Customs and Immigration in the Eastern Caribbean

WHEN you fly to another country, customs and immigration are fairly straightforward: get off the plane, stand in line, fill out a customs form and show them your passport.  When you sail between countries, it’s an adventure every time to figure out what to do.

When you enter a new country under sail, you have to fly the yellow Q (quarantine) flag on your starboard flag halyard until you are officially cleared in.  Then, you fly that country’s flag until you leave.  Technically, you can’t visit land or other boats, but you have to do the former to check in (so you can do a quick stop at the supermarket even if you don’t succeed in clearing in), and the latter is absolutely ignored by cruising sailors.   You then need to “clear in,” e.g., go through customs and immigration.  When you clear in, some countries allow you to “clear out,” e.g., say when you are leaving and get a piece of paper that you present to the next country (if they bother to take it) to prove you’ve officially left the last country.

The French islands, which are part of France itself, are the easiest:  the cruising guide tells you where to check in – often an internet cafe, marine store or port authority – and you simply fill out a form on the computer with your boat’s details and hand it to the cashier/port officer.  The only place we’ve visited that actually read the form before signing it and handing it back to me, or looked at our passports and boat papers, was St. Barths.  Everywhere else, I could have written whatever I wanted on the form and they would have just signed off.  They don’t ask about alcohol, tobacco, animals or plants like elsewhere, and just don’t care: our friend Ed said that in Guadeloupe, he informed the clerk that he had a dog.  She said, “That’s nice. So do I.”   It’s strikingly lax, but kinda awesome.  In Guadeloupe, we did have a couple of handsome young customs officials board our boat and check our papers, but that was all – Just a quick conversation while they checked the papers and our passports, no interest at all in anything else.  No where else have we even seen customs officials on boats, much less been boarded or searched.

Other countries aren’t so easy, particularly the former British colonies.  Procedures vary quite a bit from country to country.  In Bermuda, you aren’t even allowed to drop an anchor before visiting the customs dock, where they are fast and efficient at clearing you in but confiscate your flare guns and machetes as weapons (they’re returned when you check out).   The BVIs and Dominica required only a quick trip to one office that handled everything, asked few questions and only cost $10 and $3 respectively in clearance fees.  Nevis, on the other hand, was a bit of an ordeal: we had to visit the customs office, the port office and the police station separately for customs, port fees and immigration, a process that took two hours because of the long waits and walks between offices.  It wasn’t a huge pain or anything, just kind of strange compared to the ease of clearing in on other islands.  However, it’s the only country other than the BVIs and the U.S. (Virgin Islands) that actually stamped our passports – totally worth the pain!  Nevis also had quite a few environmental/clearance/port fees, so the week there cost $70, which at least included a week on the manadatory moorings.  St. Barths on the other hand, charged $12 a day simply for the privilege of anchoring in the absolute worst anchorage we’ve encountered.  While technically this granted you access to free showers, the dinghy dock and internet, the internet didn’t work and the showers were cold, so I was a bit miffed at the high cost when we got stuck there for an extra week.

In the BVIs, they didn’t even ask about alcohol, tobacco, animals or firearms.  In Nevis, the customs official – who was very nice, mind you – very seriously asked about all of the above.  Stragely, Dominica they only asked about weapons, but when I got the form back, it indicated that we had no tobacco and the maximum amount of alcohol permitted (2 litres liquor, 2 litres wine) aboard.  I was kind of disappointed, as we had recently run out of liquor and I was looking forward to telling the truth for once!

When you clear in, you’re supposed to tell the customs officials when you are leaving, but some countries require you to clear out on the day you leave (necessitating another trip to the offices and sometimes a token exit fee, usually a couple of dollars at most so far).  The French islands will let you clear in and out on the same form, and Dominica as well, though they limit your stay to two weeks without an extension.

All of this bureaucracy seemed like a massive pain in the butt and really confusing/scary before we started cruising, but it’s really not a big deal, at least here in the Caribbean where there are so many cruising yachts and countries compete to – essentially – get your business.  I don’t imagine it will be this easy everywhere – I understand that countries like Mexico and Japan require you to clear in and out of each port, and detail where you’ll be an when (ugh; I can’t imagine predicting that on a sailboat…), and other countries require visits to doctors to present iimmunization records, etc, as part of clearance.   We’re fortunate to have started our adventure in a region that mostly tries to keep the bureaucracy as simple as possible, at least on the sailing side of things!

