Rock And Roll On The Grand Tour

Details of the pleasures and pitfalls of an extended European cruise.

In the final article of our trilogy on taking a European cruising sabbatical, we consider some of the practical aspects of preparing your boat and yourself for the trip. Our associate editor sailed trans-Atlantic last November in the Atlantic Rally For Cruisers (ARC). Here’s what he learned...

Port. Starboard. Port. Starboard. As my head rolled on the pillow from left ear to right ear and back, I found myself thinking about math. With twin genoas poled out wing and wing, Tigre rolled from port gunwale to starboard gunwale and back again to port every eight seconds in these North Atlantic trade-wind waves. That made 450 rolls every hour, or 10,800 rolls per day. On a 15-day passage, we’d roll 162,000 times; a 20-day passage would spell 216,000 cycles of rolling.

This trans-Atlantic crossing was a different kind of sailing from the coastal runs and island hops to which I was accustomed. I was fortunate to be making the passage aboard Tigre, a Dutch-built Nordia 53 cutter, a boat whose crew was chock-full of the wisdom gleaned from a recent circumnavigation: The bases of lee cloths had just been moved four inches inward from the edge of their berths to prevent the berths’ wood lips from digging into our backs each time the boat rolled; acrylic forms had been custom crafted to hold every plate, bowl and cup secure in its galley locker, eliminating the sound of dishes that rattle with every wave; well-baffled fuel and water tanks saw an end to the eerie, echoing sloshes that I associated with downwind rides aboard other boats; gas-filled support struts on cockpit hatches obviated guillotinelike slammings every time someone reached for a bucket or sponge. Together, such details added up to a well-prepared ocean crosser. Sixteen enjoyable days after leaving the Canary Islands on November 19, we arrived in St. Lucia well-rested and exhilarated.

Get Ready For Europe

Preparing yourself and your boat for an Atlantic circle is different in many ways from the Caribbean-bound preparation that is more familiar to East Coast sailors. The implications of running downwind -- indeed, of being at sea -- for weeks at a time are only the beginning. Other concerns include mid-ocean safety gear, European bureaucracy, and cultural issues, both nautical and otherwise.

Take safety gear. I accompanied Tony Mark during some of his rounds as official safety inspector aboard half of the 170-odd boats that participated in last fall’s Atlantic Rally For Cruisers (ARC) from the Canary Islands to St. Lucia. Based as it is on such an impressive database, his list of pet peeves makes a good guideline for any boat heading offshore.

Tony conducts his inspection from a checklist based on the following categories: life rafts and valid certificates; EPIRBs; harnesses and life jackets for every crewmember; valid flares; radar reflector correctly mounted; emergency steering gear; working navigation lights; man-overboard equipment; manual bilge pumps and heavy equipment secured against capsize.

Tony Mark’s number-one suggestion for every skipper heading offshore: Arm yourself with a copy of the Offshore Racing Council (ORC) regulations, and carry it aboard. The recommendations are both comprehensive (ranging from hull and deck structures to particular pieces of navigation and safety gear) and precise ("hatches shall be so arranged as to be above the water when the hull is heeled 90 degrees" or "two gallons of fresh water per person per one thousand miles shall be taken as absolute minimum"). While designed to be used as a guideline for organized racing events, the distilled wisdom in this little booklet is no less valuable to the cruising sailor voyaging apart from a fleet.

The ORC regs are available from US SAILING, P.O. Box 1260, Portsmouth, RI 02871; phone (401) 683-0800, fax (401) 683-0840. Cost is $3.50 to members, $7.50 to non-members. Add 25 percent for shipping.

Still, many boats arrive at the ARC start without basic safety provisions. "What’s often woefully inadequate for ocean passages," Tony said, "is man-overboard gear." As with much of the gear in the safety category, skippers buy and install it without ever intending to use it, he said. Often, MOB gear consists solely of a horseshoe ring and nothing else. He often finds that ring attached to its mount by a tangle of line that would clearly prevent the ring from being released quickly in an emergency. He advocates more purposefully designed gear, such as the Jon Buoy or Lifesling. All MOB gear, he said, must have the boat’s name written on it clearly, and that includes life jackets. For the open ocean, life rings must have an attached drogue, a pole with a light and retroreflective tape.

