With the double difficulties presented by Brexit and Covid-19, Helen Fretter speaks to the experts and provides all you need to know about cruising in Europe this summer

Cruising in Europe was once the comparatively simple option, negotiating weather systems in Biscay and overcrowded anchorages being the major concerns for anyone planning to cruise Atlantic or Mediterranean shores in former years.

Today, cruising in Europe is anything but simple, thanks to a moving jigsaw puzzle of Covid-19 travel regulations and post-Brexit restrictions for non-EU citizens.

With much long-haul travel still off the cards and a vast choice of cruising areas to explore, Europe remains one of the best options for safe, enjoyable sailing, though a degree of forward planning and flexible thinking is needed.

Spectacular Isla Sisarga in northern Spain: cruising across borders will require more planning for UK sailors. Photo: Tor Johnson

Attempting to keep on top of latest regulations is a bit like catching snowflakes; as soon as you think you have one in your grasp, it will have vanished, only for a dozen more to have appeared. So while we generally prefer to avoid caveats and disclaimers, the information that follows is likely to change and should be thoroughly checked before making plans.

The situation is liable to change for both welcome and unwelcome reasons, including fluctuating Covid-19 rates, the reopening of tourism, but also as lobbying by organisations such as the Cruising Association and RYA yield some bureaucratic simplifications post-Brexit.

Cruising Europe from the UK

Setting off from the UK into Europe should be simplified later this year (2021), with an online reporting system replacing the C1331 paper form. Since the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December 2020, cruisers have been required to fill out a C1331 customs declaration form with details of their boat, crew, and departure and arrival destinations and dates every time they travel out of or into UK waters.

The form can only be sent by post to the Border Force team in Dover, and if a voyage is delayed by more than 24 hours then a new form with a revised departure time has to be submitted – a situation the RYA described as ‘farcical’. The new system will go live later this year and will be called ‘Submit A Pleasure Craft Report’, filled out via the gov.uk website.

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The Home Office told our sister title Yachting Monthly that Border Force was working with HMRC to develop a ‘temporary alternative method of submission [for the C1331 form] that removes the requirement to post the form via the Royal Mail’ until Submit A Pleasure Craft Report was available online.

The bigger question for British-based cruisers is where to go, thanks to Covid-19 restrictions on returning to the UK. At the time of writing, current UK Government advice is that ‘you should not travel to amber or red list countries’, although travel industry representatives have been at pains to point out that going abroad is not in itself illegal.

That leaves a limited and largely impractical number of ‘green list’ options, requiring only a single test and no quarantine on return.

For example, the Faroe Islands are a stunning cruising destination – Rubicon 3 is among the adventure sail operators offering berths on voyages from the west coast of Scotland to the North Atlantic archipelago – but require a 500-mile passage from Oban.

Likewise when Portugal was on the green list (it has since been moved to amber), there was the option of making an Atlantic loop to Madeira and the Azores, though with a 1,500-mile return leg that would be akin to a full ocean crossing.

For cruisers craving more straightforward sailing in the sun, a charter in a green-listed country such as Gibraltar will have obvious appeal. At the time of writing, European destinations that had been moved to ‘green’ include the Balearic Islands, Malta, and Madeira.

Philip Taveira manages Portiate, a small family-run charter company in the Algarve in southern Portugal. They have four monohulls and a 40ft Fountaine Pajot catamaran available for bareboat charter, and also run day trips. When Portugal moved to green list, they noticed a huge spike in interest from UK visitors.

The Faroe Islands were one of the earliest countries to go on the UK’s ‘green list’ for travel. Photo: Francisco de Casa/Alamy

“There’s been an insane increase in enquiries for day trips from British visitors in the past week,” he reported in late May. Whereas usually their client base is usually made up of Swiss and German, with some French and Dutch, Taveira is closely watching to see if the spike in enquiries from the UK shifts into bareboat bookings.

“The sailing area here is amazing. We have a constant north-westerly wind, and high cliffs sheltering the sea from swell. The breeze builds from about 1pm to sunset, starting off around 5 knots to a constant 15-20 knots. And the scenery is gorgeous.”

Sailing into Europe

The vast majority of British cruisers make France their initial destination. While France is on the UK Government’s amber list as we write this (requiring 10 days home quarantine, and Covid tests both before and after departure), restrictions for those arriving in France from the UK are under review. A compelling reason to enter the country is no longer required, though a test within 72 hours of departure, seven days isolation, then a second negative test, is.

Croatia is likely to be popular among cruisers looking to exit the Schengen zone this summer. Photo: Adam Mrozowicz/Alamy

Restrictions on entering other countries vary and are changing rapidly – as a quick snapshot, Spain reopened to British visitors from 20 May, without the need for a PCR test or incoming quarantine; Greece required a test or proof of vaccine, but no quarantine; Italy doesn’t require a reason to travel but does require five days of isolation, while some countries are still limiting visitors to essential travel only.

