How do long distance sailors cope with different port authorities?

In Aden, Yemen, the local navy commander told us we would have nothing stolen from our sailing boat because the local pirates had told him we were their friends. But, he warned, we could have our throats cut if we abused Islam.

A good while later, having sailed into Hawaii, USA, we had to complete a written declaration which stated that, amongst other things, we accepted the US Navy could open fire on our yacht if we approached within five hundred yards of any military vessel.

Long distance cruisers and circumnavigators become well used to dealing with authorities in foreign arrival ports, encountering different attitudes that vary wildly. Before setting out on the adventure of a lifetime the thought of dealing with strange harbours, wayward Customs officials and the military might of first world countries is nearly enough to ensure you never leave your home port.

Many cruisers join organised rallies to ensure all the worrying port formalities are taken care of beforehand and, indeed, they invariably are. But for the intrepid few, who set out to make their own way across the oceans and seas, the experiences of arriving in a new country by sea under their own steam can be unpredictable, rewarding and an unforgettable experience.

Before reaching Aden, we had sailed south through the Straits of Bab Al Mandab at the foot of the Red Sea. Caught by a very bad storm, we sailed into a restricted military area on the Yemen coast to get much needed rest and shelter.

We were desperate. Needless to say, within a very short time a boat launch came alongside loaded with bedraggled army soldiers armed to the teeth. They took me ashore for interrogation and Marie was left alone onboard our vessel Sänna, not knowing what was happening.

Meantime, I was marched at gun point into an old desert fort to explain our presence due to damaged sails and lack of fuel. Having told the army officer of our desperate situation I was given 300 litres of diesel which he ordered to be drained from the fuel tanks of their armoured vehicles. We also drank coffee and showed photos of our wives and sweethearts. Their friendship was overwhelming and they did not demand any payment.


During our own circumnavigation, we found the overwhelming problem in certain countries is corruption; the bribe, or ‘baksheesh’ as it is known in Egypt. We found Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Philippines to be particularly bad but still not on the same level as the Egyptians, who look upon bribery as a way of life and have refined it to a fine art.

Transitting the Suez Canal, probably the world’s most important international waterway, is an experience we shall never forget having parted with US dollars, cigarettes, useless boat equipment and a pair of Chinese binoculars blighted with double vision … and that was just for the canal pilots. We encountered far more as we travelled through a truly incredible country.

In many respects bribery is more intimidating to an arriving crew than a belligerent Customs or Immigration official. How much is expected and what will happen if you do not pay up? I have to confess I duck the issue and leave it to my wife Marie. She steadfastly refuses to pay up and stands her ground to invariably win the day. But then her ability to deal with authority and officials is a well-honed skill that somehow ends in a friendly situation. Again, in Aden, the same navy commander questioned me how many wives and children I had. This was in Marie’s presence, he assumed we were married, living together is distinctly frowned upon under Islamic law. When she told him she was my only ‘wife’ and that we had four children, he said I was lazy because he had two wives and twelve children.

Marie asked if he could remember all their names and he confessed he could not. The navy supremo liked Marie, he would send flowers to her on the boat whilst we anchored in Aden Harbour.

Friendly officials

A genuine, friendly welcome happens surprisingly often.

In Sulawesi, Indonesia, two immigration officials spent the whole day ferrying us around on their battered scooters between cumbersome departments for Customs, Quarantine and the Harbourmaster, then arranged for diesel to be delivered to our boat and also collected my daughter and her boyfriend from the airport over forty miles away; then returned there to collect their missing luggage the following day.

Malaysia and Oman also stand out for really helpful and friendly harbour authorities. So too was the harbourmaster in war torn Port Massawa, Eritrea, who proudly kept a chart on his wall showing the annual number of foreign sailing vessels he had cleared into his country. He showed it to us and there were not too many.

Surprisingly, we have found the Muslim countries to be more welcoming and friendly than first world harbours. Perhaps it is part of the endemic problem of illegal immigration into the richer western economies and their need for vigilance.

Being British and sailing a UK registered vessel, we genuinely expected a smooth welcome from port officials in places such as the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Particularly given our common language and cultural similarities, even two world wars we thought. We quickly learned a British passport is no ticket to a welcoming pat
on the back.

This then brings up the interesting question of the cruiser’s nationality and the vessel’s country of registration.

Armed yachts

US yachts, there are a fair few sailing in far flung oceans, are invariably cautious and, to our own consternation, usually armed.

Maybe it is a cultural thing the rest of us do not quite understand but this presents its own issues when entering a foreign port. Every country we have sailed into simply do not allow guns or ammunition and this leads to the complex requirement for Customs bonding and, sometimes, the sealing of an incredible array of weapons carried onboard.

I myself have been proudly shown undeclared automatic weapons and RPGs aboard one US yacht, whose argument centred around piracy and armed intruders.

The question of attitude then, becomes a key issue in how foreign officials deal with differing nationalities sailing into their harbours. As previously mentioned, we quickly learned that our British passports are no meal ticket. We also learned this applies to most other nationalities too.

During our own voyages we have made friends with two Israeli yachts, both of whom sailed under Canadian flags. They quickly made the point they would not sail under a US flag either.

Homeland security

Interestingly, the most authoritarian attitude we have encountered so far, having sailed into Hawaii from Tahiti, is from US officials.

