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  • 1 Post By Liza Copeland
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Old 11-11-2003
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Liza Copeland is on a distinguished road
Entering Foreign Waters


Prior, thorough knowledge of what kind of paperwork is required in your corner of paradise can go a long way in quelling anxieties in a new land.
It's always a thrill to see land take form after days of scanning an empty horizon. There is a never-failing sense of anticipation when approaching a new country. The last few hours are a hive of activity preparing the boat for arrival, but there are always diversions. The many curious
birds demand identification, then the fishing line is spinning astern with the increased abundance of fish close to shore. Smells and sounds waft over the water—the fragrance of flowers, cooking aromas, or the unfamiliar noise and bustle of a city. Of particular appeal are the spice islands with their pungent drifts of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and allspice. "A banana-bread island," declared four-year old Jamie on his first visit to Grenada in the southeastern Caribbean.

Landfall in a new country usually has to take place at an official port of entry, with heavy penalties in some countries if one goes ashore en route. You should prepare for arrival well in advance, since the last hours of an approach can become very busy. Navigation has to be stepped up, with pertinent large-scale charts, cruising guides, pilot books, sailing directions, light lists, and tide table at hand. If navigation aids differ from those at home, all crew need to familiarize themselves with the new system. As you enter territorial waters, a yellow Q flag is hoisted to the spreaders and port officials are contacted on the VHF (Channel 16 or 12) for clearance instructions.

Arrival and Departure Procedures    Clearing procedures vary greatly around the world. You may be required to go to a specific dock, anchor in a designated area, or tie to a mooring buoy. In some countries you stay on board while others request that you go ashore; this may be just the captain or both captain and crew.

For a smooth entry it is important to know the ports of entry and correct procedures and to have acquired any necessary documents and visas in advance. Jimmy Cornell's World Cruising Handbook, which is out of print, is very useful in providing these details, besides giving much additional pertinent information. Because procedures can change, and even vary between ports in the same country, check with other yachts with recent information. We are fortunate that English is the international language for port authorities, as well as the language most commonly used for communication at sea.

"A clean, tidy boat and a spruced-up crew can do wonders in speeding up the clearing-in process, as can patience, politeness, and deference!"

A clean, tidy boat and a spruced-up crew can do wonders in speeding up the clearing-in process, as can patience, politeness, and deference! Take your latest novel or magazine along so the wait passes quickly in the offices of the port captain, customs, and immigration—if you get impatient, the process will take double the time.

Most officials work from Monday to Friday, regular working hours, and often Saturday morning. Clearance may not be possible outside these hours or there may be an overtime charge. The problem with ‘paradise' is that we never kept track of days of the week and it was amazing how many times we managed to arrive in a new country on a Sunday! We would generally wait at anchor until Monday morning and feel we had gained one bonus day of relaxation. It also gave us time to organize boat documents, personal documents, and copies of crew lists before the officials' arrival.

Boat Documents    There are varying requirements for registering the ownership of a yacht and it is important that the correct papers be obtained to cruise in foreign waters. The US has both state licensing and federal documentation. A state license will sometimes not be accepted in another country, so documentation through the USCG is recommended. Similarly, in Canada, buyers should get their boats federally registered for travel abroad because provincial licensing is not accepted in most places overseas.

The document or registration certificate must be the original, not a photocopy. If the owner is not on board, a letter from the owner authorizing the skipper to use the boat is also necessary.

Personal Documents    With a few exceptions most countries require individuals to hold passports. Occasionally, a copy of the information page is required. (In case of loss it is prudent to have reference copies both on the boat and ashore.) And some countries require visas. Requirements are generally the same whether arriving by plane or by boat and a poor reception will be given by the officials if you do not have proper visas. Countries usually demand visas be acquired in advance and this may alter your cruising plans. A few allow them to be purchased on arrival, but they are generally more expensive. Be up to dateregulations change and can vary widely for different nationalities. They can also differ greatly in price, as we found out when using a mix of both British and Canadian passports.

Most visas have a time limit both for the length of stay and the time period they involve. This can be an operational problem when crossing an ocean.  I once obtained a Brazilian visa in South Africa for my son Jamie, but we were delayed in Cape Town waiting for autopilot spares; then the winds were light in the South Atlantic. The Brazilian officials were not impressed when we arrived in Fortaleza to see that his visa had expired by two days—and we had been quite oblivious of the fact!


A typical crew list—while each foreign port is likely to require its own procedures and rituals, having a current document listing the most often asked questions will make life a little easier for all.
Crew  Lists   
Although there is sometimes an immigration form to complete, copies of crew lists are generally required. These should include boat name, nationality, registration number, gross registered tonnage, and crew names with each crew member's nationality, date of birth, and passport number with place and date of issue. It is customary to have categories for crew and passengers. Guests are usually listed as crew, otherwise they may be considered charterers. Be warned, officials love paperwork the world over. After two weeks in Fiji, for example, they had 32 pieces of paper from us!

A ship's stamp or seal makes documents look more official and is often demanded. Most boat stamps have some representation of the boat, or something nautical, the vessel's name, number, and home port (they are also fun for visitor's books!).

