A British boat cruising in Spain, post Brexit, could face time restrictions and/or taxes

Back in the good old days, the UK had a triplicate customs form for pleasure craft, the C1128, Notice of Intent to Depart on a Foreign Going Voyage.

Part 1 gave details of vessel and crew, and from where within the UK the boat was leaving and to where it was going. It was sent to the nearest customs office to the port of departure.

Part 2 was Notice of Return to the UK, where and when, to be filed at the port of arrival. You held on to Part 3.

We used to winter our boat beside the house in Co. Derry, road haul her to Buncrana in the spring (C1128 Part 1) and typically our summer cruise took us to Portrush or Port Ellen (Part 2) and on.

Our journey

One year we sailed on from Killyleagh to Howth (Part 1) then Newlyn (Part 2), Treguier (Part 1), eventually Plymouth (Part 2), Rosslare (Part 1), Bangor (Part 2), Lough Swilly (Part 1) and finally back home by road for the winter. Five triplicate forms.

Five months later I got a letter from the Small Craft Control Centre in Southampton saying they were missing a Part 2 and could I please tell them where and when it was filed and send them a copy of the Part 3.

The only way this could have been done was by a small army of clerks matching up bits of paper from entirely random sources, and it was an utterly pointless exercise which was abandoned overnight in 1992.

The unknown

Is that the world to which Brexit is taking us back?

Of course, just as with almost everything about Brexit, we don’t know. A former British Immigration Minister assured the Royal Yachting Association there would be no immigration formalities for yachts crossing the Irish border by sea, but as for customs, we’re in the dark.

There are one or two serious threats however to the freedom of movement of leisure craft. In the UK and Ireland, typical yachts don’t have to be registered and in theory at least, you can sail an unregistered boat across the Irish Sea and nobody will bother you.

But if you want to go outside the common travel area, say to France or Spain, you need papers. A boat registered in an EU country can be left indefinitely in these places with no penalty (provided the owner doesn’t personally overstay the tax limit in annual days).

Provided it has been paid somewhere in the EU, no VAT is demanded. In practice VAT papers are very seldom requested; however registration certificates have to be produced in every port in Spain and Portugal.

Absent paper trail

Ireland has no Small Craft Register and does not appear likely to get one any time soon.

Registration on the Part 1 Register can be expensive, time consuming and sometimes downright impossible. Many small craft simply do not have the paper trail required, and the degree of difficulty can depend a lot on the intended port of registry.

The cost ranges from a few hundred to several thousand, and I know of one case where the process (for a brand-new boat) has taken two years and €4,000 so far and is not complete.

I know four people who (as part of the procedure) were asked to fly out Irish surveyors to check on boats that they had bought abroad – despite the Department of Transport’s denial that they have any such requirement.

A new Irish Small Craft Register is likely to require proof of VAT payment on the boat, which many owners of used boats simply cannot provide. This is simply a bureaucratic complication and there is no need for it.

By comparison, the British system, either Part 1 or the Small Ships Register, is straightforward and quick. Our boat came second-hand with British Part 1 registry and it took £80 and a week to change the registered ownership.

It is quite legal for an EU citizen to register a boat anywhere in the EU. As a result, many Irish boats (not only in Northern Ireland) are actually registered in the UK, and Brexit, for them, represents a major threat. Their British boats will incur tax penalties if based abroad (and there are many of them in France, Spain and the Mediterranean).

One solution is to register under a flag of convenience, and the simplest and most popular alternative register is probably Belgium. We don’t particularly want to fly a Belgian flag, but we will if Irish registration turns out to be too difficult.

Further possibilities include:
• EU countries might no longer accept proof of VAT payment in the pre-Brexit UK – our own receipt is dated 1999. Less likely, but a threat just the same
• The UK could abandon the EU’s Recreational Craft Directive on construction standards, which would be a threat to exports by British boatbuilders
• The RYA’s highly-respected system of qualifications, up to Yachtmaster could lose some recognition in Europe
• Any border controls in Ireland would presumably extend to the Shannon-Erne waterway
• Ireland will be the only EU country that still allows leisure craft to use marked diesel. The case is coming before the European Court, and the British, up to now, have been important co-defendants. Freedom to use red diesel by yachts in Britain is actually one of the few advantages of Brexit. (It’s not about the price, incidentally, the issue is availability.)
• The UK could choose to depart from EU guidelines on dealing with invasive marine species.

The national governing bodies for leisure sailing – the RYA in Britain and Irish Sailing in Ireland – are actively engaged in maintaining the interests of leisure sailors in both jurisdictions, are keenly aware of the threats, and are making sure we don’t get forgotten.

But with no apparent strategy or detailed proposals emerging from London, they can do little more than speculate.

Meantime, as a Scotsman long resident in Ireland, with grandparents from Donegal, my Irish passport is in the post. Brexit or no Brexit, I’m not leaving.

Norman Kean