BREXIT, VAT, COVID-19, and a sporty Channel crossing.
2020 was a season seriously curtailed by the COVID-19 outbreak. The pandemic hit mid-refit of Arkyla so, even when lock-down restrictions eased in June, and we were able to visit the boat, it was some time before our power upgrades were completed and we were actually able to sail. Aside from a few jaunts around the Solent, our only significant sail was relocating Arkyla to Cherbourg to safeguard her EU VAT status.
BREXIT and VAT implications...
The implications of BREXIT run deep for any UK sailors harbouring dreams or intentions to cruise Mediterranean waters in the coming years. Issues of personal freedom of movement, and the VAT status of boats, demand timely and careful short and longer-term planning to ensure we don't fall foul of EU regulations and the potential for hefty financial consequences should either sailor or boat overstay their welcomes from 2021 onward.
Knowing that the coming changes could impact us significantly, we have maintained a close watch on the rollercoaster of BREXIT negotiations this past year to help us best position ourselves for the inevitable adverse fallout on UK cruisers in european waters. The updates and outputs from both the RYA and the Cruising Association have been invaluable in helping us develop and execute our plan ahead of the changes that will occur on 31 December 2021; it would be wise for anyone with an eye on future Mediterranean cruising to delve deep into these resources - the cost of membership is a small price to pay for the wealth of information that both organisations provide. By my understanding, the four crucial points to account for are; UK VAT-paid boats will only retain EU VAT status if it can be evidenced that the vessel was located in an EU jurisdiction on the day that the transition period ends (31 Dec 21), UK VAT-paid boats located within the EU on BREXIT day will still retain their UK VAT status, boats without EU VAT-paid status can only remain in EU waters for a maximum continuous period of 18 months before they are considered an import and, thereby, liable to VAT charges (against the current EU-assessed value of the vessel), UK citizens will only be permitted to unrestricted EU travel (without the need for a visa) for 90 days within a rolling 180 days.
Personal movement within the EU...
In terms of personal movement, unless (as a UK citizen) you are fortunate enough to have - or be eligible for - dual nationality with an EU nation, it is highly possible you may need to reassess any future plans for extended summer cruising in the Med. Whilst Jenny has taken advantage of her ancestry to adopt an Irish passport, it does little to help me and still leaves her without a captain beyond the 90-day limit! I've heard rumour that some individual EU countries might look to introduce 'visa waiver' mechanisms for boat owners aimed to retain the significant contribution that UK cruisers bring to local economies in terms of maintaining tourism and yachting support industries; I can find no evidence yet to confirm any of these however and, even if local solutions do materialise, geography and/or cost may still be an issue for many. In terms of direct action however, individuals can write to their MP to request they petition government to push for a 180-in-360 day visa free agreement; this is the current UK offer to EU nationals post-BREXIT, but which has not been reciprocated by the EU. There are several Facebook and other social media groups active that provide advice, offer templates for letters to MPs, and track progress within Parliament. The freedom of movement issue extends to many cohorts beyond cruisers, with second-home owners particularly affected also; the number of individuals impacted is large, but petitioning Parliament will only work if the majority actually put pen to paper - don't leave it to others on the lazy basis that 'my one letter won't make a difference'!
Falling foul of the boat 18-month import rule, even by a single day, can have sizeable financial consequences; we certainly would not be able to pull about £50K out of the hat to meet an EU VAT demand or face the boat being impounded. Whilst at first glance 18 months may seem a generous amount of time to allow your boat to exit EU jurisdiction before returning to reset the 'VAT clock' for another year and a half, in reality it could prove difficult, especially for those positioned in the middle Mediterranean, to achieve. At either end of the Med there are plenty of in-reach options; Gibraltar or Morocco in the east, and the likes of Albania or Turkey to the west. However, all it takes is an unseasonal storm to hold a boat in port, a COVID resurgence to close borders, or a personal health issue to prevent travel, for a finely tuned VAT-avoidance plan to come horribly, and expensively, undone. Of course, the way around this problem is relatively simple; position your boat in the EU for the day of BREXIT. However, the 'easy' season for crossing the Channel is drawing to a close, and many others may have the same idea potentially leading to a shortage of berthing/hard-standing options for late comers. The time to act is probably now.
Our circumstances are that we intend to spend the next 3-5 years cruising the Med for extended periods before hopping across the pond to explore the Caribbean and beyond. Like many however, COVID-19 put a stop to our original plans for 2020; by deferring ARC Portugal to 2021, our initial BREXIT strategy was well and truly scuppered! With Spain's Cartagena no longer our 20/21 wintering destination, we needed a new approach; we decided that France was our nearest, easiest and best bet to beat the bureaucracy.