As for EPIRBs, the transition from the 121 to the newer 406 models is nearly complete among ARC sailors, Tony said. Two years ago, perhaps only a dozen boats in the entire ARC fleet carried 406 EPIRBs; now all but a dozen or so carry them. It is important to note that 121 EPIRBs are virtually useless in the sparsely covered southern portion of the North Atlantic -- precisely the trade-wind route sailors take from Europe to the Caribbean. Signals from 121 EPIRBs cannot be stored by search-and-rescue satellites, nor can they be positively linked to a particular boat, shortfalls that reportedly result in a false-alarm rate of 95 percent for these models. By contrast, 406 EPIRBs transmit a signal that is coded with specific information about the boat (provided it has been properly registered), and satellites are able to store their signals until they come into range of a land-based receiver, which then transmits the distress call to search-and-rescue agencies. Failure rate on these is a much more manageable five percent. By next year, Tony doesn’t expect ARC officials to accept 121 EPIRBs at all in the safety inspection, a cue that any trans-Atlantic sailor would do well to heed.

Tony frequently finds other safety shortfalls belowdeck: batteries and gimballed stoves not secured against rollover, emergency steering systems that are not readily accessible, or sea cocks to which no softwood plugs are attached by a lanyard. If opening a deck plate is necessary to install the contingency tiller, a deck-plate key should be attached to the tiller. As for the softwood plugs, they are meant to be pounded into any thru-hull fitting that fails, thereby stemming the flood of incoming ocean like a proverbial finger in the dike. It is imperative that these plugs be properly sized and immediately accessible, which is why safety experts recommend attaching a plug to each thru-hull by a lanyard; the more prudent skippers seal these plugs in plastic bags, Tony said, as the intention behind the softwood is that, once pounded into place, it will swell to seal the hole. If the plugs are already saturated with bilgewater, they will not swell to fill the failed thru-hull.

On the positive side, Tony lauded one particular abandon-ship kit, assembled by a young Finnish couple aboard the Pedrick 40 Marita. Honeymooners Kari Kauppinen and Melina Wigell-Kauppinen cheerfully showed off their buoyant plastic canister, which has the boat’s name clearly printed on it. With a drogue and a series of easy-to-grab looped lines attached to the exterior, the canister contains a hand-held GPS, plenty of batteries in a waterproof case, a hand-held VHF, routing maps, a 121 EPIRB (the primary 406 is aboard the boat), a survival blanket, survival food, a knife, sunglasses, a mirror, a book on emergency procedures, a roll of toilet paper, $50 (U.S.), passport copies, a sewing kit, flares, a small water maker, fishing gear and playing cards. The contents are organized into waterproof plastic containers. An abandon-ship list is posted clearly next to the companionway, with the names of all the crew and their duties in the event of a leave-taking.

Survival At EC

Navigating safely through the North Atlantic Ocean may be a breeze compared to what you’ll find in the turbid currents and countercurrents of European bureaucracy. Since early 1993, when the European Union (EU) dropped its customs borders among member nations, confusion over immigration and customs -- most notably the value-added tax, or VAT -- has become an unpleasant fact of life for visiting sailors.

The law from Brussels states that boats may come into the European Union from abroad and remain there tax-free for six months out of any 12-month period; after that, a value-added tax of between 15 and 25 percent of the boat’s value may be demanded from the boat’s owner, the amount depending on which country assesses the tax. The 15 members of the European Union are France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Great Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Austria.

How individual countries apply the law from Brussels is another matter entirely. "The regulations permit a lot of leeway," said Peter Aberle, an official at the German Consulate in Boston. "Much is left to the discretion of local customs and immigration officials."

What emerges is an imprecise picture wherein most European countries have adopted either formal loopholes to allow visiting non-EU boats to remain longer than six months (Great Britain, for example) or a firm "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy (Spain and Italy). By contrast, a small minority of European countries, most notably France and perhaps Portugal, have taken a hard line in enforcing the Union’s laws and collecting VAT.

Obviously, such a tax is prohibitive and would drive most cruising sailors to point their bows (and their wallets) elsewhere; hence, a substantial gray area has filled in between the black and white lines of the law. In many countries, such as Spain and Greece, local opposition to the Brussels law is outspoken and firm, as coastal businesses live and die according to the number of foreign boats that come and stay each year. One Med-based European noted, "If Greece tried to enforce Brussels’ VAT law against visiting boats, it would bring down the government." Whether true or not, it underscores that the Union’s VAT policy is by no means monolithically supported by EU members.

