So Are We Welcome?May 1, 2003
"Little Gidding" at anchor in Florida shortly after we arrived from the Bahamas. The yellow "Q" flag announces our arrival to US Customs.
The US Customs officer said, "You'll have to take your boat out of the country for at least fifteen days before I can issue you a cruising license." After speaking on the phone with four different Customs officers - each with his or her own version of the regulations that apply to foreign flagged pleasure boats - this wasn't exactly the response David was hoping for. We had hardly arrived back in the States and now we were being advised to leave.
The exchange took place last Friday in Hampton, Virginia. We were using the courtesy phone at the town docks to report our arrival to US Customs. Most American boaters are probably unaware of the requirements their country makes of cruisers visiting from other countries. As Canadians, upon first arriving in an American port from abroad, we have to appear in person at a US Customs office to apply for a Cruising License. It's good for a year, costs nineteen bucks, and permits us to travel from port to port anywhere in the US without paying anymore fees or filling out additional paperwork. So far, so good. Even with the cruising license in hand, however, we still have to phone the local US Customs office each time we arrive in a new port.
The US is one of few countries we've visited where we must constantly advise the officials of our movements. This isn't a new requirement, an outcome of recent national security concerns. We've been doing this for nine years now, ever since we first crossed Lake Ontario to New York state from our home port in Ontario. From our international cruising experiences, the regulations in the Bahamas, where we spent the past winter, are more typical. The Temporary Cruising Permit we received upon entering the Bahamas last December was good for a year and allowed us to cruise anywhere we wanted in the country, no strings attached. In fact, of the twenty-odd countries we've visited in the Caribbean over the past few years, the only one with more rigorous reporting requirements than the US is Cuba. There it seems that half the work force is employed monitoring the movements of citizens and foreigners alike.
Other than having to find a phone and track down the right number to call (the US Customs phone numbers seem to be in constant flux), the American reporting requirements have been a mild inconvenience, but never a major problem. That is, not until now. When we arrived in Ft. Pierce, Florida, from the Bahamas earlier in April, the cruising license we had received the previous spring was still valid - it doesn't expire until later this month. We phoned the local Customs officer, as required, and were advised we should renew the license at a port with a Customs office sometime before the license expired. We thought, "No problem, in a couple of weeks we'll be passing right through the centre of Norfolk, one of the busiest ports in the nation. They'll have customs officers galore there."
We phoned Norfolk Customs when we got to Great Bridge, Virginia, twelve miles away on the Intracoastal Waterway. Much to our surprise, the Customs officer advised us that we couldn't renew our license until after it expired, which posed a problem for us since we planned to have the boat in a boatyard far from any Customs offices at the date of expiration. Before we could delve further into this quandary, the prepaid phone card ran out of time and we had to get another card. When we phoned back, we reached a different officer. Repeating our story, she exclaimed, "You're cruising illegally! Your license became invalid when you left the US for the Bahamas last December. You must leave the country immediately for a minimum of fifteen days and then apply for a new license."
Now it just so happens that Tropical Storm Anna was kicking up a fuss out in the mid-Atlantic as we were having this phone conversation, so the last thing we wanted to do was go for a fifteen day cruise out in the open ocean. The officer suggested we call back the next day and talk to one of her superiors about our options. That's what led to our phone call in Hampton last Friday. This time the officer David contacted told us our license was valid, but couldn't be renewed until we had taken the boat out of the country for a minimum of fifteen days AFTER the expiration date. David explained, "We've just been out of the country for four months, doesn't that count? This is the first time we've ever encountered this problem." Apparently procedures had changed and the officer was just doing his job.
Whew, we're confused! To sum up, one Customs officer has told us we can renew our license, no problem; another has directed us to leave the country immediately; and a third has advised us that we can stay for now, but will have to leave in a few weeks in order to get a new license. What to do? We decided to go further up the chain of command for a definitive answer. We sent a fax outlining our situation to Richard E. Greene, the Acting Assistant Commissioner at the US Customs Office of Public Affairs. That was four days ago. Now we're in a boatyard near the mouth of the Potomac River. The response from Washington, ninety miles upstream, hasn't drifted down to us yet.
So, are we welcome, Mr. Greene? Stay tuned.