COVID silver linings...
If looking for a COVID silver lining, the forced delay has bought us additional time to complete Arkyla's refit ahead of our push to the sun. A number of issues in the install of the new solar and wind power systems emerged only during the local sea trials in and around the Solent and local south coast waters; fixing these turned out to be a rather long-winded affair and it is debatable we would have had time to remedy these ahead of our original hard ARC rally departure date set for the end of May. An extended lay-up on the hard during the national lock-down period also enabled us, albeit through scraping the savings' barrell, to bring forward plans to replace seacocks and to Coppercoat the hull; replacing the original (12-year old) seacocks with TruDesign composite units has given us a confidence in Arkyla's integrity that you can't put a price on, and the results of the Coppercoating have, so far, been impressive (if only tested for a relatively short time in the water). In short, we feel more than sure that the boat is now fully ready for offshore bluewater passages.
The extended works did however significantly eat into our time on the water this summer, and our post-lockdown sailing could best be described as 'fragmented and frustrating'. We missed our window for an extended July cruise, but were however ready in early August to execute our BREXIT Plan B; some time in the Channel Islands ahead of a haul-out in Cherbourg. An August resurgence in continental COVID however now threatened our revised late summer cruising plan. Daily changes to quarantine rules, and a set time window for Jenny's leave, realistically forced us to abandon Alderney and Guernsey and instead opt for Plan C; a direct passage to Cherbourg with intent to spend a few days prepping the boat for lay up before hopping straight on a ferry back to the UK as soon as the boat was on the hard. Fortunately Jenny had the good sense - even if rather late in the day - to check availability of ferry tickets; as it turned out crossings were fully booked in the short term and, more importantly, were not accepting foot passengers until 1st November! Unwilling to expose ourselves to air-travel COVID risks, we eventually found a work-around solution; from 3 September we were able to book a ferry passage, but only if travelling by bicycle. Two second-hand Dahon folding bikes from Ebay later, we were tied to a new (Plan D) schedule - only the weather could stop us now!
Escaping the Solent...
The weather... enter stage (or Atlantic) left Storm Ellen and a succession of deep lows lining up to batter the UK, Channel, and northern France. Much like the previous August of 2019, Mother Nature once again did her best to ruin our sailing plans; this year however the financial stakes of not positioning ourselves in the EU were high so the passage had to be made. We made the call to tackle the crossing on Sunday 23rd August; although wary of remnant big seas from Ellen that had passed through only 2 days earlier, the choice to sprint across in a forecast 5-6 ahead of the next set of storms seemed like the only realistic option. Choosing to exit the Western Solent via the south Needles channel was maybe not the best decision; although arriving at what should have been slack water, the chop passing Shingles bank was high, steep, and anything but pleasant!
Exiting the Solent; there was considerable chop in the south channel from Storm Ellen.
Arkyla sliced through Storm Ellen's waves.
We had only made a Channel crossing once before; on that trip we barely saw any traffic to negotiate in the shipping lanes and we wondered what all the fuss was about - it was not to be so easy on this trip with us playing the nautical equivalent of a game of Frogger dodging the container ships across the northern west-bound lane in particular. AIS proved to be an incredible tool to both assess closest points of approach of threats and, by interrogating targets, to determine if the commercial vessels were, if necessary, making small adjustments to their courses to miss the WAFI (wind assisted *** idiots). Suffice to say, at the end of a fairly long and 'sporty' day, we were glad to tie up in the welcoming marina of Port Chantereyne.
Once past here however the seas steadied to 2-3m and the westerly wind pushed us along at a rather respectable 8.5kts despite a deep-reefed main and setting the self-tacking jib in favour of our twin genoas. Arkyla proved her blue-water credentials and sliced through the beam-on seas with veritable ease. She performed so well in fact that I had to adjust my tidal calculations to avoid being offset too-far east by the tide; even with a significant alteration to our course, with the wind backing SW and increasing to a steady 6 regularly gusting 7, we ended up having to tack round the prohibited explosives danger zone to the north of the French coast.
First mate on watch.
Welcome to France...
We barely had time to settle ourselves in the marina before another major low blew in from the Atlantic. With winds building to a consistent Beaufort 7 and gusts of Force 8 and 9 (in fact, the Windex briefly peaked at Force 10!), I was not alone in doubling up on lines and deploying the big gun shock snubbers to reduce snatching against the dock cleats. Some unattended boats suffered torn genoas and other breaks that might otherwise had caused further damage had not the excellent marina staff reacted to observations from marina residents of problem situations around them. On this note, UK marinas could learn a great deal from not only the level of helpful and friendly customer service, but also the value for money afforded by our continental cousins. The casual rate charge for a 14m yacht stood at just £28 per day (after a small discount for RYA/CA membership) - literally half the price of that demanded in Lymington... and that included free electricity too!
