Foreign Paperwork

One of the mysteries of modern travel is that you can fly all over the world, whiz in and out of country after country, and hardly ever spend more than a few minutes dealing with entrance and exit formalities. Yet when you switch from the air to a small pleasure boat, the same country-to-country border formalities become tedious and complex. Your welcome seems based on the procedures of a century ago when sailors hoisted colored signal flags to ask permission to enter a country. Indeed, it wasn’t long ago that foreign ships were fumigated with pots of burning sulfur.

The easiest country for a yacht to enter is Canada, where you can dial an 800 number and clear customs and immigration in less than two minutes with no charges and no forms to fill out. The most difficult place is Australia, where an incoming yacht flying a yellow flag is treated like a merchant ship. You are handed 40 pages of forms to fill out.


A vessel entering a foreign country must usually satisfy four classes of regulations: customs, immigration, health and agriculture. Customs deals with tariffs on many items — machinery, whiskey, foodstuffs, tobacco, clocks — a million things. Of course the gear, fittings and spares of a transient vessel are exempt, but you must be scrupulous in not selling things from the ship to locals without telling the customs people. The penalties range from a small fine to seizure of the yacht. If you want to help someone, it’s better to give the item away, but even then, you should inform the officials. If you plan to sell or charter your yacht, you may be liable for import duties.

Not only are there possible charges and penalties for evasions, but you ought to think of the sailors and travelers who come after you. It can be very nasty to follow a yacht whose crew has misbehaved.

Most countries have restrictions on firearms. For example, the customs officials in the Seychelles, Japan, Bermuda and elsewhere ask for all guns and take them from you. In exchange, they give you a formal receipt that will be honored for the weapons when you leave. Canada allows rifles but no handguns.

It’s best to declare firearms right away, because customs people sometimes search foreign vessels for forbidden items. If you declare no weapons and the customs agents discover a shotgun, you’re in trouble. On one trip, customs examiners in Japan searched our yacht. Another time in Turkey, a customs man in a neat blue uniform found what he thought was a forbidden scuba tank (“Aha!”). To convince him that the tank was a fire extinguisher, I had to light a match and put it out with a puff of CO2.

Parts, stores and equipment for a vessel and personal items for the crew usually can be shipped in free of duty. Such packages should be addressed: “USA Yacht Whisper in transit” plus the name of the port.

In theory there should be no customs charges for incoming packages. But each country has different procedures best looked into when you are there. Sometimes a customs agent may be necessary; perhaps a friend in the country can help. Nevertheless, by the time such shipments actually arrive onboard, the costs have often doubled or tripled and are only worthwhile for high-priority items. Steel yourself to the fact that half the time these shipments will go astray or disappear in a customs warehouse.

Another problem is that foreign representatives for express air services may try to extract a substantial payment from you above the shipping costs. This is entirely unfair, of course, but you are in a bad position because the agents know you are probably desperate for the package, and in their view, you are rich.

A possible way around all this is to ask any nearby yachts from your country whether they are changing crewmembers. If you can find a person who is flying in to join the yacht across the way, the person in transit may agree to bring your package as part of her personal luggage. Another idea is to have urgent things shipped to you in countries with simple customs procedures.


This service is concerned with the flow and work status of foreigners, that is, who you are and what you’re doing. Yachtspeople are generally classed as tourists or merchant mariners and are not allowed to compete with local citizens for employment. Many times you must secure permission to visit a country in advance &mdash a visa &mdash and in a few places, you must post a bond to guarantee your exit transportation by commercial means.

To visit French Polynesia, for example, every non-Common Market citizen must put up a bond equivalent to the cost of air travel out of the territory. For Americans, this anti-beachcomber guarantee is $1,000 and must be posted by the captain and each member of the crew, even though they have a perfectly good sailing vessel at hand. Incidentally, it’s a good idea to get visas in advance when you visit French Polynesia; otherwise, the officials in the outer islands tend to hurry you along to Tahiti, when you might wish to linger along the way. A visa for French Polynesia is good for three months with one renewal allowed.

