The Perils of Bureaucracy

One of the more mundane aspects of bluewater cruising is having to clear in and out of all the foreign countries you visit. The task is often routine, but can sometimes be frustrating, perplexing or even hilarious. We have found this to be true on any number of occasions.
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 It is customary to fly a yellow “Q” flag from your starboard flag halyard prior to clearing customs; for many foreign officials, such procedures are still important

It is customary to fly a yellow “Q” flag from your starboard flag halyard prior to clearing customs; for many foreign officials, such procedures are still important

Checking in with government officials in foreign ports can be difficult or easy, depending on how you go about it

One of the more mundane aspects of bluewater cruising is having to clear in and out of all the foreign countries you visit. The task is often routine, but can sometimes be frustrating, perplexing or even hilarious. We have found this to be true on any number of occasions.

During the early summer, for example, we often cruise the Exumas in the Bahamas aboard our 38-foot sloop Caretta and in the past have delivered textbooks to a Bahamian elementary school in Black Point. The books come from a well-endowed private prep school in Fort Lauderdale where my wife, Lucy, teaches. Last year, Lucy’s school had not only a large assortment of elementary school books available for donation, but also dozens of unused polo shirts and sweatshirts. Because the clothes were adorned with the prep school’s crest, they could not be donated to a charitable organization in the United States. So Lucy and I dutifully boxed up the books, stuffed the surplus clothes in three large trash bags, and stowed them in Caretta’s aft cabin in preparation for our annual cruise to the Exumas. 

But the weather gods did not cooperate. After a rough Gulf Stream crossing from Miami to Cat Cay, we decided to layover in Bimini, where it soon became apparent that the tropical wave over eastern Cuba was not about to dissipate. We could either take up residency in Bimini or return to the States. But what to do with all the books and clothing? It seemed a shame to haul them all back home, and I knew there were several elementary schools in Bimini where they would be welcome. But it was summer, the schools were all closed, and we had no local contact like we did at Black Point.

We decided to ask at the customs and immigration office where we had recently cleared in if they knew someone in the school system who could help us. This turned out to be a very bad idea!

After explaining our dilemma to a clerk at C&I, we were referred to a very officious looking young lady in an impeccably starched uniform. Even though it was raining, she insisted on walking to our boat to see the goods we hoped to donate. After thoroughly inspecting each book, she declared them suitable for donation, but the clothing was a different matter. She informed us, in a very clipped accent, that the clothing was subject to an import duty.

 Some jurisdictions require that you carry certain pieces of safety gear; research requirements before leaving home

Some jurisdictions require that you carry certain pieces of safety gear; research requirements before leaving home

I tried to explain that we did not want to sell the clothing, just donate it. But the officer repeated her assertion that any clothing brought into the Bahamas for distribution was subject to a tax, adding that we would be eligible for a tax break. I tried in vain to explain that we weren’t after a tax break, we just wanted to give the stuff away, but she wouldn’t budge. Since the tax was substantial, Lucy and I reluctantly stuffed all the clothes back into the trash bags and bade our customs official a polite farewell. She did send a golf cart over for the school books, and the next morning we sailed for Port Everglades and took the clothes along with us.

Strange Behavior

We had another exasperating experience in the Dominican Republic, in Luperon, which is one of my favorite anchorages. We dropped the hook near the town dock so we would have a short dinghy ride to the customs and immigration office. While clearing in, we were informed that for a fee of one U.S. dollar, we could dump our garbage, or basura, at a designated site near the C&I shed.

Only a few feet past the C&I shed was a guarded gate that separated the dock area from the town of Luperon. On most days during our weeklong layover, Lucy and I dropped off our garbage on the way to Captain Steve’s Bar & Grill in town. Afterward we greeted the guard in our mediocre Spanish and handed him a dollar bill. The guard always smiled, took the dollar bill, lifted the guard-gate arm and, still smiling, waved us on to town.

All was well until we tried to clear out. An official in the C&I shed asked us if we had dropped off any basura during our stay. I admitted we had, but assured him we had paid the fee each time. The official then asked to see our receipts. I tried to explain that the guard didn’t issue receipts, but then realized I had been giving the basura fee to the wrong person. Having to pay the six dollars all over again certainly didn’t ruin our cruising kitty, but I’ve often wondered what that guard thought of those crazy Americanos who were always paying him a dollar just to raise his guard-gate. 

So what have I learned from all my dealings with customs and immigration officials? Here are a few tips for U.S.-flagged vessels:

Freshen up a bit:

Congratulations, you’ve just completed your first Gulf Stream crossing. You may think this entitles you to show up at the customs office chugging a Kalik Gold while wearing the same sweaty and stained T-shirt you wore during your crossing. But think again. The folks at customs may not share your exuberance. Ditch the beer, change your shirt, freshen up a bit, and be courteous. Respect officialdom, and hopefully it will respect you back.

Do your homework:

You can often obtain most of the forms you will need to fill out on entering a country by searching the Internet prior to leaving home. In the Bahamas, for example, you can download everything you need, except the immigration cards. Processing will go a lot faster if you show up at the office with most of your forms already completed. Even if you can’t obtain forms online, it’s always a good idea to carry a pre-prepared crew list, with names, passport numbers, and dates of birth for everyone aboard your vessel.

Close the door:

One of the few perks enjoyed by government officials in the islands is air conditioning. So close the door after you enter their domain. They will appreciate your thoughtfulness.

Go easy on the ammo:

Carrying a weapon on your boat is a personal choice. Declaring a shotgun or sidearm with a few rounds will usually not create a problem while clearing into the Bahamas. But declaring an assault rifle with 600 rounds of ammunition may well create a problem. You should also recognize that in many Caribbean nations you will be required to surrender your weapon while in port, which can subsequently complicate your departure.

Learn some key phrases in the native language:

Just a few words in French, Spanish or whatever the local language may be will earn you a much warmer reception. “Where do I dump my garbage?” is always a good phrase to know in a foreign language.

Document your vessel:

It is possible to enter foreign countries with only a state registration for your boat, but it is always much more confusing and complicated. Federal documentation works much better and is recognized everywhere. Sometimes a suspicious official will insist on holding your document during your stay, so it’s a good idea to present a duplicate. If you must surrender your original document, be sure to get a receipt for it.

Be patient:

If you arrive in a foreign port and are unsure of the procedure for clearing in, hoist your Q flag and then wait an hour or two. If no one appears to board your vessel, dinghy over to a fellow cruiser and ask about the procedure.

Register for the “Local Boaters Option”: If you plan on making multiple trips outside the U.S., register for the “Local Boaters Option” (LBO) with U.S. Customs & Border Protection. This always makes clearing back in a lot easier. Upon arrival, you only have to phone in your decal number.

Steve-Dublin95x110

Steve Dublin lives in Fort Lauderdale and

cruises the Bahamas each summer aboard

Caretta, his 38-foot sloop

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