19 April 2001, by Tom Waid
The infamous Mona Passage between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic is many times plagued with rough conditions but on the day we left Boqueron it was like a millpond. We perhaps had done too good of a job picking the weather. Originally it was our intention to sail to South Caicos but with such light winds we would not have been able to make it before an approaching cold front rolled over us. Motoring was out of the question because we didnít have enough fuel so we were compelled to change our plans and head for SamanŠ in the Dominican Republic.
Iíd been a bit uneasy about not having a clearance paper from U. S. Customs in Puerto Rico and now that we were going to the DR my uneasiness was growing. Normal procedure when going from one country to another is to clear out of customs before departure and get a clearance document to present to the officials of the next country. There is a notable exception, however, a U. S. registered vessel with only U. S. citizens aboard is not required to clear out when leaving the U. S. This fact did not stop the customs lady in St. Martin from insisting that I produce a clearance form when we arrived from Norfolk, Virginia despite my assertion that I didnít need one. In the end she gave in but it was the memory of this that led to my uneasiness. We even called customs in Puerto Rico to confirm that we did not have to clear out. I had visions of myself in a seedy "officina" trying to impress this upon a Dominican Customs official with my limited Spanish.
Every Island is different and this is nowhere more true than in customs procedures. There are places where the officials seem to be beyond casual about it. Last July, when traveling down island, we arrived in Deshais, Guadeloupe and dutifully reported to the customs office. In spite of the fact that it was regular office hours, no one was there. Indeed no one showed up until four days later. Convention dictates that a vessel not yet cleared in fly a yellow flag in the rigging. By the forth day there were quite a few yachts in the harbor of Deshais sporting yellow flags so when the officials finally showed up there was somewhat of a line. They passed out the forms and let us fill them out as we saw fit. Most of us filled in a departure date so that we were essentially clearing in and out with the same form. No one wanted to be stuck for days waiting for a customs official before striking out for the next port. After four days of wandering about Deshais we were finally officially in France.
In November, on our way back up the Island chain, we once again stopped at Deshais and once again found no one at the customs office. I fully expected clearing in to take days but to my astonishment, early the next morning the customs officials came out to the boat. There were three of them and they were quite friendly. When the formalities were complete they hopped aboard their inflatable boat, said their au reviors, and pushed off. Things went awry, however, when the man driving the boat tried to start the outboard. He gave the starter rope a pull after which it refused to wind back into the motor and allow another pull. The recoil spring was either stuck or broken. Since the motor didnít start on the first pull they were helpless. There they were, three guys in their "Douanes FranÁais" t-shirts sitting in a little rubber boat with foolish looks on their faces. I took the opportunity to be a nice guy and gave them a tow back to shore with our dinghy.
If the French Islands are laid-back the English speaking islands are not. To be accurate, while Iíve just been referring to customs, clearing in typically involves two separate bureaucracies, customs and immigration. On the French Islands both functions are combined on one form giving the impression that youíre dealing with a single agency. On the English speaking Islands tradition reigns and clearing in requires that you present yourself to two separate officials. Instead of the modern type of business form that automatically makes multiple copies, carbon paper is used and, many times, youíre expected to know the precise language required to answer each question.
Antigua stands out in my mind. I was handed the forms and given no instruction on how to fill them out. I did my best but when I had finished and handed them back to the official I immediately sensed that I was terribly remiss. Standing across the counter from me he held one of the forms and looked down at it with a bureaucratic grimace. After a while he looked at me for a few seconds and then, again, sighted down his nose at my work. When enough time had passed to allow for a sufficient amount of drama he once again looked up at me and said in a voice loud enough so that all those present would take notice, "This is UNACCEPTABLE!" My transgressions were many not the least of which was using two zeros to indicate the year two thousand when everyone knows that in Antigua the year is spelled completely out. (It wouldíve been unforgivable if I had created a confusion between "1900" and "2000.") In the end they, of course, had to clear us in. Itís just no fun for them unless they first put me through the wringer.
My experiences with official procedures on the different islands have been interesting and varied so, as we made progress toward the Dominican Republic, I left Linda on watch and did some research. I read the guidebook for the official information and, in addition, since we were traveling in the company of three other yachts, I talked to the other crews on the radio. Noel & Edie on Keneskoonech had previously been to the Dominican Republic and they informed me that it was customary for the customs agents to come out to your yacht. Because of their taking the trouble to do this they will expect a tip. The other crews were Chuck & Cindy on Breakaway and Don & John on Pia Mia and amongst all four crews there was considerable discussion about how much the tip should be. Pia Mia was sticking close to us since they didnít have a harbor chart of SamanŠ and needed us to lead them in. Breakaway, however, is a fast boat and was ranging out ahead so, by default Chuck & Cindy would be the first to experience the clearing in procedures and report back to the rest of us.
