To the editor: On Monday, Aug. 19, 2013, I opened my email to have my day ruined by a detention notice from South African customs. We had left our 62-foot aluminum sloop Onora in Saldanha Bay and returned to Chicago. This notice of detention of our boat seemed a simple misunderstanding that a copy of my British Virgin Island registration would settle. I sent this by email along with an apology that it could not be delivered it in person.
Unfortunately, South African customs replied within the hour: “When you leave South Africa you have to take your yacht with you… As it was not seen as important to notify customs … it is therefore noted that the vessel is here illegally and it is therefore seized as an un-entered item.”
This was getting worse.
As we travel from country to country, we rely on the marina managers to keep us out of customs trouble or at least to warn us if danger lurks. When we were in Saldanha Bay, South Africa, Cindy Thompson, the marina manager at Yachtport, had told me that when we arrived in Cape Town our check-in was good for six months after which she could easily get an extension. I relied on that, but now after receiving the customs email, I was concerned. I called Cindy.
“Don’t worry,” she assured me; she would take care of the problem.
Three days later, Natania, Cindy’s assistant, spotted an error on my customs check-in form. The form correctly showed our April 28 arrival in Cape Town, but I had also filled in the next line that asks for the next port. I entered “Saldanha Bay, South Africa” and “April 29” as my Cape Town departure date. Unbeknownst to me, this line is reserved for leaving South Africa.
“No worries,” Cindy told me. “Vanessa from the Marine Industry Association is going to assist us. We hope to rectify this with supporting documents from Yachtport’s side.”
Five days after my first notice, at Vanessa’s request, Craig Garrow, a customs clearing agent who represents the marine industry, met with customs about my case. They did not budge. Afterward, Craig suggested that I send them a letter stating what had happened, pleading ignorance and promising to leave the country as soon as I returned.
I sent a groveling plea and begged that we be allowed to stay until the first week of January as our destination was Australia and the best weather to head into the “Roaring Forties” is after Christmas.
Customs responded by demanding that a certified valuation of our boat be delivered in a week.
Cindy was no longer optimistic: “Maybe you need to come to South Africa to clear this up.”
Jeannie with South African shipping agent Craig Garrow.
This called for professional help, and to find the right person I called on Vanessa; a South African business friend who imports and exports; and sailor Skip Novak who now lives in Cape Town and imports for his Pelagic boats. All three agreed that Craig, with his knowledge of the customs laws and people, was the best person to help me.
Craig agreed to help and suggested a two-track approach that included dealing with the customs officer on my case, but also, on behalf of the marine industry’s need for a good image with the international sailing community, meeting with higher officials within Cape Town’s customs.
Craig told me it was impossible to satisfy Harry’s demand for a certified appraisal by his deadline. “What do you think the boat is worth?” Craig asked, mentioning that a low-ball would send customs looking for their own appraiser. Thinking that a deposit might be a few thousand dollars, I guessed $500,000.
Next, he met with senior customs officers in Cape Town using my case as an example of how unfair it was to enforce unpublished regulations and requested that the Marine Industry Association work with customs to arrive at reasonable requirements that were published so that visiting yachtsmen like me would know what to do.
Meanwhile, the customs officer had the bit in his teeth and ruled that my boat was “not brought into the country for personal use” and would be released only on receiving a security deposit of a stunning $134,000 and we must leave in stormy November. Furthermore, Craig, who had been silent about his fee, now added that 7 percent was normal.
Basing Craig’s fee on how much I had to pay customs was nuts and I was not about to wire an irrational customs agent $134,000 without a binding contract to release every penny as soon as I left. Craig agreed to a fee fixed at $5,000 payable after, first, my boat was out of South Africa and, second, I had received all of my deposit.
I hate to say it, but it was fortunate for me that the customs officer on the case was mugged and dropped out of sight until after his deposit deadline. This allowed Craig to meet with other customs officers directly about my case. When the customs officer returned, battered and bruised, he was instructed to drop the demanded deposit, lift the seizure and let me stay until the end of December.
A much relieved Jeannie and I returned to South Africa on Oct. 30 and launched and sailed to Cape Town where we went to work getting Onora ready for the Southern Ocean. Craig stopped by a few days later. As we sat in Onora’s pilothouse, I asked him what had happened — why me? Was it listing “Saldanha Bay” as the next port?
“You did nothing wrong other than being the victim of an overzealous customs agent.”
While he did not dispute the law’s existence, Craig had never seen nor heard of the regulation that I had violated. Apparently the customs officer had decided to begin enforcing it and I got caught in the cross hairs.
On the day after Christmas, we were ready to leave and after immigration stamped our passports our final stop was customs where the agent stamped our exit form and painstakingly reviewed each VAT invoice for the items that we were exporting and thus claiming a tax refund. Two months later, I received a letter denying all of it because the agent had not stamped each invoice.
It’s not just South Africa. Sometime, somewhere, customs is going to give every cruising sailor at least a headache. Actually, with all of the countries we have visited, we have probably been lucky.
For example, Europe is supposed to have a uniform customs agreement but each country, port and — I bet — each customs agent interprets it differently. We left the U.K. and cleared into and out of Guernsey, which is not part of the EU and thereby reset our 18-month VAT EU grace period. We checked back into the EU in Brest, France with no issues but got snagged by a random customs visit in La Rochelle where an agent would not recognize the Guernsey stop but allowed us to leave for Spain and let it be a Spanish problem.
We had other Brazilian complications back in 2006 where, in addition to checking in and out of the country, one must check in and out of every port. As we wound through Rio’s maze of offices and forms, the immigration officer, on reviewing our passports, lit up when he saw that we had we flown home for two weeks. While shaking the regulation book in my face, he explained that, like South Africa now, a foreign yacht owner cannot leave the country while his boat is “temporarily imported.” We owed $250,000 in fines and tax. I announced that we were leaving the country immediately and walked out the door. The navy did not sink us.
What does all of this mean for voyaging sailors? It isn’t practical for a simple cruiser to know every country’s regulations and the local interpretation thereof. If you visit other countries, sooner or later you will have violated some law. My policy in the past was to smile and handle formalities as quickly as possible without asking questions, following the principle that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. In the future, before I buy the plane tickets, I will ask customs if we can fly home without taking the boat.
—Jim and Jeannie Foley are regular contributors to Ocean Navigator. They voyage worldwide aboard their 62-foot aluminum sloop Onora.