effectiveness in distress alerting, combined with the availability of alternatives…mean that pyrotechnic flares are now obsolescent”. It is not saying you shouldn’t carry them if you want to – but the other stuff is better.

The Coastguard’s view, just republished, basically reiterates the importance of flares, reminds people they are mandatory for yachts over 13.7 metres, and includes a blast against the laser EVDS in particular. The Coastguard says that an EVDS should not be carried as a substitute for official SOLAS signals ie for first-stage distress alerting flares, when nobody yet knows you are in trouble. But that is perfectly correct, and is anyway not quite what the RYA is getting at. The RYA, too, says that an EVDS should not be used as a primary distress alert, since other vessels may not recognise it – they are not the legally enforced SOLAS equipment that everyone is supposed to know about.


An EVDS  is, however,  a good substitute at night for the the red hand-held flares used to show rescuers your position – that is, rescuers already on the way because of an electronic alert. They will know to look out for an EVDS in those circumstances. Later in their official notice, the MCA seems to agree with this thought, and it does sort of admit that they might be considered an official rescue signal if they transmit an SOS flash.

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An EVDS

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.

The important point is that the MCA’s tough  line does not have any legal force with the rest of us, the purely recreational sailors on boats less than 13.7 metres. However, as the legal authority for all these matters, it still advises us to have officially recognised distress signals on board – ie flares.

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A set of offshore flares



The RYA is not giving up and is urging the MCA to remove all requirements to carry flares from recreational vessels under 24 metres, including those for training and charter. The MCA shows no sign of giving further concessions.

Where is Spring Fever in this? Our electronic equipment includes DSC radio and three PLBs plus an AIS receiver/transmitter. We stopped carrying rocket flares three years ago and bought an EVDS to substitute for red hand-helds.

We still have hand-held flares in the liferaft though they were packed by the service company. We have a powerful LED floodlight to shine on the sails, which we think is far more effective in alerting ships to our presence than white hand-held flares. But we do plan to keep renewing our floating orange flares, because in daylight they still have a useful function in pinpointing our position when lights are no good. We do not currently have hand held orange flares (below).OIP (3)

The company we bought them from will take them back to dispose of them when they are replaced. If you buy from a source that does not take old ones back, the cost of disposal is rising even if you can find anyone to take them, and coastguard ‘ last resort’ disposal facilities are extremely difficult to find, only intermittently operational, and at short notice.  

The RYA statement can be found here: https://www.rya.org.uk/knowledge-advice/current-affairs/Pages/carriage-of-pyrotechnic-flares.aspx

The MCA notice can be found here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/876625/MIN_542_Amendment_1.pdf

 

 

 

 

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?

Brexit petition.

Yacht owners are a tiny and unimportant issue in the big Brexit scheme of things and I certainly did not sign the petition to Parliament – link below – because of irritations over the treatment of boats and sailors.

Signatures were over a million last time I looked, and still rising so rapidly that the website kept stalling. Persevere! [6 million was the final tally].

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/241584

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?