The Bay of SamanŠ was a dramatic place to make an entrance. Humpback whales were breaching in the shallows off the cape and the hills were covered from the shoreline to the peaks with coconut palms. The town was located in a cul-de-sac bordered by three islets strung together by a graceful arched footbridge. We found a spot next to Breakaway to set our anchor and called out across the water to each other. They had preceded us by three hours and, indeed, customs had come to their boat. The officials had been transported by one of the boat boys that offer various services to visiting yachts and all expected a tip. Cindy told us that there were three persons total and that they tipped them $2.00 (US) apiece. We set about tiding up Bellatrix and waited for the visitation from customs.
It wasnít long before we spied a beat-up skiff with three men aboard making its way toward us. As they pulled alongside we welcomed them aboard. There was the "Commandante" and the young Dominican navy lieutenant who was acting as interpreter. Then there was the boat boy, Rafael. We escorted them down the companionway to the cabin and invited them to sit around the table. I soon discovered that Iíd made a bad choice about where I sat. The radio was still on, it was tuned to the working channel, and it was out of my reach. I couldnít turn it off and we could all clearly hear Cindy on Breakaway talking to Noel on Keneskoonech, which was still a couple of hours out. She was giving him the hot skinny on the customs visitation including the two-dollar a head tip. The Commandante, who spoke no English, was oblivious and the Lieutenant seemed to ignore it but Rafael was different. Rafael understood English and behind his eyes I could see wheels turning. The proceedings took a while and this gave him time to work up his little speech. When the formalities were complete the Commandante closed his book, shook our hands, and said, "Bienvenidos a la Republica Dominicana." That was Rafaelís cue to take center stage. I wonít bore you with the details but he basically went on about all the expenses that had to be covered and that it was only fair that we pay ten dollars total, a sixty-six percent rise over what Breakaway had paid. We, of course, smiled and paid the ten dollars. No sense in annoying the Commandante. We bid them farewell as they boarded the skiff and puttered away to Pia Mia, which had followed us in.
Next was Immigration and, of course, Rafael had this all arranged. All three crews were to meet him at the dinghy dock at 4 PM and he would escort us to Immigration. We had little alternative but to do what we were told so at four oíclock we dutifully showed up at the dock and waited for Rafael. The town buzzed with hundreds of young men choking the roads with small-bore motorbikes. When Rafael appeared Linda asked him if there was a cash machine nearby. In a flash he flagged down one of the motorbikes and gave the driver some quick instructions. He then turned to Linda and told her to sit behind the driver, which she did and they disappeared in a cloud of smoke and dust, perhaps forever for all we knew.
Rafael was running the show and each one of us was like a deer in the headlights. We just let him jostle us from one place to the other. He led us to what seemed like an abandoned building where we waited for Linda to reappear. Soon enough she was back and sheíd indeed been taken to a cash machine where she took out a couple hundred Dominican Pesos less twenty for the "taxi." It seems that most the motorbike drivers were cruising for fares. Some even pulled rickshaw-like trailers that were called "motoconchos." Twenty pesos, by the way, was almost four times the going rate. When youíre new to the country youíre ripe for the picking.
We were all back together and ready for our encounter with immigration. Amazingly enough we were led into the bombed-out building. As we climbed the stairs to the second floor some of us began to make jokes about being transported to a Balkan war zone. Is this SamanŠ or is it Sarajevo? On one of the doors of the second floor there was a graffiti-like scrawl, "Immigration." On the other side of the door the office was pitch dark save for the light coming from the open door. There was one man who examined our passports, stamped them, and charged us $10.00 (US) for each person and an additional $10.00 for each boat. Charging for each person was understandable but for each boat didnít make sense since property was the realm of customs and not immigration. We were given receipts but they didnít specify the purpose of the charges. We argued a bit but got nowhere. In the end if we wanted out of that dismal place we had to cough-up the money.
We had been duped and we knew it. But it was over with so, back on the street, we asked Rafael about where we could get a beer and a bite to eat. He pointed to the Chinese Restaurant on the top of the hill. It looked lovely. We climbed the steps and found a table on the veranda that overlooked the harbor. We ordered Presidentes and as I sipped my beer it occurred to me that no official asked for a clearance form from the previous port. I was worried about nothing. Perhaps it wasnít anything they could make money with. I took another sip and looked out over the harbor and, as it glowed in the late afternoon light, I spied Keneskoonech making her entry and watched as she rounded up into the anchorage. As Noel paid out anchor rode the beat-up skiff with three men aboard pulled away from the dock and made its way to the new arrival. For Noel & Edie their adventure was just beginning.