Sailing and Boating in Belgium

Information about the rules on boat licences and sailing permits, including details of local sailing associations...

Sailing and boating in Belgium is possible both in open water off the seacoast and on the many inland waterways. A few inland lakes are suitable for water sports as well.

There are over 1,523 Km of navigable inland waterways. In the north they are managed by the Flemish authorities and in the south by the Walloon administration. Brussels manages just 14 Km of waterways. Each administration has the right to set opening hours for locks and bridges, decide where boats may moor and select sections of water suitable for high-speed navigation. They are also responsible for maintenance and engineering works.

Pleasure cruisers and yachts are the most popular types of boating activity, but there are clubs and associations for enthusiasts of other sports including water skiing and rowing.

Below is information on:

Safety at Sea

In the event of an emergency in Belgian waters, the correct procedure is to radio or telephone for help.

Local emergency numbers for sea emergencies (Services de secours en mer) are as follows:

Emergency Numbers
Pan European SOS Emergency Number Tel: 112
Blankenberge Emergency number Tel: 050 42 98 42
Blankenberge Information number Tel: 050 41 97 97
Nieuwpoort Tel: 058 23 30 00
Osstende Tel: 059 70 11 00
Zeebrugge Tel: 050 54 50 72

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) sets out a framework for the use of open waters. Once in Belgian territorial waters, a ship is under coastal state law and must therefore comply with the laws of that country rather than those of its flag state.

The Code Européen des Voies de Navigation Interieure (CEVNI) is the rulebook that governs navigation on the interconnected European waterways. It is the basis for country-specific rules. Belgium uses the signs, rules and procedures of the CEVNI code and therefore anyone navigating on Belgian inland waterways is expected to know and follow the CEVNI code.

Belgium has introduced new regulations for inland waterways, which came into effect on 1 January 2007. Brochures on these regulations, as well as downloads of all other relevant regulations regarding navigating in Belgian waters, are available on the government Mobility and Transport website:

Belgian law also requires that all navigating pleasure craft must carry on board the following equipment:

  • one or more paddles or oars
  • a lifebelt, lifebuoy or life-jacket for each person on board, within easy reach
  • a rope of 30 metres
  • one or more painters of 10 metres
  • an anchor or grapnel
  • a bail or a manually operated pump
  • a foghorn or acoustic warning device
  • an approved dry-chemical extinguisher if the boat is fitted with an engine

Sailing and Boating Regulations in Belgium

The first point of contact for information and issues relating to certification and permits is the Office for Mobility and Transport (Service Public Fédéral Mobilité et Transports/Federale Overheidsdienst Mobiliteit en Vervoer). Comprehensive information on all issues relating to sailing and boating in Belgium can be found on its website (in French).

Requirements for those in charge of a boat

The Office for Mobility and Transport produces a guide for foreigners wishing to use a pleasure boat on Belgian waters.

Under Belgian law, when sailing in open waters and flying the Belgian flag no certificate of competence is required, but it is likely that this will change. Inland, the situation differs for various types of craft. However, a boating licence is essential for navigating Belgian inland waterways in a boat that is greater than 15m long or which is equipped with an engine capable of speeds of 20 Km/h or more.

The Belgian authorities accept equivalent licences from many other countries that have signed up to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Inland Water Committee Resolution 40.

  • For information on accepted foreign certificates (Certificats etrangers): Click here

For UK citizens, the Royal Yacht Association (RYA) is the issuing authority for the International Certificate of Competence (ICC). There are six categories of ICC, including coastal, inland and personal watercraft. Anyone wishing to obtain an ICC for a UK recognised qualification should contact the RYA via the website.

  • For information on the ICC and application forms: Click here

Applying for a permit in Belgium

Anyone without a valid permit from their home country wishing to skipper a boat that is over 15m long, or which is equipped with an engine capable of speeds of 20 Km/h or more, will need to apply for a permit in Belgium. Foreign skippers will not be issued with a Belgian licence (Brevet de conduite restreint/Brevet de conduite general) unless they complete the examination in Belgium.

Permits are not issued to people under 18, although 17-year-olds may apply and sit the examination in readiness for a licence. There are two types of permit - Brevet de conduite restreint, which is valid on all inland waterways except the Escaut canal, and the Brevet de conduite général, which is valid everywhere.

Applicants must provide confirmation from a doctor that they are in good physical condition and have passed a sight and hearing test. They then need to pass a theoretical exam, which tests their knowledge of navigation rules, boat handling and security procedures. It is not compulsory to follow a course before taking an examination. The examinations are only available in Dutch or French.