Clearance Documents    Most countries require a clearance document from the last place visited before they will process your arrival. Consequences can be dire if you do not have this document, as they were for a couple we knew in the South Pacific.  They left Raratonga, in the Cook Islands, when a storm made the harbor untenable. Once at sea it was easier to keep going west, but  they were then denied entry in both Tonga and Fiji since they had no outward clearance papers.

Cruising Permits    Most countries, including the US and Canada for overseas visitors, issue a cruising permit, or zarpe, that is valid for a certain period of time. It might be open or restricted. If restricted, and there is a choice of cruising areas, make sure when applying that you list everywhere you might possibly want to visit. In other countries you may have to check with the officials at every stop. On our recent trip around North and Central America we met several American cruisers who thought this was an irritating Mexican rule, until we told them that this was standard procedure around the world and that we, as Canadians, have to keep the officials updated with our location by telephone even in the US.

Cruising Fee    Sometimes there is a cruising fee. Usually this is only a few dollars, although with the increasing number of cruisers some fees are on the rise. In Central America, for example, the permit and immigration charges came to about $100 per country. Friends who had just crossed the South Pacific encountered minimal cruising fees, but mentioned the occasional quarantine charge of which Australia at $100 ($200 on overtime) was the steepest. The most we ever paid for a cruising permit was $200 for Indonesia (down from its previous $500 high point!).

"Flying a courtesy flag from the starboard spreader when in a foreign port is not only traditional, it's good manners."

Courtesy Flags    Flying a courtesy flag from the starboard spreader when in a foreign port is not only traditional, it's good manners. Although it's technically correct to carry your yellow Q (quarantine) flag from your port spreader, most cruisers fly both from the starboard spreader with the quarantine flag below. Unfortunately, buying a flag in advance is often considerably more expensive than purchasing it in the country itself. Although it may offend, it is rare that officials take action if the flag is not flown right away. When we were in Turkey, however, they made boats flying frayed or faded flags replace them immediately. There also may be other specifications such as in Indonesia where the courtesy flag must be at least the size of the boat's ensign. The result was a lot of very large courtesy flags and some very small ensigns!

Many cruisers make their own flags and they usually have a supply of colorfast fabric—particularly red, white, and blue—on board. Self-adhesive spinnaker and sail repair material can come in handy for stars and other flag symbols, as can permanent markers. But accurate reproduction is necessary to avoid offense. If staying for a long period in a country, flags need to be well stitched, preferably by a machine, since they fray quickly, particularly in the trade winds.

Also, we don't recommend flying club flags from the same flag halyard as the courtesy or Q flag. Have a halyard rigged to the port spreader or to an upper spreader on the starboard side for this purpose.

Crew Comportment    The owners of the vessel are responsible for the good behavior and repatriation of any crew taken on board. The papers of prospective crew must be checked carefully and a return ticket to the crew's country of origin, or cash in lieu of the ticket, together with passports and visas should be kept in the captain's possession to be shown to officials on request. Although you might feel awkward about demanding this, you must insist. We have seen many distraught owners having to pay airfares of pickup crew when the vessel arrived in the new country.


Having officials on board sets the groundwork for interesting cultural exchange.
Officials on Board    We always offer tea or coffee when officials arrivethey are often curious and like to sit below. After basic information is collected there are generally questions related to firearms, drugs, and alcohol. In virtually every country in the world firearms have to be given up at the port of entry. They can be claimed upon departure from the country, usually from the port of entry.

It is a good idea to have the medical chest easily accessible for the officials to examine if requested. It is rare to have a problem even with strong drugs such as morphine, but all items must be officially labeled and have prescriptions. This includes items that may be served over the counter in your own country. We were horrified in Greece, for example, when an Australian nurse was arrested and detained for several months because she had codeine in her purse without a prescription. It was sold over the counter in her home country.

When asked about alcohol, we report that there is beer in the fridge and offer it around. Usually it is declined, but when the paperwork is over many officials will happily indulge.  Most enjoy talking about their countries and we find them extremely informative with practical and sightseeing suggestions, as well as insight into the local political, cultural, and economic situation.

Such was the case on our memorable entry at Fiji's capital Suva. With security at its maximum after a second military coup our entry procedure took one-and-a-half days. Every possible government agency came on board, including the army in full battle regalia. They were very stern as they asked us if we had any guns on board. "Absolutely not," replied my husband Andy, but Jamie, still four, contradicted him. "Oh, yes we have." The officials leapt to attention, their guns at the ready. Seconds later Jamie rushed from his cabin, triumphantly holding up his dripping water pistol for their inspection! There was a look of disbelief, then big smiles, and soon tears of laughter were rolling down the soldiers' faces. With the ice broken, we had a most interesting discussion about the country's political and cultural dilemmas.

Having children on board is a real assetit is a rare bureaucrat who doesn't have a smile for them and Andy took full advantage of this! Like most cruisers, we've never had problems with officialdom. Interestingly, it always seemed to be the same people who did. Again, like most cruisers, we never ‘smooth the way' with bribes because this doesn't sit well with us nor does it make it easy for those following in our wake.

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