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How NOT to Clear Customs and Immigration

After three hours, I’d finally resigned myself to the fact that I would be spending the night in a Grenadian prison.

It’s easy to cross borders in the Caribbean, especially by sailboat. It’s also very easy to fall victim to “tropical stupor,” that lazy, languid state of mind created by balmy weather and easy-going, where you “just can’t seem to get anything done.”

My brush with the Grenada officials came about due precisely to that, with the added stress of playing psychologist for a boat-full of teenagers. One particularly rebellious student had finally crossed the line at Union Island—we booked him on the first flight out of Grenada the following morning.

I realized something was askew when I went to clear Customs. The head Immigration Officer seemed to know who I was before even introducing myself, and gave me a wry smile when I asked for clearance.

“Have a seat, Captain,” he said, emphasizing the word. The bottom line, he explained, was that I’d illegally disembarked a crew member without first clearing him through Immigration. After 10 minutes, I realized the situation was serious. From the official’s perspective, he had no idea if I’d disembarked the student at all, even suggesting I could have thrown him overboard five miles offshore. How could I defend myself? The officer towered over me, staring at me through the corner of his eyes as his head gazed off in the other direction. This was terribly intimidating.

“Andrew, Andrew, Andrew … Give me a brilliant idea so I can decide what to do with you …”

Brilliant idea? I had no idea how to handle myself, and decided to just answer his questions honestly and hope he’d let me go, which was starting to seem increasingly unlikely. He called Mia in, my first mate and fiancee, after an hour or so, asking her if she could sail the boat onward to Trinidad while I lingered in the local jail, awaiting my trial and potential $10,000 fine. Though she would have been quite capable, leaving me behind was not an option.

“Do you know what this means, Captain?” he asked me after three hours, handing over a sheet of paper, completely out of the blue. I looked at what appeared to be my clearance, and I gave the officer a puzzled look.

“Does this mean you’re letting me go?”

“Yes. But only because you have ten young lives to look after, and you seem like a good man. Now go.”

Dumbfounded, I stood on wobbly legs, walking out of the office without even thanking him, corralled the kids and practically floated to the dinghy dock, where freedom was manifested in the form of a small rubber inflatable.

The lesson, of course, is to simply take Customs as seriously as it really is. It’s so easy to take this for granted—the Caribbean is so laid-back and friendly, that after a while clearing in and out becomes routine, sometimes forgotten.

But what if the tables were turned? Imagine a Grenadian-flagged boat disembarking a crew member in New York City, where he subsequently boards a plane bound for a foreign country without first going through customs. The skipper in that case most certainly would be in prison.

The officials in Grenada remained friendly and polite throughout my ordeal, as was every other customs official I encountered throughout the islands. I was scared stupid—not of them, but of my waiting prison cell. I’m convinced that the two gentlemen in the office that day had one hell of a laugh over a couple beers once I left, and they deserved it.

Back at the boat, the kids wanted to know word-for-word what had happened. I obliged with a stupid smile plastered on my face, breathing the air of a free man, acutely aware how wonderful it was to be sitting in the cockpit of a sailing boat—and not behind bars.

Andy Schell is a professional captain and freelance writer, based in the Caribbean, Annapolis and Stockholm, depending on the season. He lives aboard his yawl Arcturus with Mia, his fiancee. Contact him at andy.schell125@gmail.com or www.fathersonsailing.com. 

Taking Customs Seriously

Clear in immediately upon dropping anchor. If you can’t, fly your yellow ‘Q’ flag and do not let anyone go ashore until the skipper has completed his responsibilities. Be prepared with copies of your crew list, typed, including everyone’s nationality, birth date and place, and passport information. With these at hand, you can save the agony of filling out carbon-copies by hand. Be aware of any applicable health certificates, pet permits, and local fees, and be prepared to produce them as required. Once cleared, fly the courtesy flag of the country you’re in from your starboard spreaders. It makes you legal, but more than that, it lets people know you respect not only the law of the land, but more important, the laws of the sea.

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