YachtingNews.uk editor William Mills writes about his two English Channel crossings so far this season and the reception received from the French Authorities.
Last summer I read with concern about the problems British yachtsmen were experiencing with the French authorities resulting in advice not to cross the English Channel and races being cancelled.
On 28th April 2023 we sailed across as part of a 31 yacht fleet racing from Brighton Marina and Dieppe in Normandy.
On arrival outside Dieppe we were greeted with three red lights forbidding entry to the harbour for ourselves and two others. After hanging around for about an hour I radioed Dieppe harbour control who said a ship was coming out and we must wait. Sometime later a tiny coaster appeared and we were allowed to proceed.
However, once in we were delighted to find that Brighton Marina Yacht Club and their Dieppe equivalent had done wonders on our behalf. Allocated berths were waiting for us complete with electricity all laid on. Dieppe Yacht Club’s hospitality was second to none and the following day three Customs officials appeared at the appointed hour with their entry visa stamp.
On Sunday morning, the day of our departure, they reappeared and duly stamped us with the vital exit visa. Without it the ninety days we are allowed to visit the Schengen Area would continue to click up, perhaps without us realising it, and if we then went on holiday in August to another Schengen Area country we risk being refused entry and turned away at the airport of departure.
We would never have attempted the crossing without the yacht clubs co-operating and rendering us vital assistance and support. However, now emboldened we decided to risk a fully independent travel solo trip to Fecamp, another port further to the West.
On 31st May a neighbouring club had hosted a cross Channel race to Fecamp. We waited eagerly for the returning yachts and their accounts of French Customs procedures.
Although events were overtaken with the sad news of the loss of a crew member, the reports from Fecamp were encouraging.
‘The Customs arrived in Fecamp YC and stamped our passports with both arrival and exit visas at the same time,’ said a participant.
Reassured, we set off on Saturday 10th June at first light for an uneventful crossing until we neared the French coast with a good breeze which alas, died to the point we started the engine.
Suddenly, the boat started to jolt and judder indicative of weed entangling our sail drive. We were left with a dying wind giving us no more than 2 knots through the water and a strong 3 knot spring tide sweeping us eastwards towards the new windfarm under construction some 10-15 miles north of Fecamp.
We felt rather chuffed leaving a yellow mark to starboard and away from the windfarm. Yet, this didn’t satisfy a French trawler acting as a guard boat which stormed towards us hooting and whistling.
‘Restricted area. Stay on port, if you gybe onto starboard we will report you to the authorities,’ it ordered on channel 16.
I remembered the legendary Sir Charles Chay Blyth describing to our school audience with a smile on his face, how he’d fired a parachute flare at the bridge windows of a Russian spy ship he’d encountered in the Indian Ocean. Realising that the Coastguard were probably recording our conversation, I thanked him profusely for his co-operation and understanding, which only seemed to make him more cross.
By the time we had plucked up courage to gybe the incident had added two hours to our passage time. We moored up safely on the visitors’ pontoon having made my longest ever jump from our bow.
Safely ashore the marina office staff member was very polite and speaking in English informs us the Police will visit to stamp our passports tomorrow, or the day after, and a member of their staff would act as translator.
In the event three Policemen arrived half an hour late on Monday morning having driven from Le Havre especially to visit us. They were very pleasant, polite and spoke in English. They stamped our passports with an exit date but not an entry one.
After the Police had driven off we caught a local bus to Etretat, some ten miles distant. Here, in contrast to Fecamp, tourism was flourishing with crowds flocking to buy postcards of Monet’s 1883 visit, and to explore the world famous gardens after an energetic walk up the cliffs.
On our return we witnessed an extraordinary incident walking back from the bus stop along the quayside. We heard a loud crash followed by snapping sounds. Mystified we froze as this had all the hallmarks of a terrorist incident.
Then, after a pronounced pause, the sounds came again, of crushing, snapping and breaking. Aghast, we beheld a large steel hulled trawler reversing along a row of local small motorboats, the type with a day cabin and large single outboard raised from the transom, three of which had been ripped off, and a finger pontoon broken in half was poised vertically ready to plunge into the watery depths. The trawler then calmly turned around and proceeded out to sea.
Whether we had witnessed a genuine accident or a French boat rage-fishing dispute we were uncertain. But it brought home the fact that the trawler would have gone straight through our fibre glassed hull moored only a stone’s throw away. It was a sobering moment given that we had faced a similar vessel only 48 hours before with nothing but our radio between us.
We left at dawn the following day giving the windfarm a wide berth and enjoying the sudden change from a mirror smooth sea to energetic white horses on a building north easterly.
Whilst the customs situation was a great deal better than last year it is still cumbersome and uneconomic. We were the only British flagged pleasure craft in Fecamp for the three nights that we were there, and on the eve of our departure the gaps in the visitors’ pontoons looked somewhat forlorn.
A Dutch visitor reminded us that trips to the Channel Islands, never part of the EU, only require a form posted in the marina’s honesty box. Virtually all yachts involved in crime are apprehended as a result of intelligence led Law Enforcement rather than random searches.
The UK yachting industry needs to press government for a return to the honesty box declarations which existed before Schengen came into effect which would lead to a speedy return to the tourist levels seen before the UK joined the Schengen agreement.