Gone are the days when a skipper in the UK could hop aboard their own boat and go exploring Europe without a care in the world. Brexit has locked British sailors into not so splendid isolation, effectively making any passage more than 12 miles from shore a bureaucratic nightmare. So what’s changed? And who is to blame?

For any UK sailor born a citizen of the European Union, it’s hard to understand – let alone accept – just how a minority of the British population stripped them of their rights and seriously restricted their sailing opportunities. Not only that, some British boat-owners face hefty bills because of Brexit, and may even lose their vessels. Here are some of the key ways in which sailors will lose out because of the new reality.

Time limitations

Until December 31, 2020, a UK sailor had the right to head off to Europe and explore. Whether they made a dash across Biscay and then down the coasts of Spain and Portugal, or opted for a leisurely cruise through the French canals, the Mediterranean was in easy reach. There was no need for formalities, and it was possible to spend several years sailing from place to place, without filling in more than a marina agreement all the way to Turkey.

Now, a British sailor can spend only 90 days in every 180 in the Schengen zone. It’s perfectly possible, and undoubtedly pleasant, to make the trip down to and across the Med in that time. And there’s definitely something to be said for waiting out the next 90 days exploring the coasts of Croatia, Albania or Turkey. But that’s not really the point. Especially as the “deal” negotiated by the UK allows EU nationals to visit and remain in the UK for up to six months – twice as long as a British sailor can stay in Schengen. The Cruising Association is spearheading a campaign to have the rules changed, so that UK skippers can obtain a 180-day cruising visa for the EU, but changes are unlikely in the near future.


If you’re a British cruising instructor or charter/delivery skipper, forget about finding work easily in the Schengen zone, in an EU marina or on any boat that isn’t UK flagged. Of course, you can still get a job – but you’ll probably need a work permit. Brexit has even halted some “voluntary” sailing opportunities, such as mile-building work as crew for delivery companies. An example: when Halcyon Yachts put out a call for crew in April 2021, two of their opportunities required passport holders from specific EU countries, or EU citizens.


EU countries generally recognise each others’ sailing qualifications, but third-country certificates are not yet universally accepted across Schengen. As Brexit made the UK a third country, British sailors might find that they now need a local certificate to skipper a boat sailing under the flag of an EU Member State. Note that this doesn’t apply to UK flagged boats; you can still sail under the red ensign with an RYA qualification in the Schengen zone (subject to time restrictions), but you might not be able to charter a boat registered locally. Your ICC will remain valid in countries that signed up to United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Inland Transport Committee Working Party on Inland Water Transport Resolution 40, depending on national legislation in the country in question.

Your boat in the EU

There are now time limits on how long a UK flagged boat may remain in the Schengen zone. Unlike people, who are limited to 90 days in each 180, British vessels can remain for up to 18 months. It’s enough to sail out of Schengen at the end of that period, stay overnight in an outside marina (in, for example, Turkey, Croatia or Tunisia), and then re-enter for a further 180 days. But do remember to keep your marina receipt as evidence that your boat left the bloc.


First, any British sailor intending to go 12 miles or more offshore must carry a yellow Q flag (with the exception of passages between Great Britain and Northern Ireland). This used to be a consideration only when going to the Channel Islands, or much further afield than the Schengen Zone. Now, it is compulsory for a UK flagged vessel to fly the Q flag when entering the waters of an EU country, and when returning to the UK.

As a skipper, you are now responsible for providing the details of everyone on board (whether or not they are British citizen) when you arrive in the UK. You must also arrange for anyone who is not a British citizen to obtain immigration clearance.

You are no longer permitted to leave or enter the UK on your boat without first filling in a form C1331. This must be posted to the Border Force, though there are plans to make it possible to submit the form online by the summer of 2021. Furthermore, you must call the National Yachtline on 0300 123 2012 to advise them of your arrival in the UK, and follow any instructions you are given.

Brexit means that it is no longer possible to enter a Schengen country wherever you please. You may only clear customs and immigration at certain designated ports of entry. So, no more long weekends of Channel hopping to lie at anchor in a peaceful bay.

Finally, there are strict limits about how much of certain goods you may bring into the UK. If you are returning from 90 days afloat in the Greek islands, for example, you can’t bring a year’s supply of your favourite tipple with you. At least, theoretically. Our advice would be to return to the UK from an EU country via Belfast – as the customs rules between Northern Ireland and the EU are much more generous.

For more details on the formalities, see the HM Revenue and Customs page here.


This is a huge and complex issue about which the rules seem to change every month or so and are in any case very much open to interpretation. For that reason, we will leave the details to the experts at the RYA (see here for up to date information). However, it’s worth noting that you will have to pay VAT on your boat in some circumstances if you bring it into the UK from an EU country. Thanks to Brexit, you might be hit with a bill even if you have already paid VAT on your boat once. At the moment, for boats that were lying in the EU on December 31 2020, you have until June 30 2022 to get your boat back to the UK in order to avoid a potential bill. That’s if, at some point during your ownership, you have already been with your boat in the UK.

Chandlery supplies

There are some great online chandlers out there, in the UK and the EU. Most sailors in both areas will know of the excellent SVB, which is still accessible to British boat owners, but at a much higher cost. Likewise, Brits who live on their boats in the EU will get a nasty surprise if they order from a UK chandlery for delivery to their boat. For example, the lovely Mark and Nadiyana at Wildlings Sailing (who are renovating a catamaran in France) told of how they ordered chandlery supplies for around GBP 100 from the UK – and were forced to pay a further EUR 33 in import tax.


It has forever been a contentious piece of rock, and now Gibraltar is set to enter a new phase – as it will join Schengen under the sponsorship of Spain. The British Overseas Territory (as it will nominally continue to be) voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU in the Brexit referendum. But, as part of the Schengen zone, will British sailors be able to use it as a bolthole to meet their obligations under the 90-day rule? Probably not. More generally, will British citizens still have the right to travel to, live and work in Gibraltar without time restrictions or other paperwork? Nobody seems to have thought about that yet, and we’ve no idea of how it’s going to play out.

So who should you blame for Brexit bombing British sailing?

We hope this rogues gallery will prove helpful in identifying exactly who messed up your sailing plans.

The fag: as anyone familiar with the English public school system knows, fags were (and we are assured still are in some cases) younger boys who acted as servants for more senior students. Transfer this idea to the Conservative Party, and it’s not hard to see why David Cameron is listed here. “Clean my boots, Cameron”, “make me some toast, Cameron”, “hold a referendum, Cameron”…

(Note for our American readers – “public school” in England means “private school”)

The spiv: remember Passport to Pimlico and Private Walker of Dad’s Army? Spivs are often portrayed as wheeler-dealing cheeky chappies, when in fact they are manipulative, greedy and out for what they can get, always looking out for number one at everyone else’s expense. Step forward, Nigel Farage.

The clown: it ought not to have been possible to make such a monumental mess of the deal between the UK and the EU. But somehow the master of ineptitude and buffoonery masquerading as a British-born patriot under the assumed name of Boris Johnson has managed it.

(Note for our British readers – the UK prime minister was born in New York, and “Johnson”, in American slang, means… well, look it up here)

The useful idiots: these are folk who are easy to manipulate for political purposes, and follow an ideology blindly without any understanding of what it is they are following. Heard the phrase “this isn’t the Brexit I voted for”? Yes, those 17.5 million Brexit voters (roughly 26 per cent of the UK population) are the useful idiots who effectively stripped the other 74 per cent of the population, including British sailors, of the rights that many were born with.

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