Brexit for Cruising Sailors

If you only ever cruise locally, Brexit will not affect you much.  However, you only have to cross the Irish Sea to the Republic of Ireland and it certainly will.  It even impacts us cruising Northern Ireland, despite Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom.

This short article gives a summary of the changes that affect those with UK registered boats, who intend to make short visits to EU Countries. Much of the information was obtained from the RYA and the websites.

Be aware that in some areas the details of implementation are still being worked out, so check for updates before you set sail for an EU country, or Northern Ireland.

Proof of your Vessel’s VAT Status

This is something that all boat owners should think about, even if only because you will want to sell your boat someday. 

The VAT status of a vessel was determined by its location at 2300 UT on 31 December 2020, i.e., last New Year’s Eve.  If it was in the UK it is now classed as “UK Goods”, which means that it is considered that the UK VAT has been paid on it.  Conversely, if it was in the EU, it is considered that EU VAT has been paid on it.

Why does this matter?  Well, a vessel classed as UK Goods can remain in the UK indefinitely with no further tax to Pay, and vice versa for boats classed EU Goods.  However, if your boat is UK Goods and she stays in EU waters for long enough, EU VAT will have to be paid on her, even though UK VAT has already been paid. 

Note that a vessel’s VAT status is not necessarily the same as her flag state.  For example, a UK registered vessel can have EU Goods status, and vice versa.

The first thing boat owners need to do is to get documentary evidence of where their boat was when Brexit happened, i.e., last New Year’s Eve.  Even if you don’t intend sailing outside UK waters you may need this evidence of VAT status when you sell your boat.  Acceptable documentary evidence includes a letter from your marina, or from the Harbour Office, to confirm her location when Brexit happened.  It would be easy to forget to do this so ask for request for the letter now.  If you are going abroad keep a copy onboard, together with your Registration and Insurance Documents, Marine Radio Licence, Proof of Competence, Passage Log, Health Care documents, Passports and Visas as required.

Leaving and Re-entering UK Waters

It is expected that the following reporting requirements will be made simpler by the introduction of Apps for mobile devices later this year.

Leaving the UK

  • Download, print, and complete Part A of Form C1331 which advises of your intentions.  This form is available for download here.  Information required includes:
    • Full details of the vessel (best prepared in advance)
    • Any duty-free stores on board
    • List of persons onboard
    • Itinerary
  • Post Part A of the Completed form to the UK Border Agency at the address given on the form.
  • Note that you are required to complete C1331 if you are going to the Channel Islands which is treated as outside the UK for VAT purposes.

Returning to the UK

  • When returning to UK waters you must hoist the Yellow Q-Flag when you get within the 12-mile limit.  The yellow Q-flag must be displayed in a prominent position.  (You should also be flying your ensign to show your vessels Flag State) 
  • On arrival, phone National Yachtline on 0300 123 2012 (24hours).  National Yachtline may give you further instructions.   
  • Don’t take the Q-flag down, or leave the vessel, until you have obtained Clearance from National Yachtline
  • Complete Part 2 of Form C1331 and send by post to the UK Border Force

It is hoped that online reporting will make the above formalities simpler and more efficient in the near future.

Visiting EU Countries

Ports of Entry

Post Brexit, we may no longer be able sail to an EU county, enter a harbour of our choice, or anchor, and go ashore.  Generally, when a foreign vessel arrives in a new country it must do so only at Port of Entry where customs and immigration formalities are available.  Only when clearance has been obtained can the vessel sail freely elsewhere in that country’s waters. 

Ports of Entry are listed in Reeds Nautical Almanac.  For example, for our nearest EU neighbour Ireland, Reeds recently showed just three Customs Harbours on the east coast of Ireland at:

  • Dublin
  • Dun Laoghaire
  • Waterford

EU countries may now require UK yachts to enter and leave the EU only at a Port of Entry, but there is no clear information on this yet.  In the following I’ve assumed that we will have to use Ports of Entry but hope very much that simpler arrangements can be found for pleasure vessels in the very near future.   

