Voyaging paperwork primer

May/June 2007

I’m writing this on my laptop computer located in a marina with high-speed wireless access. I just checked my bank balance, answered some e-mails from friends and made a call home to my father using Skype. When we first started voyaging, more than 20 years ago, none of these would have been possible. Let’s look at how voyagers are staying in touch and handling finances in 2007.


E-mail has just about eliminated the need to receive personal correspondence via snail mail. Most of us carry laptops that can be used on the boat for a variety of functions (navigation, radiofax, etc.) and can be carried ashore to the nearest Internet café or marina hotspot. Some folks use PocketMail devices that can be held up to any phone handset to retrieve short e-mail messages (no photos or attachments), though most seem to prefer the power of a laptop computer.

In some areas you will not be able to find an Internet café that will allow you to plug in your own computer, there won’t be wireless access, or it may not be safe to bring your own computer ashore. We have found it most convenient to carry a removable USB drive that can be used to download or upload our e-mail messages from other computers. I have a two-gigabyte drive that is smaller than a pack of gum. Another option would be to put everything onto a read/write CD.

Be sure your e-mail service has Web access for those times when you can’t use your own computer. Many services offer free e-mail accounts, and some of them have huge online storage, meaning you will always have a backup of important correspondence.

Most credit cards and banks will send statement alerts via e-mail, allowing you to log on to a secure Web site to access the information. However, the spammers and scammers have caught on to this and have become very good at sending e-mails that look identical to actual credit card company or bank mail. When you click on a link in the mail you are directed to a site that sucks up your personal information and account numbers. To avoid having your identity and bank balances stolen, never click on a link from within an e-mail. Instead, manually key your trusted Web site into your Internet browser.

It is now possible for most of us to even file federal and state taxes electronically, which is a huge benefit when located outside the U.S. An electronic confirmation is received letting you know that the return was received. Popular tax programs, like TurboTax and TaxCut, have options that allow you to both fill out the forms and file electronically. An added benefit is that the software itself can be purchased and downloaded online, and it includes most of the forms and publications you should need. Refunds can be deposited into your account automatically.

Unfortunately, there are some agencies and companies that insist on sending things via snail mail, and there are many times you will need to supply a physical address somewhere in the world. One of the most important items in this class is your U.S. Coast Guard documentation. Once a year the Coast Guard sends you a renewal form that must be signed and returned, and then they mail you a new documentation certificate. One way to speed up this process is to download form CG-1280, which can be filled out and faxed in to the Coast Guard. Your new document will be mailed in about a month.

Another item I receive via snail mail is the occasional check that must be cashed or deposited. If I have these forwarded to me it might be months of travel time before I get access to the money. Having a trusted relative, friend or business that can deposit checks for you is important. Before you go be sure to set up this authority with your banks and other institutions, as they may require signature guarantees and other documentation. Don’t forget to give someone authorized access to your safety deposit box, too.

You may want to consider giving a trusted person power of attorney, so they can handle those unexpected business and personal crises. It is amazing how something that can be very easy to resolve becomes nearly impossible when legal hurdles prevent your agent from acting on your behalf.


You still need to get that snail mail somehow, and that is where Mom comes in for many of us. Relatives are a great way to satisfy the physical street address need that full-time voyagers can’t escape, and a close relative will often do this for free. Just be sure that the person you choose is enthusiastic about the prospect of having to hike to the post office with your Express Mail package. And, is this person capable of figuring out how to get your package sent safely to Fiji?

For many of us, these requirements are met by a professional mail-forwarding service. These companies usually charge a monthly fee along with per-package charges. Some offer voice mailboxes you can rent, fulfilling the need to have a telephone number. Just be sure to get a service that will eliminate all junk mail.

I have found it convenient to keep an address in my home state (serviced by a relative), in addition to using a mail-forwarding service for routine mail. This allows me to keep my same driver’s license, voter registration, and physical address for things like life and health insurance. The relative has one address and the mail forwarder another. However, some people prefer to change states when they move aboard, usually to avoid high taxes. Just be sure that you can use your new address for things like your driver’s license – this usually rules out a P.O. box address and, in some states, a mail-forwarding service’s address.

