Traveling by boat to multiple foreign countries on a continent other than where one lives has its challenges. Being American and “living” in Europe aboard our Nordhavn 64 Gratitude for more than a year now, we have been delighted by the new discoveries and learning opportunities offered along the way. Some of those opportunities, however, we could have done without, and one such learning experience, while a hassle, could have been far more costly in terms of time, money, and destinations unseen if not for the practiced help of a yacht agent.
Our first encounter with a yacht agent was upon reaching Horta, Azores. Advised by friends who passed through before us, we hired an agent to manage the marina booking, handle immigration matters, and obtain fuel for the next passage. Having never dealt with a “handler,” we were uncertain of what services these “angels of mercy” provide. But we discovered before long that our marina accommodation was far superior to that of those who chose to “go it alone.” We were able to enjoy alongside quay dockage while many other boats were rafted up one to another, three-deep. We also had our immigration and customs matters handled quickly and efficiently, as well as fuel ordered and ready for us when we arrived to bunker. An out-of-the-ordinary example of what a savior our agent was occurred while we were exploring a nearby island. On noticing that the weather was looking bleak on Horta, we called our representative and asked if he could close the open ports in the guest staterooms. He not only closed those ports, thereby saving the bedding and all of our friends’ belongings, but he brought in all of the outdoor cushions as well.
The experience was all but forgotten when we arrived in Ireland and then at various ports in England. We felt confident that we could handle our own clearances, particularly because we spoke the language, and the UK regulations are fairly straightforward. But we then traveled to Spain and Portugal, where getting a bit of help may have made the difference, particularly with regard to extending our Schengen time given the COVID-19 complications. Believing that we had followed the immigration requirements in Portugal, we left in June and traveled to Spain then Italy — where we ran into issues. Arriving in Sardinia, we quickly ascertained the need for an agent, who managed to get our COVID tests arranged, but who was unable to get us an extension to our Schengen time. Suspecting that we were not in the company of the most skilled mediator, I decided to try a different company and here is where a capable agent can really make the difference. In far less time and with much more persistence, our new yacht agent was able to get us a “work around” for our immigration worries. Though it required a trip to Tunisia, the only alternative was bypassing Italy (and every other Schengen country), until we arrived in Montenegro, a four-day passage away. Given that COVID restrictions are tightening daily around the globe, this may have resulted in a stay in Montenegro indefinitely. We would have spent far more money in fuel, and we would have completely missed all that there is to see in Italy. Having an agent in Tunisia to confirm, we remained on board while they gave us an additional two weeks, as no quarantine would be required upon arrival in Italy.
Agents, once hired, become the legal and fiscal representative of the boat in a foreign country. Essentially, any service that they provide, and for which an owner avails themselves, is subject to billing through the agency. Agents may arrange cars, boat washing services, dockage, tours and even restaurant reservations in addition to handling the legal paperwork for customs, immigrations, local police, etc.
Our agent in Sicily was from Luise Yachting in Siracusa. In business since 1847, this office employs three agents. The services they provided while we were there included making doctor’s office appointments and then generously meeting us there to help translate. We were put in touch with a car service and also a boat washer but told to work directly with them to avoid service charges. They recommended restaurants, but we made our own reservations. We told them how much we were able to negotiate for a slip, and they matched that amount for a superior marina. They arranged all customs and immigration paperwork, COVID tests, handling in Tunisia by another Luise agent, fueling in Tunisia and dockage in Sicily. As well as all VAT exemption paperwork, they provided an address to send our boat documentation arriving from the states and agreed to help us expedite spare parts from customs. All of these services were provided over a period of a month, involving numerous phone calls and emails.
Perhaps the greatest help of all, however, was when we realized that we would not be able to travel by boat to all of the Italian destinations we had planned due to the rapidly changing seasons. Thus, we left Gratitude and our most precious cats in the care of Viviana (herself a cat lover), Roberto, and Giorgio. During our nearly three-week absence, Roberto and Giorgio called for help to pull our 180,000-pound boat further from the dock due to encroaching severe weather. Roberto even spent the night aboard just to ensure she was safe. Viviana sent videos and pictures of our happy kitties nearly daily in addition to feeding them and cleaning up after them twice per day. For these services, they would not charge –– just a service they provide for their clients. Upon arriving home, we could not help but notice that the boat interior was cleaned and fresh flowers left for us. Clearly, bonuses are graciously accepted and we are happy to give them – especially as they provided services we would have been uncomfortable asking anyone not a dear friend to provide.
While in Sicily we were told of Americans unable to come back to Italy due to COVID. They were able to use the services of Luise to move their boat, thus avoiding the 20% VAT incurred after remaining in the EU for longer than 18 months.
By now you certainly must be asking yourself what such a service might cost. The grand total for us? Roughly 600 euros once all expenses, which we would have paid ourselves directly, were deducted. Now, granted –– we paid gratuities separately. Gratuities are intensely personal and dependent upon location. In Tunisia, “tips” are mandatory – and I hate to call it a bribe but in fact, it does feel a bit as such. In Italy, tipping, while appreciated, is not expected. But the actual charges from the Yacht Agency were, we thought, more than reasonable and, in fact, nearly priceless given that we would have missed most of what we had hoped to see this summer without them. For the owners who had their boat moved to avoid the 20% VAT, the cost was a drop in the proverbial bucket.
Essentially, hiring an agent is like having a friend or relative in port –– a friend who knows and has daily business with literally everyone with whom you need to do business. n
Laurie Thyrre, a retired airline pilot, voyages with her husband and son aboard their Nordhavn 64 Gratitude.