On Watch: Clearing In

Over the years Fatty and Carolyn Goodlander have been cruising, clearing-in fees and procedures have changed.

Fatty Goodlander
After arriving in port, the first duty of the captain is to hoist the yellow Q, or quarantine, flag to ask to be inspected.Carolyn Goodlander

On our first circumnavigation, we didn't even budget for clearing-in costs because they were so minor. Alas, they have skyrocketed.

For example, it used to cost every vessel a dime to clear ­into the BVI; now, a St. Thomas charter boat pays hundreds of dollars per visit. Tonga was $4 and is now closer to $400 for the winter season. The Bahamas used to be $12, and now, it is $300 minimum for a 40-footer; some boats pay nearly $500 if they want to toss over a fishing line. There are countries that even tack on a $4-per-day liveaboard fee, in addition to a boatload of other landing, garbage collection and port security charges.

In Funafuti, I was asked to pay $30 for a “navigation-light fee,” and shot back, “Are you kidding me? There’s not a single nav light working in this entire nation!”

The guy smiled, shrugged and said, “Well, you can’t blame me for trying.”

“Yes, I can,” I said, while looking him in the eye. “And I do.”

African officials sometimes force you into an expensive dock (owned by their brother-in-law) in case they might need to do a random spot inspection.

In Oman, a permit is required to dive over to clean your prop, and you have to hire a designated translator to fill in the form. They attempt to fine boats clearing out for “improper insurance ­compliance” as well.

Once, in Puerto Ayora, in the Galapagos, the harbormaster would not allow us to anchor without paying a fumigation and de-ratting charge. Once paid, a smiley guy came out to our boat with a tank of poison, pointed out that his poison was really poisonous stuff and graciously offered not to spray the boat for an additional fee. I’m ashamed to admit I paid rather than sail westward across the Pacific sleeping on deck.

One greedy but confused fellow in Panama was demanding yet another cruising permit fee and visa to clear out. “No freakin’ way,” we laughed as we scooped up our passports and fled.

For a while in St. Lucia, the customs man demanded that you fly an expensive courtesy flag that his wife sewed. If you refused to buy it because you already had a courtesy flag, well, he’d then inspect your boat for drugs in such a damaging manner that you’d gladly pay for the darned flag to get him to stop.

Madagascar became so imaginative with these what-can-we-dream-up-next fees that all the cruising boats left en masse. They were only wooed back when a list of five minor official charges was announced. Regardless, the thugs on the dinghy dock of Hell-Ville (yes, how aptly named) still demanded a dollar a day not to sink your dinghy.

When visiting a new country, some charges are legitimate, of course, and some aren’t, but you have to deal with them regardless.

Here’s how my wife, Carolyn, and I do it. First off, I wear long pants and we dress neatly but not expensively when clearing in. In many former British colonies, officials are insulted by shorts or bare feet. Second, particularly in Southeast Asia, we never lose face by getting angry. (“That which angers you, conquers you,” is the local belief.) Third, we’re patient. In the Philippines, they tell you to wait and wait and wait — and we wait as obnoxiously and loudly as possible until they tell us cheapskates we can go. Fourth, we do our research.

Research? Yes. We ­determine beforehand what fees are legitimate and which aren't. We are perfectly OK with paying legal fees, but dreamed-up ones, not so much. Noonsite.com is a valuable resource for this. Here's the truth of it: Many ports are charging, year in and year out, five fees, but only three are legit. Thus, they have a profitable scam going. They simply pocket the other two fees. However, if you calmly tell them that only three are legit and you are happy to pay for them if you get a receipt, they will often just nod and accept it so as not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

Occasionally, this doesn’t work. If they demand payment and refuse to give us a receipt, our only option is to leave. And don’t forget, you can leave. Just return to your vessel and head back out to sea. We have anarchistic French friends who do this all the time. They just stumble in, turn their pockets inside out and say, “Sorry, no money!”

Then they watch what happens.

“Amusing, yes?” laughed the anarchistic skipper.

“Better than a kung fu ­movie,” agreed his loopy wife.

For a while in St. Lucia, the customs man demanded that you fly an expensive courtesy flag that his wife sewed.