The question of homeland security is a burning issue with the world’s most powerful nation and we found a cruising destination dominated by the need for permits, permissions and a level of continual monitoring we have simply not found elsewhere.

Our cultural ancestry, common language etc. certainly cuts no ice with the Yanks. But there is no corruption whatsoever and, once you get used to the system, it is perfectly possible to cruise around just like anywhere else. We christened one over zealous Customs officer, based in Maui, ‘Captain America’ for his style, which was a cross between John Wayne and Elvis Presley.

Having made the comparison with the US we have, nevertheless, heard that trying to enter Russia with a privately-owned foreign yacht is a logistical nightmare, requiring months of preparation and paperwork. China is well nigh impossible but the king of all no-goes is North Korea. One criteria for even applying to enter North Korea, we have heard, is your yacht belongs to the State when it is time for you to leave. That is, if you get in in the first place.

Hints and tips

What have we ourselves learned arriving in a new foreign port of entry after calling channel 16? First and foremost, do not rely on channel 16 being answered.

But it is not the fraught experience you imagine before you set off on your world cruise. Indeed, things can be cumbersome, particularly if all of the departments you need to visit are spread well apart and you have no transport.

Despite the temptation, never rely on taxi drivers to tell you where to go, you will be ripped off. Port information is available in many published cruising guides and the worst problem you will find is recognising the sign over the door in a foreign language, to know you have found the right place.

Get the local translation before setting out to find it… best to ask is the office you have just visited and most officials love to help.

Dress reasonably smart. We all turn native when long distance cruising, anchoring in exotic sunshine locations but you are in their country and they can and do see you as a beach bum. You are not the sophisticated westerner bringing welcome civilisation to their shores. The official you are dealing with is expected to dress smartly for their job and usually their role is one of good status.

We have sometimes waited for hours whilst some pristine and irksome skipper comes along with a happy smile, shirt and tie and is out and processed before we even know it, usually with a knowing wink in our direction.

You do not need to use an agent. They are expensive and sometimes involved in any bribery process taking place. Good, reputable shipping agents abound but they are more interested in big shipping, their crews and super yachts, they charge accordingly. Much more money for the same amount of work.

If you are sailing the world on a budget then good agents are not a viable option and the cheap ones will invariably cheat you. It is much more fun doing the formalities yourselves. In almost every port there is a ‘Mr. Fix It’ and these can be invaluable providing you can spot the rogues.

Never be aggressive in demanding your rights; ranting that you will call your embassy if you do not get what you want. You will be surprised how often this happens, particularly with US yachts.

In Port Massawa, Eritrea we desperately needed diesel which we knew was in short supply because of their dire economy and the recent war. As well as ourselves there was a US yacht with paying crew on board who desired their constant air conditioning run from diesel generators. We had fuel arranged through Mike, the respected local ‘Mr Fix It’ but the US skipper demanded much more fuel than the harbourmaster was willing to issue a permit for. An aggressive argument ensued and the inevitable result was both boats got nothing. I sat at the back of the office with my head in my hands and had not said anything.

Have all of your boat documents together and in order with at least three copies of each. You will need your registration document to prove you are the owner or skipper, a full crew list with passport numbers and expiry date alongside each name, you will sometimes need your insurance document, particularly in first world countries where regulations are more sophisticated and adhered to. Most importantly, your clearance forms from your last port of call.

You will then usually be issued with some type of permit allowing your vessel to be in the country for a defined period. This is not a personal permit, passports, visas and immigration normally come beforehand. Remember your own ship’s stamp. Stamp everything they stamp. It is a meaningless ruse that works wonders.

Usually in specific order, you will see Immigration, Customs, the Harbourmaster and Quarantine. You must fly a yellow ‘Q’ flag on your flag line to the port side mast spreaders. This designates to officials on shore that you have not yet cleared in to the country and they will keep an eye on you.

The courtesy flag of the country you are entering should be flown on the starboard side and be above your own national flag. It will sometimes be noted if not and used against you if the occasion arises.

Make sure the flag is of good quality. We had a problem with a harbourmaster in Turkey because our Turkish flag was worn and battered by the wind. But the Turks are wonderful people, he purchased a new one himself from his own pocket and gave it to us.

Port of exit

Usually, once you have cleared a port of entry, you are free to cruise around locations and anchorages.

There are exceptions and differing reporting rules can be irksome and sometimes exasperating but, generally, you get used to it.

Almost always there are time limits applied to how long your vessel can be in the country before incurring import duties and taxes which usually do not coincide with personal time limits controlled by visas etc. Timing your exit is equally important and defines your cruising itinerary more than anything else, unless your round the world voyage is a whistle stop tour. A twenty eight year circumnavigation is the longest we have come across so far.

Entering a new port is an exciting experience and one you will always remember.

Every yachtie who has checked in through Ao Chalong in Pukhet, Thailand recalls the little cheating b*****d, brilliantly sophisticated in taking much more from you than is legally required. It is always ‘overtime’ a ‘public holiday’ or simply you must pay his ‘taxi’ fare home. We watched numerous skippers face him, initially refusing
to pay his demands.

Don’t try to beat him, he wins with a smile every time.

David and Marioe Ungless

Race Yachts
Jeanneau SF30 OD
NAV at Home
Cyclops Marine