"Among Americans there’s been a huge misunderstanding about VAT," said Mabel Blacklaws of Oyster Brokerage in Ipswich, England. "Boats coming into the U.K. are granted temporary importation for six months. After that, if you want to stay longer, you simply apply for an extension and, unless you’ve done something really reprehensible, it’s almost always granted. VAT is not meant to be applied to American cruising boats." From any British embassy, consulate or customs office you can obtain a booklet that outlines H.M. Customs and Excise official position. It is called "Notice 8B: Pleasure Craft Sailing in the United Kingdom."

Other sailors with firsthand European cruising experience concur. Former Cruising World editor George Day spent nearly two years from 1993 to 1995 in the Med living aboard his Mason 43 Clover, wintering for one season in Greece and another in Mallorca, Spain. "In any of the places we visited, we felt we could stay for an indefinite period," he said. Those places included Greece, Italy, southern France and Spain; officials there never threatened to levy the VAT or force them to leave before they were ready.

Most observers agree that the intent of the VAT laws was not to inhibit non-EU cruising boats from visiting European countries. Instead, they were meant to ensure that boats from EU member nations be VAT-paid, and not dodge the tax by skipping around from country to country. As for foreign boats, the legitimate concern of customs agents is to ensure that visiting boats are not sold or used commercially while in the EU.

On the other hand, France -- particularly customs agents in northrn France -- stands out for taking a hard line on enforcing the Union’s VAT law. While many non-EU visiting boats have cruised France VAT-free even after their six months in the EU had expired, some cruising boats that had spent years in other EU countries have been fined in France for failure to pay VAT.

One American boat, the 46-foot sloop Callisto, reported that they’d been stopped by French customs agents near Brest and fined 5,000 francs for failure to pay VAT. What makes their case disturbing is that they had previously received "VAT Deemed Paid" status from Great Britain. French officials ruled that the United Kingdom had misapplied the law.

David Fabri, an official at the French embassy in Washington, D.C., confirmed France’s hard-line position on the matter. "Non-EU boats visiting France may stay for six months, that’s it. No extensions. After that they have to pay VAT. It’s true that some boats stay in France for longer than six months, but they are in an illegal position. This is not just France’s law; it applies to the whole EU, even if the United Kingdom, Sweden and other countries don’t control it as much as France does."

The Callisto case is a potent reminder that no matter how individual nations or customs agents enforce EU-wide VAT laws, these laws are indeed on the books, and staying longer than six months in any 12-month period may expose you to risk. Staying in France, apparently, exposes you to more risk than elsewhere.

If you wish to play it conservatively, you could consider wintering over in a non-EU European destination. These include the Faroe Islands, the Channel Islands, Norway, the former East-bloc Baltic states, Gibraltar, Malta, Monaco, Croatia, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, North Africa and the Canary Islands.

But that shouldn’t be necessary. As is so often the case in the cruising community, word of mouth may be the most valuable source of information with this murky issue.

¿Que Diferencias?

Fortunately, most of the other differences you’ll find cruising in Europe are much more predictable than the VAT question; most, in fact, are downright pleasurable.

One such difference is the docking. Often, especially in the Med, you’ll find a concrete quay crowded with boats docked mostly stern to the wall. The technique is simple: Just pick your spot, put out plenty of fenders, drop your anchor, approach the wall in reverse, then without aid of a shoehorn squeeze in among the other boats already arranged along the wall like sardines in a can and tie up on the quay. When you get really good, you can offset your anchor in the direction from which you expect the next blow to approach.

What can you do ahead of time to prepare for Med mooring? One thing is to equip yourself with all-chain rode. Particularly in the islands, you’ll be sharing tight harbors with all manner of busy commercial craft: fishing boats, ferries, freighters. Considering that your stern is never more than a few feet away from a cement wall, you can imagine how much damage might result from a cut rode.

You’ll also need to work out a way to get on and off the boat. Boarding ramps come in all forms, from simple planks balanced precariously to gorgeous varnished, lighted bridges that are engineering marvels unto themselves. Many are supported at the after end by bridles attached to the main halyard so that the ramp can be raised and lowered with the tide or for security.

