Customs Chaos At Sea

For those of you who have never had the opportunity to travel from country to country via a private yacht you may be surprised at what is involved in dealing with Customs, Immigration and Biosecurity. Depending upon the country there can be mounds of paperwork that must be filed out with forms asking redundant questions and seeking the most intimate of details about your vessel. It can result in a form of “customs chaos” and when Customs waits until you’re at sea to respond it can be highly frustrating.

As the Best Mate on board the duties revolving around the paperwork for our entries and exits lie in my hands. It’s definitely not my favorite thing to do but then I’m quite certain servicing the Yanmar, cleaning the bottom of the boat or the myriad of other things Dan does aren’t his favorite things either so I bury my head in the computer, suss out all that is required and try to be sure everything is sorted long before it will ever be needed. After having done this in seven different countries with two more to be tackled in the coming days and months I don’t mind saying I’m becoming somewhat of an expert at it. Whatever that means.

Welcome To The Jungle

Here in the jungle of Customs, Immigration & Biosecurity paperwork I am highly efficient and well ordered. Why? Well firstly it makes our life a lot easier when we arrive or depart. When you have all your proverbial ducks in a row you make it simple for the officials to get you processed and underway. Border officials, as well all do, like things to be easy so they tend to give you less hassles if you’re properly prepared.

Most importantly, if you don’t do things the right way they have the options of refusing you entry or exit, fining you, jailing you and/or even confiscating your boat!! And let’s be honest…we’re often dealing with third world countries where corruption is everywhere and so the last thing I want to do is give them any possible excuse to avail themselves to any of those options.

Quite frankly these days with the internet and government websites it “should” be rather easy, even if it is a little cumbersome to get the paperwork filled out and returned to them. The fact is, it is NOT! Nope. Not even in the year 2022 can you find easy to locate, easy to use document packages that give you exact instructions on what you need to do. And, when you add the new Covid restrictions that may or may not require pre-departure and/or arrival RAT tests that can only be done within 24 hours of departure it becomes Customs chaos!!!

Can I Just Get A Fillable Form Please?

As someone who specialized in streamlining processes in my career I have a very hard time dealing with government agencies and their inability to do exactly that. My biggest pet peeve with all the border agencies around the world is not the mountains of forms they want filled out or even the redundant and/or invasive questions they ask. No, it’s the fact that it’s 2022 and these agencies provide forms online that are not able to be easily filled out.

I mean come on….how difficult is it to create a fillable PDF? And why can’t they make it dynamic so that when you answer the question of your boat’s name on page one it fills it out in every other section on the form where the boat name is required? I’m pretty certain there are about a thousand Youtube videos that could teach them how to do this. This isn’t rocket science people.

Some agencies have forms that are uploaded on their websites that are just Word documents with dashes for the space to enter your information. Apparently they are expecting you to print the document and fill it in. They don’t seem to understand that yachties tend to be very techie because we don’t have room for printers, reams of paper and extra ink cartridges.

Heck, even on Dazzler when we get a boat card from another yachtie we scan it into our files and toss the card. That probably sounds bad because we all spend good money having cards made to share but room is at a premium on a boat like ours.

I guess it just gets to me because creating a fillable PDF for your customers is a simple thing to do and in the end it makes your job easier because you aren’t trying to decipher their handwritten hieroglyphics. It seems maybe if I ever decide to go back to work I should set up a company creating these things for border agencies around the world. Or at least take their forms and fix them for the yachties. No wait….that sounds too much like work and I enjoy being retarded, I mean retired.

The Big Government Let Down

Before we even left New Zealand in May of this year I’d already downloaded the forms for entry and exit for Fiji, Vanuatu and Australia. I not only downloaded them but filled them out too. I filled in everything except the port arrival and departure information and the dates and times. And for those forms that were not user friendly PDF fillable forms, let’s just say…”they are now.” Sometimes I just can’t help myself.

This OCD Best Mate created little country folders on the laptop that contained packages of the forms just sitting there awaiting the last tiny bits of information to be added so they could fly through cyberspace to the appropriate border officials. Yes, I even patted myself on the back with pride as I boasted of my utter efficiency. “Oh yes…this year it will be different.” I thought to myself. “This year it will be easy.”

