After Covid and a couple of UK summer cruises the preceding years, my wife and I decided to head across the English Channel in our Jeanneau 30 this year, writes Paul Dale.
We came to the conclusion that we don’t really feel on holiday on a boat until we are in France.
Part of the decision was the overcrowding of the South Coast marinas and anchorages in the staycation period 2020-2021, with getting a visitor marina berth from Chichester to Dartmouth becoming almost impossible, even mid-week.
South coast cruising wasn’t fun anymore.
A scan of the new regulatory requirements – the e-C1331 process to notify the authorities you were leaving or arriving in the UK, and the corresponding PAF (Police aux Frontiers) paperwork for the other side – was a bit depressing.
Advice on how to sail in the EU seemed to be ever changing, often out of date, and incomplete.
A number of our sailing friends urged us to sail to France, to be guinea pigs.
Below is what actually happened over a very limited 10-day French cruise to Cherbourg, then St Vaast in mid-July.
The first important thing to know is that you need to download the Excel app onto your smartphone so you can retrieve, amend and send the e-C1331 form [NOTE: The UK Government has recently launched the single Pleasure Craft Reporting (sPCR) online platform to replace the e-C1331 and C1331 form. See details at the end of the article].
It’s a long and complex spreadsheet, and while you can create it and email it to the three designated recipients – Border Force, the Home Office, and National Yachtline/HMRC – easily on your laptop at home, marina Wi-Fi, especially French marina Wi-Fi for emailing the e-C1331 for your return to the UK, isn’t reliable.
And, as will be explained later, on the return to the UK you need to email your returning e-C1331 as soon as you pick up a decent 3G signal; in our case 12 miles south of the isle of Wight.
You will need to install the Adobe app on your phone if you want to email the PAF paperwork from your smartphone; we did this but never got a response from PAF.
At 0400 on 11 July, we cast off from our buoy at Hayling Island, and pointed Alexia‘s bow towards France.
The e-C1331 had been emailed off correctly, as had the PAF document to the marina office in Cherbourg. A brand-new Q flag was in the chart table drawer.
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Twelve hours later we entered Port Chantereyne Marina. This, we thought, is a French designated Port of Arrival.
To the east there are Le Havre and Ouistreham as other options. Neither is a long day sail from the Solent, being 90 miles away.
To the west is Carteret, which is not an option as it is a high tide entry marina which you need to approach on a falling tide.
So, imagine our surprise to be told at the Cherbourg Capitainerie that the marina was not accepting visiting yachts until the 17 July due to the Route de Dhreme regatta.
This was awkward as many UK cruising yachts sail to Cherbourg from the Solent and central South Coast; all the UK crews needed to have their passports stamped.
We managed to sneak into an empty resident’s berth, Q flag flapping, and phoned PAF expecting officers to visit us to clear us in.
Instead, we were told to go to the Capitainerie the next morning as PAF officials come every day at 0900 and 1800 to stamp British sailors in and out of the EU.
The next morning, we, along with the crews of three other UK boats, duly assembled. No PAF official. After half an hour we were told to come back at 1100. We all did.
By 1130, we were told that PAF officials wouldn’t be coming that day.
The marina staff just commented that the PAF officials were ‘not reliable’.
As one disgruntled British sailor said: ‘It took us 14 hours to get here from Weymouth and we only came to Cherbourg to get the passports stamped; they wouldn’t let us in, and now we are stuck outside the marina in a truly awful anchorage in 35°C, and we are having to come in by dinghy to report to the police who never turn up. I bloody wish we’d never set off.’
We were left with no option but to walk for 30 minutes to the PAF office where all the officials wanted to see was a hard copy of the PAF entry document (it is a good idea to print some off before you leave the UK), all the crew and their passports.
They were not interested in Ships Papers, registration, liferaft service receipts, International Certificate for Operators of Pleasure Craft (ICC), or whether we had boat insurance.
They stamped us in, in three minutes.
Overall, the British sailors in Cherbourg were angry about all the hassles.
Two days later we arrived at St Vaast.
We enquired at the Capitainerie about checking out (or in) there.
We were told that PAF officials were supposed to come to their office to do this, but ‘they are so unreliable that people don’t bother.’
One crew of a UK boat told us they planned to email the exit PAF document and that would be proof they had left the EU; they couldn’t be bothered with the faff of finding someone to stamp their passports!