Immigration regulations apply to each member of a ship’s crew, for whose presence, behavior and bills the captain is entirely responsible. If a new crewmember is flying in to meet the vessel at destination X, it may be prudent to see a consular official of the country in question beforehand and get a note from that person detailing any special procedures.

Each consul is a special problem, and his or her demands for fees must be judged according to how important special permissions are to you. Some consuls are paid very little and augment their salaries with fees. A few try to take advantage of boaters. If you feel you are being victimized, you can complain to the ambassador or to the country’s head of the department of tourism, sometimes with startling and immediate results. Don’t be too quick to complain, however. Even if you feel there has been some injustice, it’s usually simpler to pay a small fee and forget it.

The sums for harbor dues, buoyage, navigation lights and fresh water often are based on big ship tonnage; the corresponding yacht charges are modest. The costs for pilots and watchmen are higher. But harbor regulations are ever changing and are generally out of date before they are written down. I think the best plan is to make inquiries among foreign sailors who have been to the country you are planning to visit. People in their home country seldom understand the requirements for foreign vessels.

If you have no knowledge of a confusing foreign situation and need current details, a good way is to pay a personal call to the naval attaché at the country’s embassy. Phone ahead for an appointment and put on decent clothes, because things are formal at embassies. I’ve always found these to be most profitable calls. Sometimes they result in an introductory letter to a maritime official or a friend in the country. Perhaps the attaché will take an interest in your voyage and secure seasonal weather reports or other special information.

For example, when we were in Japan and ready to leave for Adak Island in the Aleutians, my wife, Margaret, called on the naval attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. Margaret asked the attaché to send a message informing the Adak base commander that we were coming and requesting permission to use the harbor for a few days. By originating the request with an official, we had the system with us and a sort of quasi-authority to visit a place that we had heard was tough on transient vessels.

Another time in Peru, the Chilean attaché told us: “Wait please a few weeks before sailing south. We have a little civil commotion.” Again, a few years later in Aden, we met an English naval officer (on holiday) who said that Port Sudan was open and safe. But he urged us to stay away from Eritrea and Yemen’s northern ports.

I don’t want to overemphasize this and suggest a run on attachés, but I think you can ask for a little assistance on occasion. Sometimes a few bits of information can lead to a slight change in plans and turn a routine passage into an exciting experience. We met a Philippine official in Ponape in the Eastern Caroline Islands who told us about the bay on southern Guam that Magellan had entered in 1521. We sailed to that little bay and had a memorable visit.

If we’re unable to learn anything about a country we want to visit, we simply throw off the dock lines and head out. If the information is conflicting, seems unreasonable or comes from a doubtful source, we ignore it. I often think of the wise words of Miles Smeeton regarding official clearances. “Never ask too many questions,” he told me once. “Somebody might say no! Then what would you do? Just go, and the officials will have to deal with you.”


Besides customs and immigration, a vessel must satisfy health regulations. When you enter a country for the first time and hoist the yellow Q flag (beneath the courtesy ensign of the country) to the outer part of the starboard spreader of the mainmast, the flag is signaling, “My vessel is healthy, and I request free pratique.” The port captain’s office or the health department will send out a doctor to decide whether the people on the incoming ship are healthy and free of plague. Supposedly if one had the mumps or whooping cough, the vessel would be obliged to remain in a quarantine anchorage until the danger passed.

When you have a health official onboard is a good time to ask about regional problems. One day when we cleared into northern Australia at Thursday Island, I inquired about malaria. The doctor warned us about a deadly strain called Plasmodium falciparum, the nasty cerebral form of malaria, which has a fatality rate of 15 to 25 percent.

“It will kill you stone dead,” said the doctor. He sternly advised us to take our medicine (chloroquine) on a weekly basis and to have a special medicine (Fansidar) onboard in case we began to show symptoms of the bad variety.

