Collaboration between marinas in England, Belgium and France

British yachtsmen may soon be able to cross the North Sea to Belgium without fear of a heavy fine after a new initiative with the Belgian and French governments.

The Gateway Project, launched on Friday by Belgian tourism minister Bert Gunst, is a collaboration between seven marinas in England, Flanders and France.

The collaboration comes amid a controversy over red diesel that has seen British yachtsmen fined by Belgian authorities for having the dyed fuel in their tanks. The Belgian authorities have claimed it contravenes EU legislation which states only white diesel should be used in pleasure craft.

A lack of clarity and consistency over the issue has led to British sailors staying away from the Belgian coast in their droves, but now the Cruising Association say the situation should improve.

Cruising Association red diesel expert Colin Heywood said: ‘Some yachtsmen were fined £650 by Belgian customs officers last year for having red diesel in their tanks. This then led to hundreds of yachtsmen avoiding Belgium – and in some cases, France too.’

Mr Heywood has been working closely with Trevor Barnes, General Manager for MDL marinas at Woolverstone, on the East Coast’s River Orwell.

Mr Barnes said: ‘As far as I’m aware this new project doesn’t change the issue, as the EU law still stands, but it looks like a substantial change of view by the authorities in Belgium and France.

‘I have found it disappointing that I could not take my boat abroad for fear that I may be breaking a law that doesn’t apply in my home or international waters and that seriously limits my cruising choices.’

Mr Barnes used to take groups of his customers abroad each year from Woolverstone, but has revised his cruising routes to avoid Belgium.

‘The Belgian authorities seemed to be enforcing the legislation very strictly where as Holland do not and we do not have very much information from French marinas,’ he said. On a fact-finding trip earlier this summer, Mr Barnes was told if he brought a group of boats to Belgium, the red diesel issue would not be a problem.

‘The issue was affecting local restaurants, marinas, wine merchants and even chocolate shops because English boaters reduced their European cruising area.

‘Although customs officers did appear when our group from Woolverstone went to Belgium this summer, none of them boarded our boats or caused any problems. The same went for the Belgian marine police.’

Stephen Logie, General Manager at the Europort Marina in Niewpoort on the Belgian coast, has led the move to encourage British yachtsmen to return to cruising abroad. He has brought together marinas including Woolverstone MDL, Ramsgate, Boulogne, Dunkirk, Gravelines, Etap and Niewpoort to create the Gateway.

He said: ‘The French tourist board realised they had an issue, as did the Belgians, in that the number of visitors had severely diminished. They decided that they wanted to promote inter-European activity.

‘The project looks to have opened up France and Belgium, but visiting yachtsmen still need to decide for themselves, as the law is obviously still in place.’

The three countries have produced a booklet promoting each country as a tourist area for yachtsmen. Subsequently it is planned to create a website and mobile phone app to encourage tourism.