US Virgin Islands – Part 1 – The Customs Tango…..

April 14th-15th, 2014 (-4 on UTC)

Dear F&F,
So this is the \”get it out of my system\” blog! it will be replaced tomorrow by the \”fun part\” of the USVI.
Some of you may be bored, some may laugh….I hope the later. If it\’s not your cup of tea, skip it and wait till tomorrow\’s blog…:-)

I\’ve always had the thesis that the \”bigger the country\”, the less headache we run into with customs and immigration. Up till now, it\’s been absolutely true as it was in New Zealand and Australia. Needless to say, our \”arrival\” at Cruz Bay, St. John\’s (US Territory) blew that assumption out the window.

We departed Jost Van Dyke in the BVI having had a great time; most especially at the Soggy Dollar Bar!…:-)
The customs check out included the usual \”jobsworth\” who fortunately was issuing his wrath to the three charter boats and not me. Despite that, watching him in action was less than pleasant.

We took a circuitous route to Cruz Bay, St. John\’s (USVI) as it would only be a few hour trip between the two islands. We motored by a few of the smaller islands like Great Thatch and Little Thatch (supposedly named after the famous pirate \”Blackbeard\” where he would jump out unexpectedly on his hapless victims). We arrived at Cruz Bay, St. John\’s – dropped anchor and hoisted the USVI courtesy flag. Yes, despite being a US Territory, the USVI has it\’s own flag. Soon we were to find out, in at least a euphemistic way, \”Blackbeard\” was about to jump out yet again. This time from behind his desk – on to us..the hapless victims!…:-) Alright, alright, I\’m being dramatic….:-)

We took the very short dinghy ride to the US Customs dock and presented ourselves as usual. Here I was, all prideful of my first US landfall in 6 years and how smoothly our arrival would be. The cubicles looked just like the ones you see at an airport as these guys have to check in \”international passengers\” from the BVI. The difficulty came when they asked Nikki if she had an \”ESTA\”? \”Yes she did we told them\”. They confirmed this on their computer. An \”ESTA\” is the US Visa waiver program\’s short hand name. The ESTA is given to nationals of friendly nations, most especially those with British, Aussie and NZ passports. For Canadians, it\’s even easier. It was designed to allow citizens from the UK (for example) to enter the USA without having to go through a lengthy visa process; especially those passing through en route to another country. A US Visa is required for instance to simply \”pass through\” a US International Airport – EVEN IF IT IS NOT YOUR FINAL DESTINATION and you are staying only an hour or two in transit. It mandates that the person using it is not living in the United States and will be \”in country\” less than 90 days per stay – it\’s good for two years and renewable. Here\’s where we got into a fuss. The \”small print\” (you know, the stuff on your credit card and mortgage statements?) says that: \”The original entry by the holder in any 90 day period must be on a COMMERCIAL CARRIER\”. Ummm! Why this matters has so many holes in it that I won\’t waste the several paragraphs it would take. The essence of it is: \”If the alien is subject to deportation, the commercial carrier will be responsible to insure the persons removal at their cost\”.

First, \”Beach House\” (despite my having a commercial license and the vessel is approved for commercial service) is not considered a commercial carrier.
Second, if Nikki were to fly to Des Moines, Iowa and it was determined that she should be deported…what are they going to do? Fly her back to the USVI and send her out out to the BVI on a Commercial Ferry? Well…yes we were told. In addition, as she attempted to enter the country \”illegally\”, they were supposed to pull her \”ESTA\” and she would have to apply for a Visa at a US Consulate in Puerto Rico or Barbados! The revocation would be permanent. Okay, bureaucratic nonsense is NOT my strong suit. As such, I did become a bit frustrated, but essentially only wanted to ask some questions to see how we could work around this issue most expeditiously.

I asked if we could put Nikki on the next Ferry back to the BVI (only an hour) and have her clear in and out, returning on the Ferry (Commercial carrier). \”Nope\”, was the answer, I had to take her back, then send her on the Ferry, bring the boat to the Customs Dock and clear in. She could then join me.

I\’ll jump ahead….
We learned in Puerto Rico from US Customs that these guys have a reputation as being (I\’ll be polite)…hard nosed. And that there were two easy work around\’s.
First, she should have been able to do as I suggested above take the Ferry to the BVI and back and second, she could have been issued what is known as a \”pardon\”. This would enable her to do either of the above; round trip on the Ferry or have me bring her back and place her on the return Ferry without all the fuss.

Well, my frustration and questions put the chap off and he then issued me (not Nikki) a paper instructing me to have the attempted entry of the person mentioned \”removed\” from the USVI immediately. I told him that of course we would follow his rules, but to no avail, the \”official document\” was to be signed and executed immediately. This all had a bit of a \”Big Brother\” feel to it, don\’t ya\’ know. So much for the bigger the country and customs rule thesis goes!

As such, we upped anchor and went back to the BVI where we rechecked in and out. Which of course had fees! The Customs gal there (who was the nicest one in the BVI at Soper\’s Hole) told me this wasn\’t the first time this had happened and of course we wondered why:

A) The BVI customs folks did not warn us of this potential issue and B) Why the US Customs service doesn\’t put a pamphlet at the BVI offices to prevent this situation from happening. But alas, I\’m a thinker.

To keep this tale reasonable in length – we returned to Soper\’s Hole, BVI. Nikki went the 9 miles back on the Ferry the next morning and I took \”Beach House\” over by myself. Nikki had no problem entering at the Ferry terminal and all was well. You of course see the importance of Nikki having to arrive by \”commercial carrier\” by now, right? The good news\’s only the \”initial entry\” that must be on a commercial carrier in any 90 day period and that we have till July 12th for Nikki to enter in Florida BEFORE the commercial carrier rule would then go back into effect…..WHEW!…. Who knew?

Okay, I\’ve got that out of my system and friends behind us beware! If your crew is not all US Citizens, watch out for \”Blackbeard\”…:-)

Our next \’Ships Blog\’ will be about the rest of our time in the USVI, much of which was delightful.
Scott and Nikki