Don’t leave without customs clearance

When we arrived at Fanning Island in the Republic of Kiribati, we presented a letterhand-written on a piece of notebook paperto a customs official. The letter was signed by the French caretaker of an otherwise uninhabited U.S. atoll and was a far cry from the official zarpe, or departure clearance, that we should have carried with us from the U.S. Although we hadn’t intended to visit Kiribati, it had become our best hope for obtaining entrance into a foreign port. If Kiribati turned us away, we had visions of becoming a modern-day Flying Dutchman, sailing forever but unable to land. All this for want of a piece of paper.

We had no one to blame for this predicament but ourselves. We left our home port of Honolulu aboard Nomad, our 35-foot sloop, some two months before on an open-ended cruise through the Pacific. Typically, the month before departure was nothing short of sheer madness: last-minute purchases of gear and spare parts, provisioning, arranging for mail and financial matters, and selling the car and other possessions that could not be squeezed on board. In the rush we simply overlooked obtaining a zarpe, and left Honolulu without realizing the seriousness of our mistake. We have since talked with several other American cruisers who sheepishly admitted having done the same thing.

A zarpe is a departure clearance. It is normally obtained from the same customs officials that one clears with when entering a foreign port and is required to gain entrance into a vessel’s next foreign port of call. Most cruisers are aware that each country they visit will require a zarpe from their previous port, but it is easy to overlook obtaining that first zarpe before one’s cruise has even begun. This is particularly true if one’s foreign cruising has been limited to crossings into Canada, where a zarpeand even a passportis not required for U.S. vessels and citizens sailing directly from the U.S.

We have also encountered a number of U.S. citizens who are under the impression that they do not need a zarpe to enter American Samoa if they are sailing directly from the U.S. because of Samoa’s ties to the U.S. This is not true. Fretting about how to obtain a zarpe while anchored at an uninhabited atoll, we considered sailing directly to American Samoa. We’re both U.S. citizens and our boat is documented with the U.S. Coast Guard; since American Samoa is a U.S. territory, we assumed the customs officials would be fairly understanding regarding our lack of a zarpe. Fortunately, before setting sail for American Samoa, we radioed friends in Honolulu and asked them to call the customs office in American Samoa, explaining our situation. Customs officials there told our friends that they had never had a boat enter without a zarpe (although we knew of at least one that had); if one did, they advised, it would be turned away. At that point, our options looked grim: we could sail 900 miles back to Hawaii (all to windward) at the start of the north Pacific’s hurricane season, thus placing our long-anticipated cruise on hold for some six months; sail 3,000 miles to San Diego (also to windward) and then cruise south to Mexico (this seemed even more ridiculous); or, cross our fingers and hope to talk our way into getting a clearance from the nearest foreign port. We opted for the last choice.

Knowing how easy it is to obtain a zarpe did not help matters as we considered which of these options was the lesser evil. In the U.S. a zarpe consists of customs’ form 1378: clearance of a vessel to a foreign port. To obtain one, simply pay a visit to the customs office at your departure port, armed with proof of ownership and government registration (i.e., U.S. Coast Guard documentation or state registration) and personal identification. Proof of ownership and registration and the zarpe from your last port of call should always be carried on board.

The zarpe is not the only official document you should not leave without: other necessary ship’s papers include passports for each crewmember, visas, and crew lists. Having a valid passport from your home country seems obvious but may in fact not be enough. Be careful that yours is not close to expiring before you set out, as some countries will not grant you entry if your passport expires within six months. This can place you in something like a Catch-22.

While in American Samoa, we attempted to renew our passports since they were due to expire in less than six months. We were on our way to New Zealand and our passports would be valid for less than three months by the time we arrived there. U.S. Immigration officials in Samoa told us, however, that the U.S. will not renew passports unless they are within 90 days of expiring. We decided sail on without renewing them. Fortunately, the Kiwis proved understanding, granting us a three-month visa upon our arrival. We subsequently mailed our passports to the consular office in Auckland, receiving new passports in the mail within a week.

Although not required by all countries, it is wise to carry with each passport a record of each crew-member’s recent vaccinations and inoculations. The international certificate of vaccinations, offered by the World Health Organization, can be obtained from most clinics at the time you receive a vaccination. This is particularly important if you plan on cruising in areas where diseases such as yellow fever and cholera are found.

Many countries do not require U.S. citizens to obtain a visa prior to arrival and will grant you a limited entry permit or visa (generally valid for about 30 days) upon entry. Should you wish to prolong your stay this can normally be easily renewed by the local immigration office. In some places, such as French Polynesia, each crewmember is required to post a bond equal to the price of an airline ticket back to his or her home country before a visa will be issued.

A crew list is normally among the papers that are requested upon arrival in a new port. There is no standard form to use for a crew list; some countries will require that you use their preprinted form. In either case multiple copies are the rule, sometimes as many as five. The information required normally includes the name of your vessel and any registration or documentation number; the port where your vessel is registered; your home port; the name, date of birth, nationality, and passport number of the captain and each crewmember; the date of arrival; the last port visited; the next port of call; and estimated length of stay and places you’ll be visiting in that country. Even if you do not prepare a stack of crew lists ahead of time, it can be helpful to at least have all this information written down in one place.

Ironically, the smaller and more remote the landfall, the more acute is the need to have your ship’s papers complete and ready at hand. Upon your arrival on a seldom-visited atoll or island you will likely be met by not one or two officials but instead by a delegation, and one which takes its duties quite seriously. This was certainly the case when we arrived, without an official zarpe but with our handwritten letter, at the small, remote, mid-Pacific atoll of Fanning. The delegation that visited us included the minister of agriculture, the chief of police, and customs and immigration officers. All were large men, and fitting everyone, including ourselves, into our small cabin was no easy matter. We served tea and exchanged pleasantries and then, all too quickly, the customs officer got down to business by asking for our zarpe. We produced our “note from home,” which he carefully

scrutinized before passing it on to the other officials, who did the same. A lengthy exchange in Gilbertese followed, and our spirits sank. But it was our good fortune that the French caretaker who had written us the note was well known and respected by the Kiribati authorities.

Our scrap of notebook paper was stamped and otherwise treated just as if it had been an actual zarpe, and we were duly granted admittance to the Republic of Kiribati.

When voyaging you should place “readying the ship’s papers” high up on your things-to-do list. If you are diligent about this task you can avoid the worry and embarrassment that we experienced.

Kim Des Rochers and Mark Smaalders are currently in New Zealand while on a extended voyage of the South Pacific.

By Ocean Navigator