Home > Jim's Column > 2004 > Loss of freedom and the RCD (Recreational Craft Directive)

Loss of freedom and the RCD (Recreational Craft Directive)

By James Wharram

It's the time scale of building my bigger designs that has led me to put my new bigger designs like the Islander 55 and 65, Pahi 52 and hopefully a new Pahi 60 design into a Professionally Built class. Sadly, since I took up professional building again, I have come into a certain conflict with the European Recreational Craft Directive made law in June 1998.

In Europe, we all know of the loss of day-to-day freedom in the fascists times of the 1930-40s and communist Eastern Europe till 1989. Historically, we see it as a loss of major freedoms, but talk to the people from former East Germany, like I have and they tell me it was the small losses of freedom as dictated by an unaccountable army of bureaucrats that really Bit into their Souls.

Sailing is "A major Freedom". If you read the yacht magazines of recent years you will note from readers' letters and from editorials that a new army of bureaucrats is feeding on the former Freedom of Sailing (for the sailors' own good, of course, they say) and charging for their unneeded services.

What follows is a letter I recently wrote to all the British yacht magazines, my member of parliament and as I thought a liberal national newspaper. For interest, no one has even acknowledged the receipt of this letter, but I am sure that anyone who has got so far in this Wharram letter will have some interest.

Dear Editor,

The headline news at the moment is the problems with Islam, however in the background a major historic event is happening - The evolution of the European Union, now enlarged with new members.

The major political question is What kind of Europe is to emerge? A free open democratic Europe or a Europe dominated by restrictive Euro burocracy.

In my own field - yachting - we are already stuck in a burocratic swamp just 6 years after a European Directive was made LAW. This is the RCD (Recreational Craft Directive). In theory these European directives create an equal playing field for trade in the whole of Europe. In practice they create an expensive, burocratic system that benefits only the large Industrial producers and puts small concerns out of business.

Recently I received a notification from the Department of Trade and Industry, relative to the Recreational Craft Directive, which contained the following legal threats:

"Commonly known as the 'RCD', this European Directive came into force in the UK 8 years ago in 1996 (made law in June 1998). If you build or trade in recreational craft between 2.5 and 24 meters, then it affects you. If you do not meet the requirements of the Directive then you may risk action being taken against you by enforcement authorities.

The implementing Regulations, in line with other similar legislation and the 1996 Regulations, will provide for fines of up to a maximum of £5000 and/or three months imprisonment."

So how was the world of yachting organised before the RCD?

The following points sum up the essence of British and some other Nation's thinking pre RCD:

  • The Yacht Magazines provided an open democratic forum in technical and safety matters through articles by 'experts'. Experts, who could immediately be publicly challenged in subsequent magazine issues by other experts, or readers with common sense.
  • Yacht Magazines also tested new yachts and equipment on the market. Any defects or doubts about the tested designs were immediately apparent to the public. These defects could be defended or corrected (immediately and publicly) by the designer/builder or satisfied sailor.
  • The Royal Yachting Association (in Britain) represented, via its ordinary members and affiliated yacht clubs, the needs of the yachting public to the government. To keep standards high, their motto was "Education, not Legislation".
  • The insurance companies and the surveys required by them (by experienced yacht surveyors) also kept safety and technical standards high.
  • For those who wanted absolute certainty in quality standards for their yacht, they could have the yacht built under survey by Lloyds, Veritas etc, for extra cost.

This democratic system developed around 1850 and was able from the 1950s till June 1998 to guide and oversee the development of small boat building and sailing into a national recreation/sport, serviced by a national industry of both small and large businesses, without any public requests for a change in procedure.

So why do we have the RCD?

Originally, around 1982, it was the idea of a small group of paid officials of the British Marine Industries Federation, who claimed that there were sales restrictions on British boats in Europe. The 1982 proposal was dropped after objections from the RYA, but raised again by the same officials around 1990. By the 1990s large industrial GRP boat building companies had emerged in France. Encouraged by these big companies, who would benefit from it, the RCD came into being in June 1998.

In 1998 when the Directive was made law, many articles were written in major Newspapers and Yacht Magazines, giving examples of small boat building businesses being put out of business by the Directive. Unfortunately these things soon stop being 'news', the problems however still carry on. Many small boat-building businesses HAVE been put out of business (their voices are now no longer heard).

The RCD, set up for the benefit of large scale manufacturers, effectively overthrew the existing, 150 year old, Democratic Open System by Yachtsmen for Yachtsmen in overseeing Design/Safety/Construction.

Who am I?

I have been described in recent years in Yacht Magazines as a 'Living Legend'. Fifty years ago I was a pioneer ocean sailor, pioneering the Pacific Double Canoe craft of history into the modern yacht catamaran. For nearly 50 years I have been a designer of catamarans, having sold at least 9000 designs. I have been a writer in yacht magazines since 1956. From the late 70s to the early 90s I served on the RYA (Royal Yachting Association) Cruising Committee leaving it in 1992 for a sailing voyage around the world. Politically I am a member of Britain's Liberal Democrat party, the pro- European party in Britain.

So why raise the subject of the RCD now?

I am now in a position where I have several boat building yards building my designs. Though some of these yards are outside Europe, the boats they build are being imported into Europe and therefore have to comply with the RCD.

A year ago we found that one of the regulations imposed was unsuitable and in our view dangerous for our designs. We sent in a 'proposal' to have an alternative interpretation of the rules applied to our designs (Escape Hatch Proposal). Such is the burocratic machine, that it took ten months to get a hearing on this subject. We had to write numerous letters asking for action, while our builders were agitating for an answer, but up against a faceless bureaucratic body, we found it hard to know where to lodge our complaints.

What our experience does demonstrate is how the RCD has become, as forecast in 1998, a restrictive, expensive, bureaucratic, time wasting body, of benefit only to a few large-scale industrial boat builders.

My own seemingly minor problem gives an insight into a major European Democratic problem. Who controls the present and future Europe? Is the future to be a People's Democracy as was the British world of yachting before the RCD, or is it going to be controlled by secret untouchable committees in a type of world first described by Kafka?

Yours, with concern,

James Wharram