On November 29, 2013, more than 100 local bureaucrats swooped down on 12 marinas in Mexico to conduct surprise compliance checks on 1,647 boats. Apparently, the newly created General Audit of Foreign Trade Administration wanted to confirm that every boat was following protocol by carrying a Temporary Importation Permit (TIP). They also wanted to check and make sure various other boat data, including the type, make and model, the engine serial number, the hull number and the Hull Identification Number were accurate. Ultimately, the officials—who reportedly brought along contingents of armed marines for their inspections—found 338 boats to be noncompliant (including many without anyone on board) and impounded them. As of this week, nearly three months later, 90 percent of those boats are still being held.
Perhaps the most enraging aspect of the fiasco is that many of the impounded boats are, as it turns out, compliant. Many impounded boats had TIPs, but did not have skippers on board when the officials arrived, and were therefore unable to show their paperwork. Even if they hadn’t had updated paperwork, Mexican law states that once sailors learn they are required to have a TIP, they have 20 days to attain one. Yet, upon learning of their oversight, Mexican officials said they could still require between 45 and 120 days to liberate the boats from impoundment.
For sailors with boats stuck in Mexico, the situation is unfortunate. But for Mexico and its tourism economy, the ripples caused by their legal actions may be even less fortunate as both the cruising and racing communities react.
For sailors who frequently visit Mexico, a dark cloud has been cast over their favorite vacation spot. For racers who participate in regattas between the United States and Mexico, plans are changing. The Corona del Mar to Cabo Race, for example, has been postponed because there were only four entries. The Newport to Ensenada Race, which used to bring in over 600 boats, now has only about 100 entries. The San Diego to Puerto Vallarta Race is still on, but with fewer than 40 boats entered, and the San Diego Cabillo Ocean Series has altered its layout, moving all of the courses out of Mexican waters. (To be fair, factors like a struggling economy play into these low entry numbers, but the Mexican government certainly isn’t helping itself.)
On the country’s east coast, where no boats have been impounded though the laws are technically the same, sailing tourism has not been as badly affected. The Regata del Sol al Sol, from St. Petersburg, Florida, to Isla de Mujeres is still set for April 25, 2014, and registration is filling up. The regatta chairman is also sending periodic updates to skippers, keeping them in the know about the situation, and cluing them in on ways in which they can successfully adhere to customs laws and avoid fines or impoundment.
If, after all this, you’re still itching to visit Mexico, here’s how to keep your boat the hands of that country’s occasionally overzealous bureaucrats: First, know that the TIP requirement is not new: it’s just newly being enforced. Whether you’re entering from the West or East Coast, check into customs as soon as you can (Ensenada on the west coast, Isla Mujeres on the east coast), and work with marina management to get an immigration permit ($25), Document of Arrival (Free) and Temporary Import Permit ($50). It would be wise to have a Spanish-speaking member on board for these procedures. Other than that, realize you’re taking a risk. For Mexico’s sake, let’s hope foreign sailors still believe cruising there is a risk worth taking.