Clearing Customs and Immigration, as a Cruiser


Over the years, Phyllis and I have cleared Customs and Immigration at the end of a voyage scores of times in at least 20 different countries. And almost all of those experiences have been pleasant and as stress free as dealing with authority in a country that is not our own ever is.

In some memorable cases, after the business was done, the officer(s) have even taken a moment to have a welcoming chat full of useful information and tips, or even just friendly human interaction, thereby turning a chore into a pleasure.

But on a few occasions, a very few, we have been unlucky and drawn an official who clearly enjoys wielding his or her—sadly for my gender, far more often him than her—power to intimidate and frighten. We have all met these types, and every law enforcement organization, no matter how well run and regulated, has them.

However, while we have certainly been irritated by this, we have never been truly frightened. Why not? Three reasons:

  1. We are always careful to make sure we have not contravened the laws, particularly those that relate to weapons and drugs, of the country we are entering.
  2. We are scrupulous about making sure we have the right entry papers, including visas if required.

The above two rules are just common sense and frankly I have little sympathy for cruisers who run afoul of Customs or Immigration as a result of breaking them.

Number three is less obvious, but perhaps the most important reason we have never felt truly scared when clearing in:

3. We have always limited our cruising to countries that have a strong rule of law. Countries where, even if nasty and arbitrary behaviour on the part of an official results in us being upset and inconvenienced, we know that eventually the law will protect us as long as we have not broken it.

But things are changing. Even in countries that were bastions of fairness and rule of law, elected leaders, and those with a good chance of becoming leaders in soon-to-come elections, are spewing hate. And some leaders are trampling the rule of law by issuing decrees without deference to the elected legislature.

And, worst of all, we are seeing a complete departure from the facts in the rantings of these leaders, including:

  • Blaming developing countries for the end of good manufacturing jobs when anyone who does a bit of basic research can clearly see that much (probably most) of this trend is caused by automation.
  • Blaming entire populations for the terrorist actions of a very few individuals, most of whom did not even come from the same countries.

I’m sickened by watching this. And as a person interested in history, particularly that of the 20th century, I am truly terrified by the similarities in this behaviour, by these new and aspiring leaders, to behaviour that preceded past horrors.

Sure, many of the countries that are experiencing this assault on rationality and the rule of law have strong democratic institutions that will, I think and hope, ultimately prevent the emergence of authoritarian regimes like those of the first part of the last century, and the ethnic genocides that they perpetrated.

But even so, Phyllis and I are still very worried. Why? All populations have a very small percentage of dangerous people. Even Norway, one of the most civilized societies in the world, a country we lived in for nearly three years and love, had a deranged and dangerous man lurking in the shadows…until he wasn’t lurking anymore. Closer to home, in recent years, we here in Canada have found out the hard way that our country harbours this kind of person too.

And when leaders who hold high offices spew lies and hate, these angry people are encouraged and enabled. And when entire countries and regions are blamed for crimes committed by a few deranged individuals, even the semi-rational in those countries can be radicalized.

We Cruisers Will Suffer

At this point many of you are thinking that I’m out of line to bring this up. After all, you come here to read about cruising, not terrifying trends in society.

And many of you are thinking that I’m completely off topic. But I’m not. In fact, although these trends should be of huge concern to all, they are particularly threatening to we who cruise the world, or aspire to do so, or even to the coastal cruiser.

You see, we cruisers stand out from the general population with our strange lifestyle and way of traveling, much like foreigners or internal ethnic populations do, so when bad people are enabled by the demagogues, we will be among the vulnerable:

Vulnerable to the bad-apple Immigration officer whose worst instincts are encouraged by arbitrary orders and rhetoric from on high. For in places where people with perfectly valid documents, including visas, are being turned away simply because of where they were born, we can never be sure that we won’t be similarly singled out for some arbitrary reason. Perhaps just because we have chosen to live a different lifestyle. Or because we look a bit tired and scruffy after a tough voyage.

Vulnerable when countries singled out for unfair restrictions on their people retaliate with their own arbitrary regulations bred of resentment—a spiral downward that will end badly for all.

And vulnerable as a tempting target for the radicalized I wrote about above.

What We Must Do

So what can we do? Simple:

  • Speak out, just as I’m doing.
  • Correct lies whenever we hear them.

We all have a responsibility, regardless of our political affiliation or nationality, to protect and promote the facts and the rule of law. And that goes double for people like me who have an audience, albeit it a tiny one in the greater scope of things.

That said, those of us who live in countries that have not yet succumbed to this trend need to speak out with humility and without judging or thinking that we are somehow better or more rational than the populations of countries already started down this bad road.

For I firmly believe that all peoples are capable of heinous behaviour when incited by lies and hate. Just two days ago I listened to some frightening rubbish being spewed by a candidate with a chance of winning the leadership of one of Canada’s major political parties. Bad stuff can happen anywhere…if we let it.

No Simple Answers

One more thing. For those interested, my opinions on the underlying issues that have spawned these dangerous trends are complex and nuanced. For example:

  1. Although I generally believe in free (or at least lightly regulated) trade, I do understand that it has not been a clear win for all and that we need to care for those who suffer from the fall-out of globalization and automation.
  2. While I believe that more fortunate countries should help refugees from war, I also have huge sympathy for countries, particularly in Europe, that are struggling with the challenges imposed by the influx of millions of refugees.
  3. While I believe that the biggest challenge facing much of the world, and the root of many other problems, is the obscene wealth disparity between the uber-rich and the rest, and that the only solution is innovative tax reform, I’m no socialist and, in fact, have a strong belief in capitalism.

My point is that, although you certainly don’t have to agree with me on the above three areas, blindly following one ideology (usually simplistic) at the exclusion of all others is a huge mistake that doesn’t solve problems, and further, is one of the reasons that civilized discussion seems so rare these days.


Talking of civilized discussion, obviously this is a contentious subject, but you will notice that in tackling it I have been careful not to break any of our comment guidelines. And most specifically, while I aggressively attacked bad behaviour, I did not attack individuals or countries.

So by all means stand up and be counted in the comments, but please, no mention of specific leaders, political parties, religions, or countries, and above all, no denigration of anyone else’s opinions. Disagreement is fine, denigration is not.

And before commenting, please read what I wrote carefully and don’t put words in my mouth that I never said and then argue against them.

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John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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