Oh how we delude ourselves into thinking the best could ever come from intercourse with a government agency. I’m guessing you know where I’m heading with that so I’ll just leave it here and let you fill in the blank………. “No matter how easy it sounds, sooner or later we’re going to get _________!”

Yes, we go into it feeling so positive and come out the other end feeling as if we’d been tried for murder, found guilty and been sentenced to life in a maximum security prison. We know we’re innocent but they always find a way to make us crazy enough to actually commit the crime. Well, folks. It’s even worse when you are at sea and don’t have all the tools available to communicate with the appropriate people.

I’ve Sent This Four Times Now

The very day Dan told me we had a weather window to leave Fiji I sent my exit paperwork to Fiji Customs, stopped by their office in Port Denarau and did everything I needed to do to secure our departure. All in all Fiji wasn’t so bad. There were a couple of hang ups like the fact that we’d paid for an extension to our visa but never actually got one so “technically” we had overstayed. But, the Immigration Officer assured us that as long as our paperwork was in and the fee was paid there would be no issue. Hmmmm…why do I feel like the fee was more important than the actual stamp saying we could stay????

We wanted to enter Vanuatu at Port Resolution on the east side island of Tanna for two reasons. One, it is at the southern end of the chain of islands making it easy to start there and work our way north to Efate an on to Espiritu Santo islands leaving us to check out of country in Luganville. The other reason is that on Tanna there is the famous Mt. Yasur volcano. It’s an active volcano and one of the few in the world that is fairly easy to access.

To enter at Port Resolution you need to have prior permission from Vanuatu Customs. If you don’t have it you are required to check in on the west side of the island at Lenakal or one of the other authorized ports on Efate or Espiritu Santo. Lenakal is another day’s sail for us and not necessarily one we wanted to make. And, once there we’d have to take a two hour, ride in the back of a truck across the mountainous dirt roads to reach the volcano. In Port Resolution you are very close and the anchorage has views of the fiery cone of death for your evening entertainment.

The entry paperwork for Vanuatu is, like most countries, detailed and unwieldy. They all want to know every tiny detail about you and your vessel from the colors on it to the materials used in its construction to just about every single piece of electronics on board. And it’s not just as easy as listing them, you have to have the make and model of each and for some countries, such as Australia, they actually want the serial number. This is where my OCD Captain and hubby comes in as he’s got all that in one place for me.

About a week before we’d even decided on a departure date I began emailing Vanuatu Customs to find out what was needed to get this approval. Much to my surprise I was given a pretty simple and quick answer. Yes we can check in at Port Resolution and they would forward us instructions once we’d submitted our paperwork. Well, where’s my Staples, “That was easy button?????

Oh wait…I keep forgetting…It’s never easy!

With our departure date in hand I completed the final details on the Inward Craft Report, Passenger Arrival Cards, Inter-Island Cruising Permit and the Maritime Declaration of Health. I combined all this, along with our US Boat Documentation, Vaccine Passports and one or two other documents into one easy to use PDF and emailed it to the appropriate email address. I guess I keep thinking if I make it easy for them they will eventually make it so for me. Alas, I’m such a dreamer.

The only thing they were missing to get full and final approval was the RAT test results which could not be done for five more days as they must be completed no more than 24 hours prior to our departure. But, the good news is they had everything else five days ahead of time. I gleefully thought, “That should be plenty of time to get them all sorted and get an answer back to us even if it is contingent upon the negative RAT test.”

With no answer from Customs I decided not to bother them as I assumed they were awaiting the RAT test results. So, on Sunday morning within moments of being declared “Vid Free” I emailed the certificates along with the original package, you know, just in case….over to the contacts I had at Vanuatu Customs. I had been told by them via email that the answer would come almost immediately.

Since all my pre-departure work was now behind me Dan & I spent our last afternoon enjoying Port Denarau. We had a shared plate of nachos while we imbibed on a couple of the best frozen Mojitos you’ll ever have at Cardo’s on the waterfront. We went back and relaxed on Dazzler and then later in the day caught up with our friends, Wilma & Kata, for drinks at Lulu’s Cafe. Then it was time for us to enjoy one farewell dinner at Sails. And oh what a treat that was…but we’ll save that for another time.