Animal quarantine (for rabies) comes under health. Most countries pay no attention to dogs, cats and parrots, but Hawaii, England, New Zealand, Australia and other places have strict rules for pets and require long quarantine periods.

Spain is a special case regarding the yellow Q flag, which, when seen, appears to terrify the local officials and makes them think you have a grave infectious illness onboard. Based on the experience of many sailors, I would not use the Q flag in Spain.


The inspector for agriculture is concerned with stopping harmful insects and plant diseases from entering the country. In Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, where the orange crop is of great importance, all incoming citrus fruits and their containers are routinely seized and destroyed to prevent the introduction of pests. Islands that raise coconuts often have inspections for the rhinoceros beetle. The United States prohibits any fresh meat from abroad except under closely controlled conditions, because of the chance of foot-and-mouth disease in foreign cattle.

The four inspections are sometimes handled by four inspectors. If you’re anchored, the government officers will come out in a launch or launches. Or you may have to take your dinghy ashore for them. The officials often are amused by foreign boats and like to come aboard, fantasize about yacht trips, and have a cup of coffee or maybe a drop of rum.

Since the inspectors live in the area, they can be very helpful to the voyager. They will know about local attractions, where to shop, security, repairs, the best anchorages, where to leave the dinghy, etc.

If you sail into a port at night or on the weekend, you may be liable for overtime charges. Generally, when you enter a country you must go to a large port or major harbor where officials are present. It’s customary not to conduct any business or for anyone to go ashore until the ship has been cleared. However, if no one comes in response to the yellow flag after a few hours, I row ashore and either telephone or walk to the port captain’s office. I take a crew list, the registration paper for the boat, passports and the outbound clearance paper (if any) from last port. If there’s a language problem, you will have to find an interpreter or fight it out with a dictionary. Officials generally speak a little English.

I advise keeping the ship’s official registration paper or papers onboard and using photocopies. Most officials accept these, and having a dozen copies on the yacht is a good plan. Also run off a dozen copies of the ship’s crew list (name, position, age, ship’s name, signature of captain, ship’s stamp). I would make one copy of each passport in case the originals disappear. The copies will at least have the numbers, which will help with issuing new documents. It’s helpful to have a few passport photographs and a small stapler.

Countries in the eastern Mediterranean like official-looking papers, which suggests that having a ship’s stamp and a red ink pad is a good idea. Most office supply houses can easily make a ship’s stamp for a few dollars, you just need to supply the wording. When I am asked for my captain’s certificate, I pull out my Maryland driver’s license and copy down the numbers.

Sometimes officials want to keep the ship’s papers and passports (they may offer you a receipt), but you should try hard to retain these documents after showing them. You can argue that if a wind comes up in the night and you have to clear out, you must have your papers. On a stop in Sudan we were obliged to surrender our papers only to discover that a religious holiday was the next day. This dragged on, and we waited six days for our papers to be returned.

In some places the officials don’t come out to you. Instead you go to the officials. Their offices may be spread all over a city, and a stranger has a hard time finding the principals, who may have restricted office hours.

When you leave a country, you should have an outgoing clearance of some kind. Anything will do just as long as it looks vaguely official with a few stamps and signatures on it. Authorities prefer big sheets of paper with a lot of words and a counter-signature or two. The last three times I have left the United States, however, the customs people have declined to give me papers of any kind. In Gibraltar, it’s a big deal to have a passport stamped. Yet on leaving Guam, Western Samoa and Bermuda, for example, I was given an outbound clearance, which is the first thing the next country’s officials asked for. An Ecuadorian official told me that his country didn’t issue outbound clearances; the next country, Peru, demanded an outbound clearance from my last stop and threatened me with a fine for not having one.

If the preceding seems vague and conflicting, it’s because confusion is normal. The only certain thing is that there are no universal rules. No matter what paper you have, you will probably need something else. In blue, green and red. And six copies of each. Perhaps one should carry a printing press, red ribbons, a notary stamp, wax and a signet ring. Certainly a bottle of brandy. For the captain.

By Ocean Navigator