Another predictable difference is the electricity. Shore power in the United States consists of 110 volts and 60 cycles. In Europe (indeed, in most of the world) you’ll find 220 volts and 50 cycles. In Britain, it’s 240 volts. There are a variety of ways to account for this difference, depending on what kind of equipment you use most often. Some American boats that rely mostly on their DC system simply do without shore power during their stay in Europe. Particularly those that have engine-driven refrigeration units may depend on normal engine-running time to charge the house batteries; others run their generators regularly. If all that engine-running time in port sounds unpleasant, another option is to procure a dual-voltage or dedicated 220-volt battery charger to keep the DC system topped off from shore power. This is a simple solution for those who don’t need to power AC items. An inverter would serve those who do. Still another solution, especially for those who use lots of AC equipment, is to install an isolation step-down transformer. Beware, though, that this method accounts only for the difference in voltage, not in cycles. Check the tag on your appliance to determine whether it will work with 50 cycles.

The most pleasurable differences you’ll find cruising in Europe are purely cultural: the way people speak, the times they open their businesses and eat their meals, the manner in which they relax or carouse. Exploring these differences is perhaps what’s most rewarding about cruising.

If there’s one country that especially intrigues you, consider enrolling in an intensive course on language and culture while you’re there. Dozens of such programs exist, and they are a wonderful entree into the mainstream life of the place you are visiting. Many of them allow you to enroll for as many weeks as you choose; many also offer opportunities to stay with local families if you don’t mind being away from the boat for a while. An excellent guide to such programs is a directory called Transitions Abroad (P.O. Box 1300, Amherst, MA 01004-1300; phone (800) 293-0373, fax (413) 256-0373. It is available for $19.95.

By the same token, if you know in advance that you want to spend time in a particular country, taking a course or two in that language before you go will help immeasurably to open that world for you. Phrase books are fine for accomplishing isolated practical tasks, but to really get inside a place, make an investment in learning the language from the ground up.

Another great way to get inside a culture (or to let it get into you) is through television. It doesn’t matter if you never watch it at home; when you’re living abroad, TV has its merits. Twenty-four hours a day, the airways are humming with the sound of the place you are visiting, and TV brings that foreign place into your private sanctum. When you’re too tired to try out new words in conversation, you can still let the learning occur by osmosis. Note that you may have to buy the TV there, as European TVs operate on a different signal from American ones. Still, even if it’s only for a few months, a multi-standard TV would be well worth the investment.

Homeward Bound
The hardest part of cruising to so rich a destination as Europe may be deciding when to turn your bow to the west and close the circle. Of course, Mother Nature makes the decision easier by planting hurricanes in the southern part of the North Atlantic during the warm months -- especially July through September. And unless you're geared up to winter over in Europe, chillier weather and winter fronts will begin to chase you away from the continent with the advent of fall. Thus, November is a natural time for boats to gather in the Canary Islands, the last full provisioning stop before the 2,700-mile trade-wind hop to the Caribbean. An option for this leg of the trip is to join a cruising rally, such as the Atlantic Rally For Cruisers (ARC) or the Trade Wind Rally. True, you will already have an ocean crossing under your belt by now and may not feel you need to attend the lectures such rallies offer to prepare yourself for the homeward run. But sailing's learning curve never flattens out completely, and the collection of seagoing wisdom that such rallies attracts gives you the opportunity to go over your rig in detail with an expert rigger, or have a look over your boat's gear and layout with a professional surveyor who can share the ideas gained from having examined hundreds of boats before yours. For a week before last year's ARC, Las Palmas became a veritable university of cruising, with graduate-level courses in seagoing medicine, radio communications, energy management, rigging, passage-making psychology, celestial navigation and other topics.

What’s probably most unique about passage making as part of a rally is the social component: perchance to meet a friend quite literally in the middle of nowhere. Aboard Tigre, after having seen no other boats for four or five days, we awoke on the ninth morning within sight of Truant of Sark, a near sister ship with our friends the Denny family aboard. Our one competitive wish from the outset had been to wait for them on the docks in St. Lucia, but they’d remained well ahead since the start. All day as we crossed the 40th meridian, our declared halfway mark, we inched up on them till by midafternoon we were abeam and less than a mile away. Occasionally their spinnaker would collapse in the gently rolling seas, and we’d pull ahead. For our part, the priorities were clear: Twice we furled the genoas when loud whirrs sounded from the trolling gear. Yes, Truant pulled away, but we had mahimahi for dinner.

By sundown, we had separated and Truant drifted over the northern horizon -- impossible to tell who was ahead. We’d barely exchanged a word all day, but words weren’t what was important. Seeing them had added a specialness to our Halfway Day celebration.

Whether you choose to join a rally or not, whether you take one year or two or even more to do it, whether you take the northern trans-Atlantic route to the British Isles or the southern to the Azores, these are all decisions that can wait. The important thing is this: Spending a cruising sabbatical in Europe is an achievable goal.