This Is Jilly On Dazzler, Can I Get An Answer Or At Least Buy A Vowel?

The following morning as we readied ourselves for departure I continued to check the email over and over for our approval or for anything at all from Vanuatu Customs. Nothing…nope…nada. I hastily sent an email asking if we were going to get an answer but still nothing. It was like they dropped off the face of the earth. So what do a couple of old salts do now? Well, we went ahead and checked out of country and started making our way toward Port Resolution. That’s what.

The worst case scenario is they’d tell us we couldn’t exit the boat or check in there and we’d have to go to another port. Either way we still have over 400 NM and four days to get there. We had some time to wait it out even if it was nagging at me that the issued had not yet been put to bed.

Unlike in the days of Captain’s Cook or Bligh today’s cruisers have the ability stay in constant contact with the outside world. We can be a thousand miles offshore and still be able to place a ship to shore call or send emails via satellite technology. Honestly I’m not sure my dear ol’ mama could handle us being out here if we couldn’t. She likes hearing from us daily while we’re at sea just so she knows we’re still afloat.

Of course with satellite technology there are definitely limits to what you can do. Sending emails via our IridiumGo is great but don’t try to send a photograph or a file unless you have nothing else to do for a bit. One, smallish, not so great resolution photograph can take ten to twenty minutes to get it off flying through cyberspace. This is exactly why we send all arrival documents before we leave our last port. We do it when we have “real” internet.

Now I’m sure there are some out there asking why we haven’t switched to Starlink as this is supposed to be “the thing” to use for internet for travelers. Well, we don’t think it’s quite ready to do what we need it to do and with the issues they are having over the RV service being used on yachts we’d like to just wait this out a little while. At least we know our IridiumGo gets the job done for us and in the event we need to reach someone out here we’d like that security.

So here we are hundreds of miles from shore and I’m now pestering the Border Officials for an answer. After all, I’m at sea with not much else to do but read and write so I am sending an email a day. After a couple of emails a nice lady named Ruth gets back to me saying we should have our approval the following morning. Excellent! All is well…….or, is it???

Yesterday morning comes and goes without an answer so I send another email. Each time I copy everyone I’ve had contact with there. Someone has to be able to get this done right? Well, finally late yesterday afternoon I see an email has come in from Ruth only this time it’s some huge file that goes into what is called “big mail”. In order for me to open items that land there I have to specifically ask for them to be downloaded as they can take a long, long, long time.

This particular file is over 2 million bytes! By the time it opens, if it doesn’t just shut the whole system down first, we will have decided we are simply too old to sail anymore and will have sold the boat and moved into some old folks home on land somewhere. No, this simply will not work.

So now it appears I have an answer but I have no way of knowing if it’s yes or no. The thing is they all know we are already at sea so they have to know that normal internet is not at play here. I mean this whole satellite email stuff didn’t just come on the market. And this is border control. They have dealt with this stuff since the moment it did come on the market.

Are you sensing my frustration yet????

I’ll wrap this up by telling you that it took a series of four more emails back and forth for us to finally get something in writing telling us we are approved to enter the country at Port Resolution. So much for my “it’s going to be so easy this year” plan. But, today I’ve been reading about the Ni-Vanuatu people in preparation for our arrival and I did learn one thing that will surely be helpful during our stay and it’s that time is of very little relevance in their culture. The way they see it a measurement of time will not change a thing so my wanting an answer expeditiously meant nothing to them. They knew an answer would come and that answer would be the same whether they sent it last week or next week. I think this adventure is going to be a test of my patience to be sure.

All I can say now is this volcano better be worth the frustration I’ve been through to get there. That and oh, “God, please grant me a huge dose of patience in the next 24 hours.”

Until next time….when we are safely anchor down at Port Resolution, Vanuatu…


Author: Dan & Jilly

1 thought on “Customs Chaos At Sea

  1. Make sure you cross the T’s and dot the I’s twice with the Aussies mob, they are infamous for difficult BS.
    Look forward to catching up when you get over here. Enjoy Vanuatu, I had some adventures there in my cameraman days. Watch out for the local kava, especially if you drink it at a ceremony, it is positively Psychedelic.

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