Yesterday I arrived at Pin Mill on the Orwell River, Suffolk to go sailing. As we unloaded the car, I noticed four uniformed Border Force officers, three very young, and a woman in charge. She was talking to a man and a woman dressed in sailing gear.
Pin Mill being usually quiet, I wondered what had happened. As I carried bags and oars past the group, I overheard the officer in charge telling the couple they would have to leave. The woman in sailing gear said they had just arrived after an overnight sail and were very tired. Could they rest first? The officer agreed they could rest.
When I passed them again, the officer was summarising instructions. She would send them paperwork to complete and they would need to send it back or take it into Woolverstone Marina up river. They must not go anywhere else and if necessary they had until Sunday to clear out. They must email Border Force to inform them they had left the country.
EU citizens arrive without passports
After the four officers left, the couple caught up with me along the pontoon. I greeted them, joking. “Are you illegal immigrants?”
“Apparently, yes”, both replied in perfect English.
They explained what had happened. They live in Friesland in the northern Netherlands not far from IJsselmeer. They had sailed with their Dutch Official Photo-Id cards, their passport numbers and details but not the actual passports.
Having never had to bring them before, they had forgotten to do so now. They were intending to stay for two weeks, exploring the east coast. They had checked in by radio as sailors are supposed to do and were ordered to report to Border Force officers.
“We screwed up”, said the man ruefully. “We hoped they could check as we had all the required passport details and photo ID. But no. Now we must return.”
I felt embarrassed, apologetic and deeply ashamed.
The woman shrugged. “There is nothing we can do. We brought money to spend on marinas and restaurants, on a holiday.”
Brexit has changed everything
The man said the border guards were polite but added quietly, shaking his head, “Brexit has changed everything. We will probably not sail again to the UK. Now we must sleep”.
They waved to me as their dinghy headed to a beautiful gleaming wooden yacht three moorings up from the one I sail. After a rest and the obligatory paperwork, they will sail back across the North Sea. I felt depressed about this encounter, thinking of all the times I had sailed across myself.
This morning, sailing past Felixstowe Container Port, I watched two Border Force patrol boats pass, binoculars trained on us. Were they going to call us up? Board us? The last time I felt vulnerable and watched like this was when we sailed into Russian waters between Haapasaari, Finland and Kronstadt enroute to St Petersburg in 2003. The Finnish Port Officer had warned us to make sure our radio was on.
The second we crossed the invisible ‘line’, the radio crackled into life and we were asked to identify ourselves, our boat and our destination. Russian patrol boats soon appeared circling us, there were more call-ups on the radio, menace everywhere.
Britain seems very similar just now, an isolated, moated island with everyone under surveillance, armed guards and huge ‘Go Away’ signs displayed on every coastline. Freedom of the seas indeed.