Saturday, November 09, 2013

I am an Idiot. Or: How to be Denied Clearance into a Country

I am writing this incredibly exhausted and upset.  At this moment, Scott is in the customs office here in Antigua trying desperately to get us cleared in to this country after sailing all night.  Why is he having difficulty, you ask?  Because this moron (Brittany) accidentally threw out our customs papers from Guadeloupe and the Antiguan port authorities will not clear us in without them.  This, my friends, is a major snafu.  A first for us and it's all my fault.  Pretty embarrassing.  Antiguan customs are currently withholding our passports until we get a copy of the forms from Guadeloupe which is much easier said than done, I'm afraid.

Dealing with customs and immigration offices is part and parcel for this lifestyle.  Each time you enter a new country you must "clear in" and then, subsequently, "clear out" before you reach another.  Procedures are different from island to island.  Some customs offices are pretty painless and easy (all the French islands come to mind) others are  Every cruiser has tales of woe centered around immigration procedures and dealing with unpleasant customs officials in some place or another.  Today is a day I would love to simply bemoan a rude customs agent.  I wish that was our problem.  Sigh.  But no, today I bemoan my silly little mistake that is really throwing a monkey wrench - one who's effect has yet to be determined, mind you - into things.  Perspective.

Scott does all the clearing in and out of customs for us.  We keep all our boat papers (registration, documentation, customs forms) and all our passports in a small pelican case so that everything is right where it should be when we need it.  When we arrive to a new country, Scott grabs the case, hops into the dinghy and heads to shore to clear us in or out (some places you can do this simultaneously, omitting a step).  Here in Antigua, though, we did a few things wrong:

First mistake:  Isla and I went ashore with Scott to clear us in.  We had just sailed all night long and I thought a little running around would do Isla good before her early afternoon nap.  This was very poor thinking on our part.  Many islands state that when clearing in with customs, only one person from each vessel can go ashore (usually the captain).  While many places do not really enforce this, Antigua is clearly one of them that do and when they saw Isla and I in the office (why did we go in there?!?!)  they made sure to tell us so immediately upon arrival.  No bueno.  That first exchange sort of set the tone for this whole deal...

Second mistake:  When Scott cleared us in to Guadeloupe (an utterly painless process, mind you) he folded up the form and put it in his pocket.  It then rained and the form got wet.  When he came back to the boat he took the paper out of his pocket to dry it out which leads us to mistake number three...

Third mistake:  Scott gave the paper to me.  There are a couple fundamental problems with this as a) I am pregnant with twins and am currently suffering a very major case of "pregnancy brain" (it's real, people) and b) I am a total neat freak so when I see a crumpled up piece of water-logged paper laying around (yes, even after Scott says: "Keep this safe" [see 'a'] it is a natural instinct for me to throw it away.  Who needs a water-logged crumpled piece of paper anyway?

Umm....We do.

They say bad things happen in threes, right? Well, we effectively struck a trifecta of customs and immigration "no no's" here in the 'Tiga.

So now I am back on the boat, feeling utterly helpless and anxious while Scott tries to track down a copy of our clearance papers.  From customs officials.  On a Saturday.  With a French island (I love the French, but do I need to tell you how many breaks they take in a day?).  So I do the only thing I can do when I feel like this, which is to write. it. out.

The best case scenario?  We will get ahold of the customs folks in Guadeloupe and they will fax us our papers after which this will be a cautionary tale that we will have learned a big lesson from while letting out a sigh of epic proportions because it could have been so much worse.

The worst case scenario?  We cannot obtain a copy and have to sail back to Guadeloupe to get a new one.  We will have learned a HUGE lesson that costs us a significant amount of time that we will not get back.

Either way, I guess we learn a lesson.  And, of course, I know it could always be worse.  We're healthy.  Our boat is fine.  We are safe...yadda, yadda, yadda...  But you better believe the only paper I will be throwing away on the boat from this day forward will be toilet paper.

Stay tuned, I will let you know how this plays out...keep your fingers crossed for us.


Darwin Grenwich said...

I know how you feel! There are so many customs headaches in that part of the world. I've been cruising in Central America these past 3 years and often the paperwork is the worst part of the journey—and I've been sick with La Tourista 3 times! They are so eager to adopt Western Culture—Walmart and McDonald's come to mind. I wish they would adopt Western Culture in their Customs and Immigration procedures instead. Let us in! We come in peace.

Mike Boyd said...

Ugh...nothing worse than bureaucracy.

Keeping my fingers crossed for you guys.


Will Marks said...

Hi there,
I've been reading your blog for a while now and love it because you write about so many familiar things, like the man that lives on the little island in Les Saintes! He once let me borrow some christmas lights powered by a car battery to string up around the campfire we built on his beach.

Unfortunately, I also am familiar with the less pleasant side of the Leewards, like customs and immigration. If Antigua denies you entry, rather than sail all the way back down to Guadaloupe, I suggest heading to St. Barths. I used to skipper a boat that was based on the French side of St. Martin and we'd do a circuit through the Leewards, St. Barths always being our first stop. I never once, in many many trips, cleared out of St. Martin. I always showed up in Gustavia empty handed and it never once raised an eyebrow. Their check in/check out process is totally painless (computerized) and all the officers are very personable.

Good luck!


TJ said...

It is nice of you to take the blame for this glitch. But in my mind any Custom's Official who can't figure out that you and Isla are not any kind of security problem to their little island, and who doesn't see a simple paperwork SNAFU when clearly that is the case, is too stupid to be a Custom's Official.

Gareth said...

Trivial stuff really in the grand scheme of things. :-) I had both my passports stolen in New Zealand of all places. My attitude was "OK, so I'm not the only person on the planet this has happened to, it'll work out"!. After calling the Customs offices, everyone was really helpful and just explained the process to get a new passport. USA Passport Office was kinda ill equipped to deal with it. UK passport office was on the ball immediately. I guess the British are so used to it being a big nation of holidayers! You can read about my account here when you get internet access (March 22 2008).

Love your blog. Be well and safe. :-)

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