Since a couple of our readers who are planning Caribbean voyages asked about how much the bureaucracy costs, here’s a breakdown:

Bermuda: $105 (includes per-person fee, and this was for 3 people)

BVIs: $17.50

U.S. Virgin Islands: FREE!

St. Barths: $150 (mostly the daily $12 port fee)

Nevis: $72 (about half was the mandatory mooring fee for a week)

Guadeloupe: $1.50 (small fee charged by internet cafe for processing, not official fee)

Dominica: $3.75

Martinique: FREE

So, in six months of Caribbean cruising, we’ve spent $349.75 on bureaucracy, mostly in 3 countries.  St. Vincent charges about $13 per person, and Grenada charges cruising fees depending on the size of the boat (under 40: $18.50) plus about $3 per person port fees, so the rest of this month shouldn’t hurt too much!


Interwebs, How We Missed Thee

THE past couple of days on Marc’s mooring have been a whirlwind of . . . internet usage.  We have a SWEET wifi connection courtesy of the kind folks at the hotel on the beach (for the reasonable exchange of a drink at their bar – not too bad…) and all three of us have been catching up like crazy.  I got my computer to work briefly the evening we came in here and managed to snag all the files I needed from it, so I’ve been uploading my entire life and all the boat manuals to Google Docs.  Becca has been focusing on figuring out the next steps in her life — she’s planning to fly home and take the next leap into the unknown at the end of the month.  Right now the silent meditation retreat and isolated writer’s cottage near Sedona are battling it out (nonviolently, of course).  Philip spent most of our first day here running around Cruz Bay, getting photos, filling out forms and mailing his passport back to DC so the British government can mail it to the UK for renewal, then mail it back here.  That’s efficiency for you!  Luckily, they say it won’t take more than a month, and this certainly isn’t a bad place to be stuck for a month.

It wasn’t all surfing the ‘net, as we used to say back in the ’90s – yesterday Philip and I got several hours of work in.  He tinkered with the watermaker (again), and it may actually be working now.  We’ll see.  I’m not holding my breath.  I fixed (again) the sea water pump and removed two wonky bolts from one of the stanchions that had gotten a bit wobbly, filled the holes with epoxy, and will put new screws in before we head out today. (And, before anyone says, “Screws??  You should use bolts on those suckers!”  I KNOW.  The damn thing is not accessible.  I could go into a long explanation about why I can’t get to the underside of the deck there, but it would be pointless and boring.  So shut it.)

It’s been odd to be in the U.S. Virgin Islands, because we’re actually in the United States, and there are some real benefits, even apart from access to NPR, which still gives me the happys on a daily basis.  For example, Becca’s prepaid phone works here.  There’s a surcharge, but she can use it.  Likewise, if you want to mail something,  just pop a letter with a forever stamp in the mailbox.  Need something shipped from the states?  It’s a U.S. mailing address.  Awesome! Also, you forget when out of the U.S., even in the relatively Americanized Caribbean, how open and very friendly Americans are to strangers.  It’s one of our better, if sometimes annoying to Continentials, traits.  Case in point: when we came into the bay and grabbed the wrong mooring, people from two separate boats noticed our mistake and jumped right in to join the search for Marc’s, going out of their way to help us get on the right mooring.  Not that this couldn’t happen somewhere else, but they were so damn nice about it.  Philip always comments that this is one of the things he really loves about Americans: their genuine openness and friendliness.  My European friends often criticize us as shallow, too easy to make and lose friends, but in my travels I’ve definitely come to appreciate this trait a lot more.

We’re apparently also social butterflies these days – we have spent several delightful evenings with Marc on the boat, paying him back for the loaner of the mooring with copious amounts of food and wine. (I’ll have to post the pressure cooker recipe for chicken with figs I made the other day – NOM!)  This morning, we’re off to moor or anchor on the north shore to join up with Ryan from Liberty, whom we met in Bermuda, and his family for a day of snorkelling before heading to Christmas Cove tomorrow to meet up again with Hannah and Paddy.  Whew!