While clearing in, we never give or show the officials anything they don’t specifically request. We’re polite and attentive and friendly, but often silently take the Fifth, so to speak. We’ve learned that ­volunteering info often backfires, especially when corruption is present.

We’ve always “just arrived,” because many countries charge overtime fees if you anchor in the dark, or double overtime if you drop your hook on Sunday, while they’re snoring away.

Occasionally, in the backwaters of South America, they demand you bring them your original documentation and then make a big deal of locking it up in their safe if you don’t pay a bribe. Thus, they have you over a barrel.

Well, maybe not us.

We carry a dozen high-quality photocopied “original” documentations. Thus, when an Ecuadorian official once demanded a large bribe and theatrically locked up our original U.S. documentation ship’s papers in front of all the staff, I just looked glum and asked woefully, “Do you have any idea how much time and expense it would entail for me to get another one of those?”

Carolyn tried not to snicker and blurt out, “About two seconds and 10 cents!”

Ah, the games we frugal sea gypsies are forced to play!

Officials in the Maldives
Polite officials in Uligan, in the Maldives, all came out to Wild Card, and one offered to host dinner the next night.Fatty Goodlander

The grimmest gimme trend is yacht agents. While a few are legitimately needed to smooth the way, many conspire with the government officials (to whom they kick back) to not clear you in without their assistance. For instance, one agent in the western Pacific kicks back $100 of his $400 fee to the customs guys in exchange for their allowing him to be the sole person in possession of all the complicated government forms. Even the customs employees can’t give you paperwork without you giving the agent $400 for nothing other than providing sheets of paper.

We’ve learned to keep our ears open for certain words and phrases while clearing in. For example, when a customs or immigration official starts talking about discretionary matters or on-the-spot fines or irregularities in your ­documentation, he’s asking for a bribe. Some unsophisticated ­government workers just smile and blurt out expectantly, “How ’bout something for me?”

When that happens, Carolyn bats her pretty brown eyes and says, “I’m sorry. Our owners don’t allow us to pay such additional fees. Maybe next time!”

This makes no logical sense but allows the rebuffed official to save face.

If I had a penny for every foreign official who said, “But it’s nothing for you,” I’d be a rich man.

In a sense, the West teaches the locals how to cheat. In Tonga, they never cared about foodstuffs aboard yachts until nearby New Zealand started to make such a fuss over biohazards and invasive species. Thus, on our last visit, they confiscated our fresh apples. Lucky for us, the market ladies had just received a shipment of suspiciously familiar-­looking apples at the local market that very same day!

The amazing thing, really, isn’t that there is some corruption in the world, but how little of it we actually encounter. While rising fees are a major problem for us, rising corruption isn’t yet. Though, when it does occur, such corruption isn’t limited to the smaller countries. One of the worst, carefully crafted rip-offs by customs and immigration officials — we’re talking about hundreds of dollars in bogus overtime charges — that we’ve ever experienced was in ­modern Brisbane, Australia.

In Fiji, by contrast, you have to bring the chief some kava and get stoned with him, but that’s not too hard to take.

And we yachties are partially to blame ourselves. One of the reasons that the Galapagos officials became so greedy so fast is because (­reportedly) a dot-com ­billionaire brought a megayacht stuffed with wealthy guests from California. An official made a joke about how much it would cost to clear such a magnificent vessel, and its flush skipper paid that amount without batting an eye.

We have a friend who is the captain of one such zillion-­dollar yacht. He’s instructed by his owner to never waste time clearing in. Only a small fine is incurred, and the owner will happily pay it if they’re caught in foreign waters. The skipper isn’t happy about this but doesn’t want to lose his cushy job, so thus complies.

The main thing to remember is not to panic when encountering officialdom. This ancient dance between bewildered visitor and avarice-inspired locals has been going on for thousands of years. The Suez Canal, for example, is a lockless drainage ditch between the Red Sea and the Med that has generated billions of ill-gotten dollars for the Egyptians.

As I circumnavigate, landlubbers often ask me, “What about pirates?” I always respond brightly, “There are lots of ’em, and most are wearing government uniforms.”

The Goodlanders are avoiding onerous fees and continue to make their way across the Pacific on their ketch, Ganesh.