Paper tigers

When cruising to foreign waters, one of the necessary boat chores is the sometimes-elaborate process of checking in and checking out of each country. One of the joys of cruising is discovering the many unique and different cultures in the world. These differences are often first encountered across the desk of the customs or immigration officer as you make your first official appearance in the country. A little preparation can make this initiation into a new culture relatively painless.
Though there are many different variations, some themes run through almost every country’s requirements. Two basic things must be established: the identities of the people on the boat and the ownership and nationality of the boat. These necessities are generally covered by the passports of you and your crew and the boat’s Coast Guard documentation or in some cases its state registration.
Obviously, passports should be current and accurate. One thing that often trips up women is a recent name change due to a change in marital status. The name you use should match the name on the passport. One of the passports should match the ownership name on the ship’s document, or you will need proof that you have the right to be operating the boat. If you are chartering, be sure to obtain documents showing your status. If you are just borrowing the boat or delivering it for another person, you will need an official-looking letter from the owner, preferably signed and notarized, giving you permission to operate said vessel. If a corporation owns your boat, be sure to have corporate papers providing details of your status with regard to the vessel.
Many places request copies (or multiple copies) of your passports. Having good quality copies of the main pages of your passport can sometimes substitute for the immigration officer disappearing with the originals, possibly for a day or two. If there is a necessity to give up your passport for some reason, the copy can act as your identification in the meantime. In some countries businesses and officials want to see a copy of your passport when you get cash advances from a bank, use a Visa card, or even to check into a marina. Other places may require you to carry ID on you at all times, and you may even be stopped on the street and asked for your passport. Usually, a copy will suffice. If you lose the actual passport, a copy will make the process of obtaining a new document much easier. I keep a copy of my passport in my wallet at all times. It is also a good idea to leave copies at home or somewhere safe so that a trusted person could access them in the event you need to quickly get a copy sent to you.
Countries are also getting very strict about documents for children. U.S. passports for younger children are only good for five years — watch that renewal date. When applying for a new child’s passport, both parents will generally have to appear at the passport office in person, or you will need a special notarized affidavit saying that the absent parent gives permission for this passport to be issued. The process is slow and cumbersome. Be sure to take care of this well before you leave the U.S., and make plans for where you will be when the time comes to renew a child’s passport. If for some reason an unrelated child is traveling with you, be sure to have written and notarized permission for that child to be on board.
To accompany your passports, many officials will ask for copies of your crew list. It saves a lot of time if you type up something official-looking listing everyone’s full name, nationality, passport number, date of issue, and date and place of birth. Make sure everything matches your passports! Include a place where the captain can sign and date the form. At the top of the page I include the boat’s name, nationality, hailing port, official number and gross tonnage. Some sort of official-looking logo would also be helpful. Bring lots of copies.
Document it
A U.S. Coast Guard document is generally the only ship’s paper that is asked for, though I also carry a current FCC ship station radio license, radio operator’s permits, the boat’s state registration (not usually needed), and dinghy registration information. It is worthwhile obtaining Coast Guard documentation even if you already have the boat state-registered. Port officials instantly recognize the document and know exactly where to find the required information. Many state papers don’t show items that port authorities want to see: gross and net tonnage, beam and draft. It may be possible to pass with a state registration document, but it will certainly be more difficult. On the other side of the coin, keeping your state registration current might let you squeak through if for some reason you haven’t been able to obtain your up-to-date Coast Guard document. Many states now allow you to renew online, and many registrations are good for more than one year.
One of the annual difficulties of dealing with Coast Guard documentation is the renewal process. It must be done every year. The Coast Guard will mail a renewal request to your registered address about a month or two before the old document expires. You must sign the document and return it to the Coast Guard. You can have a designated agent (a trusted relative is okay) sign for you. This works well if you regularly receive your snail mail, but many of us do not.
It is also possible to download a copy of substitute form CG-1280, which can then be filled in and faxed to the Coast Guard. However, the new document will still be mailed to your registered address. It is possible to receive a faxed copy of the new document, but that is not accepted by all port officials. I try to take care of all of this when I am located somewhere with good mail delivery. This often means I have to renew early to give plenty of time for the gears to grind. If you do renew early, the Coast Guard resets your renewal date earlier, so be sure to make a note of it in various places where you will be reminded as the date draws near.
Again, as soon as you get your new document, make lots of copies of it, as they will be requested by virtually every port official. Sometimes you will need three, four or more copies at a check in. Unfortunately, the Coast Guard has made the forms copy proof by including hidden type that emerges whenever a photocopy is made. The large “void” written across your Coast Guard document copies does not help when the officials are already searching for technicalities they can fine you for, which unfortunately is the case in some harbors. I have found that by turning down the contrast when copying, the hidden “void” can sometimes be avoided.
Stamp of approval
Some voyagers report good results bringing a boat’s stamp to the check-in process. I have yet to discover an official who requested a stamp, but anything to grease the skids is nice to have. I had a simple self-inking stamp made up (at my friendly UPS Store) listing the boat name, hailing port, official number and U.S.A. for the country of origin.