Actually, I’m delighted.  I hadn’t always thought the cruising lifestyle would work for me.  Even though, as a child, I read my dad’s Cruising World stories about kids on boats with a good deal of envy, later on I thought that the life would be very lonely, just you and your crew on a boat.  Hahahaha!  I learned otherwise when I visited my parents on this boat in Mexico ten years ago and discovered that my mild-mannered suburban ‘rents were party animals.  Ok, maybe not, but DAMN was there a lot of social life going on.  Everyone would get on the cruisers net every morning and plan beach parties, sailing “races” and other events, and we spent all our time hanging out with fun, cool people (Hi, Dave!) and having crazy experiences, like watching New Year’s Eve fireworks in the middle of Bandaras Bay from a Boston Whaler crammed with 7 people, drinking rum from the bottle and laughing hysterically at the stupid motorboats trying to swamp us.  Yeah.  So, anyway, the Virgins haven’t had quite that level of cruiser community — in fact, nobody’s knocked on our hull so far (of course, we haven’t knocked on anyone else’s, either!) — but it’s fantastic to have our friends from the trip down here around for playing and libations.

I’m pretty sure that the length of this missive indicates that I’m totally avoiding working on the stanchion.  Sigh.  Back to work!

All We Hear Is . . .

IT’S been raining for the past couple of days, so I took the opportunity to get some paperwork done.

USCG documentation is already done, so that just left the ship’s station and operator’s licences for the VHF and SSB radio, and registration of the EPIRB (a helpful device that alerts the Coast Guard if we sink and tells them where we were when it happened).

Because this is the Age of Wonders, all this could be achieved from the comfort of my leather armchair (which I will miss) through the miracle of the Series of Tubes.

I have a love-hate relationship with the Interwebs. On the one hand, all the things that Bill & Stef had to search through chandleries and write (letters, ye gods!) to suppliers for, we just type into Google, compare prices, and then have delivered to our door. If I need information on how to repair my forehatch, I can find that online in seconds, probably in greater detail than I need.

On the other hand, it’s a time-thief of monstrous proportions, sucking away hour after hour into a vortex of tropes and cat videos. That part, I will not miss.

Tonnage: Now With Half the Calories!

WHEN I submitted our application for US Coast Guard documentation, I also submitted an application for ‘simplified measurement’. This will allow us to take advantage of new USCG rules on the calculation of the Picaroon’s tonnage.

A vessel’s tonnage–not to be confused with it’s displacement, or weight–is a measure of it’s cargo capacity. Gross tonnage is the total volume of the vessel, whereas net tonnage is the volume of useable cargo space. The term derives from the number of tuns (casks) a boat could carry.

Between her original measurement and simplified measurement, the Picaroon has trimmed six off her gross tonnage and five off her net tonnage to 18 and 16 respectively.

It probably makes no difference, but if anyone charges for something by tonnage, it may save us a few simoleons.

Well, That’s a Surprise

I am shocked–shocked–to learn that Marco Crane denies all responsibility for the damage they caused to the toe rail of our boat. They denied this in a lawyer’s letter, no less. Pretty weak attempt at intimidation. Anyway, I sicced HB on them, so I suspect they are going to regret it.

I won’t comment further on what could become a lawsuit; updates when the matter is resolved.

Fifty Dollar Crab

THE other day, I posted about finding a tagged crab worth fifty dollars.  I duly reported the crab, and last week I received a postal order in the mail, along with a brochure describing the research.

Philip and I decided to splurge on dinner out – nothing fancy, just burgers and a couple of beers.  I think I’m getting old, though.  Since when do two burgers and a couple beers apiece cost fifty bucks??

We Actually Know How to Sail!

Hey, good news:
We actually know how to sail the damn boat! Seriously, what a relief.

We got her out on the water for the first time yesterday – quelle journee parfait! – and hoisted the sails, and actually SAILED the damn thing!!! Woo-hoo! It was a wonderful, relaxing, perfect first sail and boosted our confidence greatly.

Oh, and we passed the sailing tests; the first test I’ve taken in 7 years and we had to get 88% of esoteric, strange questions. i.e.

Q: How old do you have to be to operate a jet-ski in MD? A: 16
Q: How old do you have to be to be the driver/scout on a water-ski boat? A: 12
Q: How old do you have to be to operate a power boat? A: There is no minimum age (doesn’t that SCARE YOU???).