Another British crew announced that the trick was to ask to be stamped out when you got stamped in – and then carry on cruising in France! Although tempted, we are law abiding.
In St Vaast, we met several French sailors who all commented on the lack of UK visitors in the Normandy harbours. They were all friendly and sympathetic.
We didn’t really want to do the day sail back to Cherbourg and then spend another day there to go to the PAF office; the tides were also not working in our favour.
Instead, we bought tickets for the bus from St Vaast to Cherbourg. But waiting at the bus stop a local told us that the bus service was suspended!
The PAF offices are closed Sundays, and this was a Saturday, with a weather window for a 0400 departure on Monday.
So, we invested €145 in a return taxi to the Cherbourg PAF offices.
It was exhausting, tedious and expensive, but at least we were legal to leave.
The evening before departure we emailed the Returning to the UK e-C1131 to the three recipients – Border Force, the Home Office, and National Yachtline/HMRC. No reply from the Home Office. Border Force emailed back saying we weren’t required to present ourselves.
But National Yachtline informed us we would have to re-submit the form by email as we entered UK waters. They warned us that the alternative of phoning the Yachtline number on arrival, for clearance, would take a lot longer.
We resent it when we were 12 miles south of Dunnose Point.
After an hour and a half, we were just about to phone Yachtline when an email came back; we were cleared in.
It left us wondering how long a call to Yachtline would take, let alone the pressure it would put on a crew if weather was testing or the vessel was being sailed shorthanded; it would be tough for a less confident crew.
Sailing to France after Brexit: Pitfalls
The British bureaucracy for clearing in and out is clunky and torturous, and an app would make the whole process a lot easier.
However, the EU requirement to actually stamp passports in and out adds a real layer of stress, especially since they don’t seem resourced or motivated to do this.
We can’t blame the French – our country voted for Brexit – but neither the UK nor the French/EU bureaucrats have taken into account the realities of crossing the Channel in small boats, and the dependency on tide and weather windows.
I am surprised that sailing organisations have not more vigorously lobbied the UK and French authorities to develop a more practicable and friendly way of enabling cruising sailors to cross the Channel.
If the bureaucracy described above remains, a two week (or longer) French cruise will be fine, as long as you are highly organised and motivated.
But the halcyon days of sailing to France for a few days when the weather looks good are over.
That was the conclusion of our sailing friends to whom we reported back – and also the few UK crews we met over there: it was all too much hassle.
Personally, I have been cruising and racing to France for over 30 years with about 50 return channel crossings under my belt.
But I imagine the new layers of stress and hassle will be very off-putting to those who are new to cruising, and are contemplating sailing the English Channel for the first time.
In a statement to Yachting Monthly, The Home Office has confirmed there are no plans for an app for reporting in and out of the UK.
Advice for sailing to France
Both the RYA and the Cruising Association advise UK sailors crossing the channel to arrive at an official Port of Entry.
These are Dunkirk, Calais, Dieppe, Le Havre, Honfleur, Caen/Ouistreham, Cherbourg, Carteret, Granville, St Malo, St Brieuc/Légué, and Roscoff. Boulogne has recently announced there are no PAF officials locally to process arrivals and departures; those arriving here need to travel by train to Calais for processing.
From 1 June to 30 September 2022 a temporary concession has been introduced for British and Channel Island nationals visiting Saint Cast and Saint Quay, which will require a modified Declaration of Arrival/Departure form.
Full details can be found in our article: Sailing to France: What you need to know.
Advice for sailing to and from the UK
Anyone cruising to and from the UK needs to inform Border Force and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
The newly launched single Pleasure Craft Reporting (sPCR) online platform – www.spcr.homeoffice.gov.uk – is now the preferred option for reporting journeys for anyone leaving or entering the UK. This includes cruisers sailing from or to the Channel Islands and Ireland, as well as those sailing to or from other EU countries and the rest of the world.
The new platform is currently in ‘beta’ mode but will eventually replace the C1331 postal form and e-C1331 online forms. The eC1331 is only available as an Excel document. It has also been renamed: now renamedL ‘Pleasure craft on non-UK voyages: leaving or arriving in the UK (pleasure craft report (sPCR) fallback template.
Like the e-C1331, you still need to be able to access an Excel spreadsheet to fill out the single Pleasure Craft Reporting form. You also need to send it as you enter UK waters.
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