DATELINE

A creaming for the butter boats

The honorable practice of smuggling in the North Sea is likely to be with us for a while yet

Peter Lewis August 3 1981
DATELINE

A creaming for the butter boats

The honorable practice of smuggling in the North Sea is likely to be with us for a while yet

Peter Lewis August 3 1981

A creaming for the butter boats

The honorable practice of smuggling in the North Sea is likely to be with us for a while yet

DATELINE

Peter Lewis

It was a trick-within-a-trick to hoodwink customs officers and nobody knows how long the man with the glass leg got away with it before he was caught. An elderly German war amputee, the man had found a way to convert part of his artificial leg into a glass container, and when he was finally stopped in the northern Dutch port of Eemshaven as he hobbled down the gangway of the Dalphin 2, he was found to be lugging, in addition to his legal ration of duty-free goods, more than a gallon of illicit liquor in his prosthesis. It is not known how the authorities cottoned on to the smuggler, nor what became of him, but the Dalphin 2’s crew admits to a soft spot for the resourceful German because smuggling is considered fair game by the rugged North Sea people. In fact, the Dalphin 2 itself is engaged in a dodge to defy customs, and the man with the glass leg had merely been taking advantage of the Dalphin 2’s scheme to beat the system by going one better himself.

The Dalphin 2 is a “butter boat,” one of the 30-odd ships that steam into international waters from ports on the North and Baltic seas for the single purpose of selling goods free of tax. Once the boats peddle their load of duty-free spirits, coffee, tobacco, perfume, chocolate and butter (whence the name butter boat), they head back to the same port to disgorge their passengers. In summer, the boats perform this sleightof-ship as often as three times a day, to the delight of bargain hunters from hundreds of miles around. But the

boats, like the man with the glass leg, have at last fallen afoul of the law. The European Community’s (EC) Court of Justice in Luxembourg last month ruled that the butter boat ruse was illegal and empowered national courts in Germany and Holland to ban the ships.

The decision came after a five-year legal fight waged by West German shopkeepers who claimed that the floating tax-free supermarkets had stolen 20 per cent of their trade in butter alone. European Community headquarters in Brussels estimated that in selling 6,000 tonnes of butter, 1,600 tonnes of cheese and equally huge amounts of other goods last year, the pirate ships cost the EC more than $7 million in lost taxes.

Yet the ruling against the ships does not mean they will go out of business at

once. It could indeed take months, if not a year or two, for the national courts to get around to pronouncing and enforcing the ban. In the meantime, unperturbed, the boats are doing a roaring trade. Most of their customers are bused into the butter boat ports from towns both far and near in West Germany and the Netherlands. Passengers (most of them retired folk with more time than cash to spare) pay a nominal $5 for the full day’s outing—a sum they quickly recoup by buying the ship’s duty-free wares at 30 to 45 per cent less than the retail price. “They get a free trip, the chance to load up with bargains and the satisfaction of putting a mild one over the customs officials,” says the Dalphin 2’s owner, Jacques Streng.

Regular butter boat passengers count on the scheme to help them stretch their pensions. Emma Seefeldt, a 70year-old widow from Bremen, explains that she makes the trip twice a month, spending about $25 on such essentials as instant coffee, butter, canned meat and chocolates, as well as an additional $8 on schnapps for her nephew, and the odd carton of cigarettes. When the boats go out of business, Mrs. Seefeldt will have to skip the luxuries.

People seem drawn to the butter boats as much by the occasion to travel and to mix socially as by the chance to save on the grocery bill. Dieter Grahn, the driver of Mrs. Seefeldt’s bus, describes the butter boat system as “one of the rare breaks for the old and poor in Europe. It’s heartless of the authorities to stop it for the sake of a few fat

shopkeepers in Germany,” he laments.

To catch the Dalphin 2 on its morning run, Mrs. Seefeldt and her fellow passengers from Bremen must rise at 5 a.m. for the long bus ride over the Dutch border. As the 980-tonne Dalphin 2 prepares to sail, the passengers take noisy possession of its decks and salon, the women chattering and the men breaking out the playing cards and quaffing beer and schnapps (too immoderately, in the view of Captain Hans Dubro: in April, a drunken passenger who had strayed onto the deck in heavy weather was lost overboard).

Throughout the entire three-hour voyage honeyed music pours from the PA system, interrupted only by announcements in Dutch and German of the day’s specials. The Dalphin 2’s stores do not open until the ship has been at sea for almost an hour. Unlike the German butter boats on the Baltic, which head straight into international waters to do their business, the Dalphin 2 attempts to put a more convincing face on its legality by travelling to another country—it halts at the tiny German port of Borkum, only a short haul from Eemshaven, for the few minutes it takes a German customs officer to hop aboard and certify the ship’s goods as exported. This formality over with, the bargain hunters assault the stores. And the assault can be lethal when the ship is carrying its full load of 720 passengers (owner Streng figures he needs at least 300 per journey to break even). Once the inventories are depleted and pocketbooks lightened, the final throb of excitement for the passengers comes when they disembark at Eemshaven. Most appear to make it a point of honor to defy customs by sneaking something in addition to their legal booty through the gates.

How will the butter boat operators react to a ban on the trade they have practised for nearly 10 years? “We’ll appeal,” Streng announces bluntly. “And then we’ll appeal again. By the time all the avenues are exhausted we’ll have come up with another dodge.” The EC, for its part, does not expect the boat owners to surrender without a strong fight. “They’ve made enough money to hire high-powered lawyers to spin the case out or simply discover a fresh loophole to exploit,” notes an EC official. EC tax law, being particularly fuzzy, is vulnerable to sharpsters. “A determined man poring over the rule book would take no more than a day to discover a new fiddle,” he says. “It usually takes us 10 years to stop it.”

Anneke Streng, sister of the Dalphin 2’s owner, seems to confirm his view. “We’ve an idea or two up our sleeve,” she smiles cheerfully. “Our passengers would feel betrayed if we surrendered without a fight.”