The practical experience element is also compulsory and must be undertaken with the supervision of someone who already holds the Brevet de conduite. It concentrates on navigational skills and a minimum of 12 hours' experience is required before an applicant can pass their service record to the appropriate federation for their area. The federation then passes the request for a licence to the Office of Mobility and Transport (Service Public Fédéral Mobilité et Transports/Federale Overheidsdienst Mobiliteit en Vervoer), who will issue the certificate.

Anyone who follows a course organised by one of the federations may apply for their certificate after just six hours of practical experience.

Radio licences

Any boat navigating on inland waters (and some boats on the open seas) that have a radio installed must be covered by a licence and have a certified radio operator on board. The minimum certificate of competence required is the Short-Range Certificate for VHF/DSC. This is recognised by the Belgian authorities.

It is permitted to monitor the radio for safety purposes or to use it to request assistance in an emergency without a Certificate of Competence and Authority to Operate.

Boat Owner's Guide

For brief visits in a foreign pleasure boat, it is sufficient to report arrival at the first Belgian tax collector's office or lock reached on the route, and then to do the same at the last lock when leaving Belgian waters. During its time in Belgian waters, the ship must carry the shipping documents required in its country of origin, and boats navigating at speed must display their national flag and state the name of their country of origin on the prow. A passenger aged 15 or over must always accompany anyone in a speedboat pulling one or more water-skiers.

Any pleasure craft not registered in its country of origin must register with the authorities on arrival in Belgium, and will then need to carry Belgian registration plates.

  • Tel: 02 277 31 11

Larger boats (more than 6m) or high-speed boats must have a waterway emblem (Vignette Fluviale) when navigating on Flemish waters. This emblem must be renewed annually.

  • For more information on the vignette: Click here (in French)

Ship's papers

Those arriving in Belgian waters without the necessary documentation may have their craft impounded by Belgian Customs officials and may be subject to a heavy fine.

  • Registration Document - anyone sailing or driving and towing a boat to Belgium will need a Registration Document for the vessel
  • Evidence of adequate insurance cover, with a translation, which the insurer should be able to provide
  • Evidence that VAT has been paid - EU residents can use a boat within the EU only if it is VAT paid or deemed to be VAT paid. Although technically not part of a ship's papers, this documentation is required to prove that a boat may move freely within the EU
  • Any vessel built or imported into the EEA after June 1998 must have proof that it is RCD (Recreational Craft Directive) compliant. The manufacturer should have provided this documentation with the vessel
  • Personal papers, such as passport and certificate of competence

The RYA Website has detailed and country-specific documentation and publications, which members may buy or download.

  • For further information from the RYA: Click here

Berthing

Berthing is possible on a long-term basis at yacht clubs and marinas throughout the country. See the links to ports and marinas below and to sailing/yachting associations at the end of this page.

However, the coastal marinas have waiting lists and finding a berth here is likely to prove difficult. Inland, there are about 80 marinas with approximately 8,000 berths (2,000 of these at Nieuwpoort). There are also berths along rivers and on inland lakes.

Importing and Registering a Boat

It is not always necessary to export a boat if you are keeping it within the EU. The RYA website has lots of background information on VAT status of vessels and offers a legal helpline service.

  • For further information from the RYA: Click here

Anyone wishing to export a boat will have to prove its VAT status. There may also be VAT implications if, for example, the boat was bought and the VAT paid in the UK and the owner now intends to keep it in another EU state.

With a few exceptions, any vessel being permanently moved to Belgium will have to prove that it is compliant with the EU Recreational Craft Directive (RCD). The GOV.UK website gives guidelines and details of the requirements of the EU Recreational Craft Directive.

Harbours, Ports and Marinas

Belgium has four seaports and a range of inland ports. In addition, there are marinas and other more short-term stopping points. All Belgian marinas are operated and controlled by non-profit making organisations. Many of these are still fully or partially staffed by volunteers, which helps to keep costs down. Nevertheless, standards and facilities are generally good.

Sea ports

The ports all have their own websites, with some information in English. The sites give details of facilities for pleasure craft (as well as commercial traffic) and contact details, as well as other useful information.

Inland ports

Marinas and other locations

Belgian marinas are part of the European Federation of Yachting Harbours.

Many marinas are open all year round. For details of marinas in a particular region see:

Schools and Courses

Many sailing clubs provide lessons and courses – both for pleasure and for those who need to attain their licences. The federations responsible for the exams also organise practical and theory courses.

Useful Organisations

Further Information