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Cruising World associate editor Tim Murphy warmly thanks John and Caroline Lawrenson, the crew of Tigre and the folks at World Cruising Ltd. for making his first trans-Atlantic passage and the article it spawned not only possible but also so pleasurable.
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For more information on the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, contact World Cruising Ltd., P.O. Box 165, London, WC1B 3XA, England. Phone (011 44 171) 405 99 05, fax (011 44 171) 831 01 61.

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Selected Intensive Language Programs In Europe
EF International Language Schools, Kari Larsen, Admissions Coordinator, 1 Memorial Dr., Cambridge, MA 02142; phone (617) 252-6258 or (800) 992-1892, fax (617) 252-6207. Programs in Spain, France, Germany and Italy.

French American Study Center, Dr. Almeras, Chairman, 12-14, Blvd. Carnot, B.P. 176, 14104 Lisieux Cedex, France; phone (011 33 31) 31 22 01, fax (011 33 31) 31 22 21. Programs of one to 10 weeks in Normandy.

Center for Study Abroad, Philip Virtue, Program Director, 2802 E. Madison St., #160, Seattle, WA 98112; phone (206) 726-1498, fax (206) 322-0921. Eight-week program at Sorbonne in Paris; Spanish programs in Salamanca or Granada, Spain.

Institut de Français, J.F. Colbert, Director, 23 ave. Gânâral LeClerc, 06230 Villefranche sur Mer TRE5, France. Four-week program for professional adults on the Riviera.

H.L.S. Alexander the Great, Ms. Eleftheria Petropoulou, Director of Studies, 4 Zaloungou St., 10678 Athens, Greece; phone (011 30 1) 384 05 14, fax (011 30 1) 3839951. Program of two weeks or more in Athens.

Modern Greek Language, Rosemary Donnelly, Program Director, 48 Archimidous St., 11636 Athens, Greece; fax (011 30 1) 701 86 03. Courses of three to 10 weeks in Athens; July program on island of Spetses.

Irish Language and Culture, Liam O’Cuinneagain, Oideas Gael, Glencolmcille, County Donegal, Ireland; phone and fax (011 353 073) 30248.

Italiaidea, Carolina Ciampaglia, Co-director, Piazza della Cancelleria 5, 00186, Rome, Italy; phone (011 39 6) 68 30 76 20, fax (011 39 6) 689 29 97.

Italian at the Seaside (Paestum), Enzo Cosentino, Director, via Bixio 74, 00185 Rome, Italy; phone (011 39 6) 700 84 34 or 70 47 49 76, fax (011 39 6) 70 49 71 50. Programs of four to 24 weeks. Italian in Florence, Scuolo Leonardo da Vinci, via Brunelleschi 4, 50123 Firenze, Italy; phone (011 39 55) 29 44 20, fax (011 39 55) 29 48 20.

Portuguese in Portugal, Alexandra Borges de Sousa, Director of Studies, Av. da Republica, 41-8¿ Esq¿., 1050 Lisbon, Portugal; phone (011 351 1) 794 04 48/9, fax (011 351 1) 796 07 83.

Intensive Spanish Courses, CLIC, Bernhard Roters, Manager, c/o Santa Ana 11, 41002 Sevilla, Spain. Summer courses on Isla Cristina, Costa de la Luz.

Seven Continents’ Exchange Programs, Dominick Vene, Director, P.O. Box 8163, Paramus, NJ 07653; phone and fax (201) 444-8687. Course at the Univ. of Granada.

Spanish Courses in Malaga, F. Marin Fernandez, Director, Centro de Estudios de Castellano, Ave. Juan Sebastian Elcano 120, 29017 M laga, Spain; phone or fax (011 34 5) 229 05 51.

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European Current: Selected Devices
Charles Marine Products, 5600 Apollo Dr., Rolling Meadows, IL 60008; phone (708) 806-6300, fax (708) 806-6231. Isolation transformer.

La Marche, 106 Bradrock St., Des Plaines, IL 60018; phone (708) 299-1188, fax (708) 299-3061. Isolation transformer.

Heart Interface, 21440 68th Ave. S., Kent, WA 98032; phone (206) 872-7225, fax (206) 872-3412. Universal Combi.

Newmar, P.O. Box 1306, Newport Beach, CA 92663; phone (714) 751-0488, fax (714) 957-1621. Isolation transformer.