“Où vous allez comme ça?” was the challenge from a police launch as I motored from Menton to Beaulieu. Luckily the sight of my privileged Blue Ensign reassured him, as I was not ordered to stop and show my papers or worse. It does not help official patrol vessels that almost all British-flagged megayachts are in fact owned by foreigners wishing not to register in their own country. But a Blue Ensign is reserved for British owners alone. What do French authorities think of yachts registered in St Vincent, Seychelles or the Marshall Islands I wonder, but they do know these are Flags of Convenience and therefore not to be fully trusted. But then, so is the Red Ensign.
But that encounter was 25 years ago, and there seem to be many fewer law enforcers in French waters than before. The many different agencies – Gendarmerie Maritime, Affaires Maritimes, Douane, Police Nationale and Municipale, Sapeurs-pompiers and Marine Nationale – seem to have plenty of fine vessels but perhaps lack the people to man them. With conflict in many parts of France thanks to the migrant crisis, reinforcements have been dispatched to troubled areas like Menton and Calais. But the sea route seems to be overlooked. Open borders as required by Schengen are not helping to regulate the migrants, worthy or not, but the borders still exist. And so they do at sea, marked on the nautical charts of the British Admiralty and others. The generally accepted international rule for defining territorial waters is based on a distance of 12 nautical miles from land, which supersedes the old rule-of-thumb of 3 miles, supposed to represent the range of a defensive cannon shot. Even a tiny enclaved state like Monaco has its territorial waters defined, which were actually officialised in 1984 during a visit by French President François Mitterand to Prince Rainier III. It enabled the fish-farm enterprise Pisciculture Marine de Monaco to base the Labrax in Monaco waters in the 1990s while avoiding the high taxation that would be due in French waters a mile away.
Migrants know how difficult it now is to cross from Italy into France, where the police aux frontières will stop them in the trains at Menton, or in the trunks of cars. But it is surprising that there have been recently no reported thefts of boats in Italy to outflank the land borders by making the journey by sea. In Bodrum, Turkey, the French honorary consul was recently suspended for being the owner of a shop selling inflatable boats to migrants wishing to cross the sea border to Lesbos in Greece – a respectable activity but not appropriate for a consul.
A spectacular example of unwatched borders was the night-time stranding in February 2001 near St. Raphael (Var) of the East Sea, a small cargo ship under Cambodian flag carrying over 900 Syrian migrants, who had claimed to be Kurdish in the hope of a better reception. There was no identity detected of this ship as it slowly navigated along the French coast. And the police aux frontières, while apparently being tasked with preventing all clandestine immigration, has no patrol boats!
Italian yacht-owners in Liguria: Lock up your boats!