Entering an EU country

  • Sail by the most direct route to the Port of Entry
  • Before you enter the Country’s 12-mile limit:
    • Make sure your Ensign is flying
    • Hoist the Courtesy Flag for the country you’re entering, from the starboard spreader, higher than any other flag on the same halyard
    • Hoist the Q-flag in a prominent position
  • Visit Customs and Immigration on arrival

Northern Ireland Protocol

While Northern Ireland remains part of the UK, according to the Protocol it must follow the Union Custom Code to protect the open border with Ireland.  EU customs duties must be paid on goods entering Northern Ireland which are at risk of crossing the border with Ireland into the EU.  No duties are payable if the goods are not at risk of ending up in Ireland.

It is the responsibility of the UK HMRC to collect these duties, where appropriate.  At the time of writing there is no guidance on how all this affects recreational boat movements.   Until Government guidance is published, it’s probably worth contacting destination harbour for advice if you’re planning to visit Northern Ireland.

Movements between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland

An interesting consequence of the open border arrangement is that movements between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are classed as intra-community movements, and so are not subject to customs formalities.  Whether this will apply to UK vessels other than those based in Northern Ireland is not yet clear.

How Long can I Stay in the EU?

The answer to this question is different for you and your boat.

You can stay in the EU without a visa for up to 90 days in any 180-day period.  (You can also stay in  Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Romania for 90 days without using up your 180-day EU allowance.)

Your boat however, assuming it is classed as UK Goods, can remain in the EU for up to 18 months before VAT is payable in the EU.  So, a summer cruise each year including EU countries will not trigger any VAT problems, provided of course that you carry the correct documentation.  

Foodstuffs – Meat and Dairy Products

You may remember that In January 2021, lorry drivers crossing the Channel were stopped for having sandwiches, etc. in their cabs when they tried to enter France.  There are restrictions on taking foodstuffs into the EU but the RYA advise that this applies only to “landed goods”.  So, foodstuffs on your boat when you arrive in an EU country are not covered provided you do not take them ashore.  This means that if you’re going ashore for a barbecue you will have to buy the food locally, but perhaps that’s not such a bad idea!

Red Diesel

Prior to Brexit the UK had committed to stop the use of red diesel by pleasure vessels in the UK.  Since Brexit the UK Government has decided that pleasure vessels can continue to use red diesel beyond the original deadline of April 2022. 

The exception to this is Northern Ireland where red diesel will no longer be available for pleasure vessels under the NI Protocol.

There is an international convention which means that fuel for propulsion, bought outside the EU, can be taken into the EU in the vessel’s fuel tanks. However, it remains to be seen how the authorities in EU ports will behave toward UK leisure vessels with red diesel in their tanks.   

Recognition of the ICC and RYA Qualifications in the EU

If your boat is registered in the UK (the Flag State) you must comply with UK legislation, no matter which country you visit.  You may also be required to comply with maritime legislation of the country you are visiting (Coastal State rules).  Each country in the EU creates its own maritime legislation, including recognition of qualifications, so acceptance of the ICC and RYA non-Professional Qualifications in individual countries is not expected to change. 

However there has been an exception.  Before Brexit, Spain accepted RYA non-Professional qualifications on Spanish flagged, recreational vessels (e.g., local charter boats).  This no longer applies, and it is possible that there will be a similar issue with Portugal. 

Although in the UK the ICC is issued on behalf of the Government by the RYA, it is not an RYA qualification, and I haven’t come across any suggestion that it is no longer be accepted in Spain or Portugal.  (Remember that you can get your ICC through the Club.  See the Training Section.)


This quick guide gives my best interpretation of how the advice available at mid-March 2021 is likely to affect our cruising activities. It doesn’t cover all aspects of Brexit, for example the complex legislation about the import and export of yachts.  Also, and very importantly, in some cases the rules and procedures that must be followed are not yet established.

It remains to be seen how different countries will implement the changes and feedback from Members about their experiences of “foreign cruises” would be greatly appreciated.   As a Club we can also forward this to the RYA to benefit the wider sailing community.

Good Sailing

Mark Godwin
NWCC Chief Instructor and RYA Principal