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 Why Customs is Wrong and.. How does Australia Compare with other countries?

 From TCP # 24: In edition # 23 of The Coastal Passage I published the accounts of three sailing boats entering Australia and the difficulties they had with Australian customs. The first letter to arrive was from John Hayward concerning his friends Bram and Magda of the Dutch boat “Saluut”. It was hard to believe. If it wasn't for the corroborating accounts I may have dismissed it as exaggeration. When I did investigate I found much similar detail between the accounts. The worst of it was discovering the plight of Jim and Dorothy Manzari. These people had been warned of the difficulties with Australian Customs but had faith in the notion that if they were very careful to follow the procedures (however irrational they might be) to the letter they would have to be OK. And now they find themselves branded as criminals, a state of affairs they will not accept. How could something like this occur in my country? Where did all this come from? Why hadn't I heard of this? And many more questions.

What I have found is legislation that seems unclear and then the enforcement is handed to an agency that has suffered a serious decline in international reputation typified by their "Integrated Cargo System” debacle that recently caused Australian ports to seize. (and at a reported cost blow out of $200 million!). Domestically there is the documented decline in professionalism and overreaching of jurisdiction. (see; “Dangerous Customs, TCP web site under “issues”) In short, Customs are interfering with domestic craft and a foreign flagged vessel entering Australia is taking a real crap shoot. Do you feel lucky?

Lets start at the beginning and ask why the legislation in the first place? Reacting to, or capitalising on fear, this is all under the heading of “Border Protection Policy” which sounds good except in spite of much research I have not found an example or suggestion of there ever having been a threat to Australia or anywhere else via yacht. But for the sake of argument let's say there may be suicide Beneteau bomber out there somewhere. If any one would have had to deal with such a threat I imagine that would be someplace like Israel. Except for their relatively large coast line, they are literally surrounded by hostile nations dedicated to their destruction. So what is their entry policy for yachts? Give a hoy on your VHF as soon as you are in range thanks. Most boats report that they are met at about 40 miles off by a patrol craft anyway. And what of the post 9/11 US customs entry policy? Upon arrival please report to the nearest customs office, that's it. The only country that has anything remotely similar to Australia's policy is New Zealand and they seem to have a relaxed enforcement attitude. I called myself and asked and I was told that as long as you give an estimate of arrival at least 48 hours in advance (no maximum period as in Australia) via fax from your last port and call with VHF when in range you are OK. In fact in all the searching I've done, no country on earth is as dangerous to enter by yacht as Australia. Hey! We're number one!

Why no notice of this new policy? No press releases? I was shocked that I had not heard of the policy prior to the first conviction reports. I have yet to talk to anyone who found out about this through what one would consider a “normal channel.” Even the government friendly press were mute on this. I saw ads from customs extolling the virtue of dobbing in anything you see that is suspicious while out on the water but not one mention of this radical change to customs enforcement.

Why so harsh? Thousands of dollars and a criminal record for this minor infringement? This does not appear to be meant to educate and persuade as much dissuade people from the cruising lifestyle.


“Border Protection Policy” as it applies to pleasure craft appears to be a sham. In spite of considerable time spent in search, I can find no evidence or even suggestion that yachts deserve the attention that they now “enjoy”. If ever there is a serious threat to our shores it is most likely a yacht that will make the first report... providing the yacht is inclined.

Why does customs work so hard at image control? It’s easy to get the impression that Australian Customs spends an inordinate amount of time and resource in message control, even to minutia degree. It is obvious (in my opinion) from a thorough web surf that Customs commits a large effort to it’s web presence and search engine placement. And be wary of trusting their web site for information as it seems to change often; perhaps in response to publicity? A whole page of information that I pointed out in last edition (”information for ships masters”) that contradicted what customs had been stating in public and in court, has simply been removed from the site for “travellers” and other small but important details change from time to time. I also advise caution in taking the terms they use at face value, like “Border Protection policy”, Remember the “Iron Curtain” or the “Berlin Wall”? Well to East Germans it was the “Anti-Imperialist Protection Wall”. Have a familiar ring to it?

Customs officials at risk... Customs officers that cause harm in violation of law may be held personally responsible for those damages. Just because superiors order a thing to be done and assure it is law is not necessarily protection.

Pariah State? Us?? Australia?? How can this be?! But it is true already. Reports have been coming in for months, even before the latest outrage. Some Australian cruisers are leaving their boats in foreign ports and flying home for a visit or business. Many foreign flagged vessels are by-passing Australia in favour of countries like Indonesia where it is considered “safer” than here.

What of the boating industry? The last few years have been good but there may be storm clouds on the horizon. For those that remember the controversy in New Zealand a few years ago, it was industry pressure and a brave yank that took it to court to overturn a law there that saved the day. (New Zealand passed law that required safety equipment on departing yachts that was at odds with international law and common practise.)
How attracted are people going to be to cruising when Customs states they can “board any vessel, anywhere, anytime”.
Might be bad for business.

Questions, questions, and few satisfactory answers... My mind keeps returning to a brilliant quote from the book “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand that one of the first victims of all this, American Yacht “Sochatoa”, had in their report last issue...

“Did you really think that we want those laws to be observed?... We want them broken... We're after power and we mean it... There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What's there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted - and you create a nation of law-breakers - and then you cash in on guilt."

 Entry standards as posted on cruising web sites. These examples have been edited for brevity and should be sufficient for comparison but for more complete information refer to the countries in question or

Russia: Get a visa in advance and contact by radio upon approach. Next port requires 3 day notice and 1 day (24 hour notice) is required for departure.

USA: You should notify customs immediately upon arrival at a clearance port. Formal clearance required within 24 hours at INS office after arrival. There is a 96 hour requirement for notification from ships over 300 tons but this does not apply to “non commercial pleasure vessels.”

UK: “On arrival in a place where there is a customs house, the captain must notify customs in person or by telephone. Notification must be made within two hours of arrival, unless arriving between 2300 and 0600, when arrival need not be notified until 0800 the following morning…” EU residents need not make formal entry.

Portugal: Use port of entry and clear in upon arrival.

Canada: Use port of entry and clear in upon arrival.

Croatia; Use port of entry and wait till customs come to you. (marina or harbour staff usually take care of notification) If no one shows up for a period of time, report to nearest police with passports.

Cuba: As soon as Cuban territorial waters are entered 12 miles off the Cuban coast a yacht must contact the port authorities or coastguard (Guarda Frontera) on VHF Channel 16 or HF 2128KHz.

Israel: From 40 miles off the coast, a position report with the yacht details and ETA should be sent via VHF radio to the Israeli Navy.

Philippines: Yachts, especially those with animals on board, are expected to contact the quarantine medical officer 24 hours before arrival, but this is often waived as impractical provided the yacht proceeds to an official port of entry.

Mexico: On arrival in Mexico, yachts must go to the nearest port of entry, with the Q and courtesy flags flying.

Sri Lanka: On arrival in a Sri Lankan port, the captain should report to the harbour master, or report to the nearest customs officer or police station immediately.

India: Enter any major port, when approximately 10 miles offshore, you should call first Coast Guard on Channel 16 and then port control on Channels 16 or 12. Various details will be asked including an ETA. Once at the port entrance, permission to enter must be requested. Port control will advise where to moor.

Norway: Yachts from Nordic countries do not need to make a customs declaration provided they are not carrying an excess of dutiable stores and equipment and do not remain in Norwegian waters more than six months. Yachts from other countries should report immediately on arrival at a port of entry. Customs clearance is not strictly necessary if one has nothing to declare, but is recommended.