Sporty conditions in the marina with F10 gusts!
With time to kill before we could head back home, we had some exploring to do. Cherbourg may not be prettiest of French towns but, between drinking wine from Roy's Cave and eating cheeses from the local market, we found enough to entertain ourselves during our 10-day stay. Wary of the rise in French COVID cases we were very careful in our approach to visiting any shops or restaurants; nonetheless, we found the anti-COVID approach here measured and, importantly, embraced and adhered to by residents and visitors alike. Pedestrian areas were designated compulsory mask areas, and the restaurants and shops were well prepared in terms of limiting numbers, providing sanitizer, and maintaining safe distances; we did not feel threatened by the extent of potential virus exposure we were subject to. One particular highlight was a visit to the City of the Sea museum; literally a stones throw from our berth across the inlet to the inner town harbour, it is a 10-minute walk from the visitor pontoons. Cherbourg was an embarkation port on the White Star line Titanic's fateful voyage, and the museum hosts a permanent exhibit to the doomed vessel. Access to the display is through the original, and vast, baggage hall that the emigrants of 1912 themselves passed through making this superb exhibit all the more poignant. The wider attraction also hosts a set of aquariums, with a focus on marine conservation, features many examples of exploration submarines in the great entrance hall, and has a dry dock hosting the decommissioned nuclear submarine Redoutable; all in all, this is a great display that I would recommend to anyone with any interest in the oceans. Another thing to look out for is the wide array of street art you stumble upon when wandering the town; the quality of these murals certainly differentiates them from graffitti!
Cherbourg is full of street art... a more classy degree of graffiti!
And so to the haul-out. We had already invested time earlier in the summer to identify a contractor to coordinate the haul-out, storage and winterisation of the boat in France. From a list of local companies supplied by Port Chantereyne, we established a good relationship with Francke Leclerque, owner/manager of Chantier Naval; this enabled us to clearly set out our requirements and expectations, reduce chances of any surprises (for all parties), and barter some long-stay deals before arriving in France. Whilst it is possible to deal direct with Port Chantereyne for haul-out and space on the hard, they they do not supply cradles for your boat so some element of 3rd party contractor will always be required. In the event, we found it easier, and cheaper, to commission the 'full package' through Francke and his team.
We touched base with Chantier Naval soon after arriving in Cherbourg; Francke and his chief engineer, Damien, visited the yacht to discuss our additional requirements that included a hull polish, minor gelcoat repairs, some teak/caulking work, an engine service, and the test/replacement of our erratic engine tachometer. It was evident from our discussions that all of this is well within their capabilities, also noting that they are an authorised Yanmar service agent, and we are left (unusually for us) with the highest confidence that they will do an excellent job and without breaking our bank. We were fortunate to eventually have a warm still day in which to dry off our sails before unbending them for the season, but it is worth noting that the sail department of Chantier Naval can also dry your sails before storage with them if need be.
Arkyla on her way to her cradle.
Finally a calm day to dry the sails.
On the day of the haul-out, two of the Chantier team arrived at the boat at 0830hrs, as arranged to the minute, to help us load into the slings of the Port Chantereyne crane. We topped up with diesel, the station handily right next to the haul area, and then manoeuvred the boat for the lift. The crane operator took great care both in the lift and the subsequent drive to the Chantier Naval yard, where the boat is to be stored, and displayed a huge level of skill to squeeze the crane, with boat dangling, into our winter space. The whole operation took maybe an hour whereupon we able to board and complete lay-up tasks. We were more than happy to learn that the electricity to power our dehumidifier and bar heaters comes free in the port when on the hard just as when in a berth. Finally we set the cockpit tent and that, as they say, is that. We handed the keys to Arkyla to the Chantier Naval team, unfolded the bikes, and headed to the ferry for our trip back home... but that is another story entirely!
Don't hide from difficult situations; research thoroughly and educate yourself on the best courses of action whilst you still have time to mitigate future outcomes.
A plan is nothing more than a plan; be prepared to adjust schedule, course, or any other variable as conditions or situations dictate.
If making significant refit modifications, allow time to thoroughly test new installations before permanently leaving contractors in your wake.
Making contact in the native language of your destination, at first instance at the very least, goes a long way to building good relationships with those you will be dealing with; 'Google Translate' is a magnificent tool!
Set the boat for expected conditions, but be prepared for an inaccurate forecast; pre-prepared food/snacks, properly secured lockers, and conservative sail plans all help when short-handed on a significant passage.
In extreme weather, conditions within the marina may still require active management of the boat even when tied up alongside.