Clearing in under the JuJu Tree
For those non-sailors reading this, when sailing from one foreign country to another, the boat and its crew has to “clear in” with immigration and customs, similar to when flying into Dulles from Heathrow. We also have to provide information like ship’s papers and occasionally departure documentation from the last country visited. This process varies by country and even by port of entry. Some countries, like the BVIs, only require the captain to visit the immigration and customs offices. Other countries will want to visit the boat, and still other countries want the captain and all the crew to visit the offices.
When sailing into a new country the newly arriving ship must also fly the “Q” flag which is a simple yellow flag designating quarantine. Crew and captain may only disembark the vessel for the purposes of clearing in. It is illegal to visit a store, bar or another other point on land until the clearing in process is completed. Boats are subject to search, and bringing things like fruits, vegetables, meats, more than a couple bottle of beer, wine and liquor is expressly forbidden. One can get in big trouble by breaking the rules.
As each country has its own processes and protocols, there are guidebooks and online resources available to help navigate these processes. Clearing back into a U.S. port (USVI, Puerto Rico), one can wear shorts, flip-flops and t-shirts. The guidebooks advised that when clearing into the Bahamas to get cleaned up, put on a collared shirt, no shorts and to wear closed toe shoes. The Bahamas was once part of Great Britain, so I guess that accounts for the formality.
Patty and I fretted about our outfits. We also were glad to see that in the Bahamas the visitor typically has to go to the officials in instead of the other way around. We had a refrigerator full of fruits and veggies, a freezer full of newly procured meats and a bilge full of beer and wine. Provisions are cheaper on Puerto Rico!
On the evening of Sunday, January 22rd, we sailed into Matthew Town on the island of Great Inagua after a three day passage from Puerto Real, PR. Great Inagua is the southern most island of the Bahamas chain, and does not receive many sailors. The island is known for two things, pink flamingos and salt. Morton salt produces salt from vast salt ponds on the island. It’s ideal for this as it is very dry on Great Inagua.
We dropped and set the anchor and went to bed. It was a rolly anchorage, so in the morning we moved closer to the town harbor and then after making contact with the harbor master, secured a berth in the very small harbor. Our intention was to take showers, put on clothes we hadn’t worn in many months and go visit immigration and customs. Patty cleaned up first and put on her finest. She looked great. I hadn’t cleaned up yet when Immigration and then Customs came to the boat. They had seen the Q flag and took it upon themselves to come to us instead of vice versa.
CRAP! We’re going to get boarded. They’re going to look in the fridge and freezer. They’re going to take my IPAs and Patty’s wine. As captain, I’m going to get thrown in jail, fined and Lyric confiscated. Man oh man have I messed up this time.
As for the collared shirt, long pants and closed toe shoes, forget about it. I looked worse than usual, was all sweaty and smelled like a…sailor. The officials were very nice and not at all troubled by my appearance. They were quite gracious. They took our papers and said they would be back. They never asked to come onboard, never asked about fruits and veggies and, thankfully, if I had any really good IPA in my bilge.
Immigration granted us entrance, but the Customs system was down, so they said we were free to go about the island and that they would come back later in the day to complete the process. I’m thinking, “I might just might get away with it. I might just might get to keep my naval oranges and IPA.” I sort of considered myself a buccaneer, a pirate.
After a bit, I jumped on my bike (we have folding bikes) and took a ride around town. After exploring for a while, I happened on the Customs and Immigration offices about 1 km down the road. It was a cinderblock building that looked like a small shopping center. There was a liquor store in between the two offices. As it was 2:30 in the afternoon and hot, I went into the liquor store and bought a local Bahamian beer called Kalik, and then went outside and sat down on a cinderblock.
About this time Vince, one of the 913 people on the island, rolled up in his truck, got out, said hello and went into the liquor store. He came out with three beers. We commenced to have a very delightful conversation. He told me, “You will not have one beer, mon, you’ll have three.” He educated me on the JuJu tree that we were sitting under. He picked some of its fruit and handed me the large berries. They were really good, tart like a key lime. As I finished my beer, he opened his other two beers and gave me one. The beer was tasting good.
At around 3:00 one of the Customs officers came out of his office, saw me and said, “I was just coming to see, you but we can complete the process here.” Customs requires a fee of $40. I had a $50 bill. I gave Robert, the Customs officer, the $50 bill. “I’ll get change,” and he walked into the liquor store. As both my 2nd beer and Vince’s 2nd beer were getting low I thought I’d put that $10 change to good use. That’s when the Immigration officer George came out of his office. I asked Robert if he was still working. He shrugged. I bought five beers as another customs office took a seat under the JuJu tree too.
Soon we were five happy guys having spirited discussions about the NFL and fishing. George is a Steelers fan, so we agreed to disagree. Robert likes the Dolphins, but his favorite quarterback is Patrick Mahomes. Vince likes college football better and doesn’t think Stetson Bennett will make it in the NFL. We all agreed the days of the pocket passer are over. The fishing is suppose to be good, “Down dare off de point by de picnic table.” They told me poking a Mahi Mahi behind the eye with a skewer is NOT the way to kill a fish.
A white Ford Ranger with RBDF (Royal Bahama Defense Force) emblazoned on this side kept driving up and down the road real fast on an island that operates on 1/2 time. Vince observed that, “Da new captain like to whip up and down da road like he own it.” Robert agreed and offered that, “Da old captain take 2 hours ta drive da same distance.”
It was a delightful couple hours sitting on cinder blocks and sipping beer under the JuJu tree with my new friends.
As this here buccaneer rode his bike back to the boat, one by one they all drove by giving a friendly honk of the horn and wave out the window. I had just cleared in under the JuJu tree.