We have also found that many companies insist on having a phone number when doing business. We have used a relative’s phone number in the past, but now we purchase one from Skype, the Internet telephone service. You can purchase a Skype phone number for almost any area code in the world, and you can access your voice mail messages using your laptop computer. Purchase a headphone set with microphone before you leave, as they are hard to find.

Skype (and other such services) is also the cheapest way to call home. At this time, calls to U.S. numbers are essentially free, with calls to other countries running around $0.25 per minute. Internet telephony is not always the clearest, but it is wonderful to be able to call home for next to nothing, or to call your engine parts distributor and not worry when they put you on hold.


Managing money is now done almost completely via e-mail and the Web, and obtaining money can be almost as easy. Be sure to set up your various accounts so you can transfer money from one to the other using the Internet. Also, be sure to talk to your bank about getting appropriate limits put on your ATM cards. ATMs are the primary means of obtaining cash, and they are found in every country – even in some rather out of the way places. I find it handy to have a high limit so I can easily obtain fairly large amounts of cash when I find a safe ATM.

There are some places with no ATMs, no cash advances and no check cashing. I just spent two months in the San Blas Islands of Panama, and we had to bring all the U.S. cash we used. U.S. dollars are the universal world currency when all else fails, so bring plenty. We like to sprinkle it around the boat in various hard-to-find spots to make it more difficult for a burglar to get it all, though we’ve never had a break-in. Some people carry traveler’s checks as a backup, and they can be useful in developed areas, but those places also usually have ATMs.

ATMs are obvious magnets for thieves, so we try to only use ones connected to major banks and businesses located in busy areas. Avoid using small ATMs in local markets or restaurants, or in poorly lit and less-safe areas. If in doubt, spend a few minutes watching your surroundings before approaching the ATM, and have someone act as a lookout for you while you’re doing business. Other scams include placing devices in the card slot that trap your ATM card, which is then removed after you leave. For this reason, we prefer the type of ATM that allows you to swipe the card but retain it.

Credit and debit cards can be used in many businesses, particularly in larger cities. Be sure to check your online account frequently to avoid having to pay for scam charges. Because of the prevalence of scams, we prefer to use credit cards rather than debit cards. Any unauthorized charges can be disputed, but with a debit account the money is withdrawn from your account right away. You do have monthly bills to contend with when using credit cards, but most brands have some sort of online payment system. You can set up automatic payments for many cards.

Most credit card companies tack on an additional charge for transactions made in foreign currencies – often as much as 3 percent. Check the fine print of your credit card contract and look for a card that only charges around 1 percent for this service. Credit unions often have cards with low fees. Some businesses will also tack on a service charge to cover the costs of processing. These fees might be an additional 2 percent to 3 percent or more. Offsetting these fees is the good exchange rate offered by major credit cards. We have found that this can sometimes be 25 percent better than the rate offered by local businesses when exchanging cash.

Visa and MasterCard are the most widely accepted brands, and it is handy to have at least one of each type, as some areas only take one or the other. Also, I like to have backup cards kept hidden on the boat, in case I lose my wallet or it is stolen. In some parts of the world it is a good idea to carry a dummy wallet in your back pocket complete with expired cards and some cash. Hopefully, pickpockets will go for the wallet, ignoring your real stash carried in a hidden pocket, your sock or carried in a pouch slung under your shirt.

When obtaining cash, try to get small denominations, as they will be the most useful when purchasing items from locals. We like to carry lots of $1 U.S. bills, which are readily accepted, even in many countries with different currencies.

In addition to backup credit cards, be sure to keep photocopies of all your cards, driver’s licenses, passports and other important documents. We have found that some immigration authorities want copies of your passports – sometimes they want multiple copies. Make lots of copies of these before you leave, and don’t forget to carry plenty of copies of your Coast Guard Documentation and crew lists.

Having a small computer printer on board is essential for making things like crew lists and boat cards, and it may be needed for visa application letters and other business. Bring plenty of ink cartridges, as they are impossible to find most places. A cartridge refill kit is another way to go. Similarly, bring plenty of CDs and/or DVDs for backups and for sharing files with other voyagers.

All of this technology may not be to everyone’s taste, but we find it makes our voyaging lives easier, safer and gives us more time to enjoy the places we are visiting.

By Ocean Navigator