 It may be obvious, but it is important to keep all of this stuff well organized. I have a zippered vinyl portfolio I store everything in, with the passports further protected by a zippered plastic bag. Be sure to have pens, eyeglasses if needed, and possibly a small language phrase book if you don’t speak the local language. Many port officials speak some English, and most of the routine can be figured out based on previous ports of call. A friendly greeting in the local language followed by lots of pleases and thank yous go a long way to making your entry smoother. Arriving with a young (aged 10) and charming daughter, who also speaks Spanish, has helped smooth my pass through many Caribbean check ins. Similarly, several crusty male sailors have said they usually have their wives do the paperwork. A woman arriving in what is usually a male-dominated office can change the whole dynamic in your favor. On the other hand, these offices are often in the port section of some pretty seedy towns. You should be careful about security when in one of these areas. Local voyagers will have the best information on where to go and what to look out for.
At some point you will run into the corrupt official looking for a bribe or fishing for something to fine you for. Sometimes simply pleading ignorance of what they are saying will avoid having to pay. However, I have found it is usually better to have some command of the local language or bring along someone who does. Officials tend to avoid provoking someone who appears to understand what is going on and who might be able to complain to higher authority or the police.
Usually, problems can be avoided in the first place by getting information on port procedures beforehand. Cruising guides and almanacs list the official procedures, but these things tend to change frequently and often at the whim of the local officials. The best source of information is a voyager who recently checked in or out of the place you are headed to. You can frequently ask for information on the SSB or VHF nets, or you can check with boats coming the other way. You will hear an earful about the best places to check in and the ones to avoid. Ask what that person paid upon entry. Having a good idea of what you should pay, or what others are paying, is one way to prevent being ripped off.
Also check on whether you should stay on board or proceed ashore to find the officials. Some countries are very sticky on this point, and in some places the preference varies from port to port.
U.S. citizens still do not have to clear out when leaving the United States, but we do have to clear back in as soon as we arrive. You are supposed to tie up and telephone immediately (800-432-1216, 800-451-0393) upon arrival. The fine for not reporting is up to $5,000 for first offenders and up to $10,000 for repeats. Plan on arriving at a port of entry where the officials are close to the waterfront, as you will probably be asked to appear in person at the office within 24 hours. At some very busy ports, mainly in Florida and along the U.S./Canadian border, certain popular marinas are staffed by U.S. officials some of the time. You will have to purchase an annual user fee decal (currently $27.50) if you don’t already have one. Check the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Web site for the latest information.
Go with the flow
Though first-hand information is invaluable, you do have to realize that people’s experiences differ greatly. More than once I have had a pleasant experience dealing with some dreaded port official who was criticized by another sailor. Voyagers tend to be people who like to do things their own way, which doesn’t always correspond to what port officials expect. The clash can create unpleasantness or fines that could have been avoided.
On the other hand, I’ve also been charged overtime by officials who checked in a whole group of friends the day before for about half of what I had to pay. My requests for receipts were politely refused, and it appeared I had two choices: pay up and check in, or refuse to pay and go through some sort of bureaucratic hassle and delay that could mean hanging out on the boat for an entire weekend. Your choice might depend on the size of the extra charges, and/or your read of the lay of the land. In other words, it may be worthwhile to consider a few extra dollars a small price to pay for lubricating the gears of bureaucracy. These extra tips are considered part of doing business in many parts of the world. You don’t have to like them to still make use of them.
Inevitably you will run into some minor roadblock in some remote port. Your Coast Guard document may have expired, you may lose your boat’s entry papers, for some reason you may not have been able to obtain a zarpe (clearance paper) from your last port of call, or the official may be demanding an exorbitant consideration (bribe). Now is the time to stay calm, use your best local language skills and ask if there isn’t some way this problem can be resolved (which may be the moment to conspicuously pull out a bill or two and slip them into your shirt pocket). I have never had to do the latter, but it does happen.
Love it and leave it
The paper chase doesn’t end with your successful entry into the country. Keep your entry papers, passports and other stuff organized and handy in case they are requested by some official. I have had to show my boat’s entry papers to a boatyard before they would haul us, and I’ve needed to show my passport to use a credit card or to obtain cash at a bank. I’ve been stopped and checked by local coast guards.
However, I do suggest keeping at least your passports in a more secure location on board. We hide ours in an inaccessible place, wrapped in a watertight baggy. If the boat is robbed, I hope they won’t find the passports. The other papers are easier to replace and not as critical to establishing your bona fides. For example, you could always go back to a port official if your entry paper was lost or stolen.
When leaving most countries, or even when passing from major harbor to major harbor within a country, you will frequently need to obtain a zarpe, or clearance to the next port. Plan ahead of time for this as the appropriate offices may not be conveniently located to your last planned port of call. In many places it is considered okay to check out and then proceed within the country for a few days until you are actually on your way, even though this is technically against the law. This would make sense in a place where there may be only one or two ports of entry, with none on your planned route. You may also need your clearance paper to obtain duty-free fuel and other stores.

And now you’ve checked out so it’s time to get rid of everything, right? Wrong! Hang on to all that stuff — you never know when you will have to make an emergency return, or you will need a copy of last year’s document because you lost this year’s. I keep a separate file of all my old paperwork so it doesn’t clutter up my current folder.     

John J. Kettlewell and his wife, Leslie, are the authors of The Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook: Norfolk to Miami and The Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook: Miami to Mobile (published by International Marine).

By Ocean Navigator