However, the EU is considering a passport scheme, granting unrestricted entry to travellers – including Britons – who have had two doses of vaccine.

For cruisers sailing into France, improvements are being made to the entry process. Since the end of the Brexit transition period on 1 January, skippers have been required to sail to one of a small number of Ports of Entry, mainly the ferry ports, to register the arrival of their boat and crew with the authorities – usually the Police aux Frontières. This reverse process was required before departing France for the UK, Channel Islands or any non-Schengen country.

However, following lobbying by the Cruising Association, the French government has confirmed that UK yachts will be allowed entry at any French port. A new form will be available from the websites of each Port of Entry, which can be downloaded, completed and submitted by email prior to arrival, allowing the yacht to enter another local port. This process is already underway for Le Havre and other ports are expected to follow shortly.

Whether this is in addition to, or replaces, the Préavis Douane immigration form is currently unconfirmed. Roger Bickerstaff, of the Cruising Association Regulations and Technical Services group, explained: “It’s all a bit unclear at the moment. I think the intention is that it will, but these things have really got to be worked through in practice.

“One thing we are clear about is that, assuming it’s possible to do cross-Channel and further afield sailing this summer, the procedures just aren’t there. We still don’t really know whether passports need to be stamped in and out.”

While Spanish authorities in the Canary Islands have historically turned something of a blind eye to the Schengen status of yachts preparing for a transatlantic, this is not an official policy.

The best policy may well be to fill in everything and have plenty of patience. “Talk to the authorities, be as helpful as possible, and recognise that the people on the ground probably know less than you do as a sailor going in. They’re struggling, we’re struggling. It will require patience and tolerance.”

Crossing borders

Within the EU a Europe-wide traffic light scheme is in place. Visit reopen.europa.eu and enter which countries you are travelling from and to, and it lists Covid travel restrictions that apply. There is also country-specific information on local curfews and other regulations.

There are regional variations, and even within countries, individual ports also often adopt a different approach. Noonsite reports, for example, that some Spanish ports have not required PCR test for yacht arrivals, while others say that a negative Covid test is recommended.

For non-EU sailors wanting to spend time cruising in Europe, Schengen zone restrictions are likely to have the most significant limitations. All non-EU visitors may spend no longer than 90 days in any rolling 180-day period within the Schengen area.

Cruisers can ‘pause the clock’ by heading to non-Schengen territories – either on or off their boat, as the Schengen rules apply to the person, not the vessel – but they can’t ‘reset’ the 90 days until the 180-day period is up.

Your best options may depend on your longer-term plans. If you’re likely to want to spend next summer also cruising Europe then it may be a case of enjoying a couple of months exploring the Spanish Rias, or Greek Islands, or wherever is convenient to your 90-day starting point, winter your yacht in Europe, and fly home within the time limit (keeping a weather eye on British re-entry rules as you go).

For those who wish to extend their trip beyond 90 days then applying for a country-specific visa extension can be an option. Long Stay visas (known as Type D visas) are issued on a national basis – there is no such thing as a Schengen zone extension. Most have to be applied for from your home country before departure, could take weeks (or longer) to complete the process, and may require proof of income and a visit to the London embassy. You may need a confirmed address; a letter of support or confirmation of a booking from a marina should suffice.

It’s too early to gauge which countries are most receptive to long-stay visas. “The Cruising Association is trying to build up the knowledge bank of understanding,” explains Bickerstaff. “So that as more people apply in each country, we will be able to advise this is how to do it in Spain, how you do it in France. But it is still early days.”

St Malo in Brittany. Photo: Jane Tregelles/Alamy

Another advantage to a visa extension is that it is in addition to the 90-day Schengen zone limit. This may be helpful for cruisers who face a significant return sail from southern Europe back to the UK. Some liveaboard cruisers who were overwintering in Europe and whose ‘Schengen clock’ started on 1 January, 2021, yet have been unable to move on, have been able to extend their visas while they await, but the applications usually need to be made before departure.

Otherwise this summer will see British cruisers attempting the ‘Schengen shuffle’ for the first time. Visiting American, Australian and other non-EU sailors have planned their routes accordingly for years. However, the sudden increase in the number of sailors affected post-Brexit may mean some once-relaxed ports are now taking a more stringent view. As one cruiser told me, “There are a lot more Brits around, and we’re asking a lot more questions.”

Conversely, some ports are adopting a lenient view towards Schengen status while many boats have been unable to move on. Cruisers forums and facebook groups remain a good source of on-the-ground information ahead of arrival.

The main options for stopping the Schengen clock while cruising Europe are Croatia, Montenegro, Cyprus, Morocco, or Turkey (though Turkey is currently red-listed due to high coronavirus numbers). There are extremely limited options for cruising northern Europe, barring a return to the UK.

The good news is that we have received no reports of widespread fines imposed from 1 April, when the ‘Schengen clock’ ran out for many non-EU sailors who’d been in Europe over the winter. Cruising organisations will be closely monitoring whether that changes over the 2021 season.

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