To explore both the United States and British Virgin Islands by charter, be prepared to learn a whole new system of navigation:Threading the bureaucratic shoals of American and BVI customs.
These days, “No problem, mon,” is a phrase you are unlikely to hear in the customs houses on either side. Like so much else after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, cruising across international borders — even in a seemingly laid-back paradise like the Virgin Islands — isn’t what it used to be: Both the U.S. and BVI entry procedures have become more stringent, expensive and serious.
My wife, Julia, and I learned to deal with the customs process in late October when we left our home in Washington, D.C., and chartered a 32-foot sailboat out of the British Virgin Islands. We entered the U.S. Virgin Islands to sail around St. John for several days. We then returned to the British Virgin Islands for several more days before turning in the boat at Road Town, in Tortola.
We found that sailing across the border and back, legally, was fairly easy — but it definitely took extra time and money, and requires careful attention to different sets of rules.
One thing we discovered: “Crossing over” isn’t worth the effort unless you’re down there for at least a couple weeks. If your charter is for only for the standard seven days — especially during the crowded high season of winter — choose one side or the other, and stay there. We had 10 days, and ended up planning our trip around U.S. and BVI customs rules.
Dangerous games on the border
Among the many charms of the Virgin Islands is the proximity of the ever-popular St. John, on the U.S. side, to the famous BVI beaches and bars on Jost Van Dyke and Norman Island. They are not just visible, but seductively close to each other. The temptation can be great to steal a quick and easy — if illegal — visit to the playgrounds on the other side.
But this is a dangerous game. BVI authorities monitor recreational boating activity in its waters. An obvious (and fairly easy) target is boaters who enter from the USVI without first clearing in through one of the nearby BVI ports of entry: Road Harbour, Tortola; Sopers Hole, on the West End of Tortola; and Great Harbour, Jost Van Dyke. (There also is a port of entry in the eastern BVIs, at Virgin Gorda).
One such case involves a USVI powerboat busted in December 2007 by BVI marine patrol at The Bight on Norman Island, where the Americans entered illegally for drinks at the infamous Willie-T boat bar. The police and pleasure boats collided during the arrest, injuring a couple Americans (one young woman received 300 stitches in her face). Those not hospitalized were jailed, and all six on board were later convicted and fined for illegal entry.
They were arrested because BVI police had simply watched the boat (appropriately named Guilt Trip) leave Watermelon Cay on St. John in the USVI and head to Norman Island without clearing in.
The American side has smuggling problems as well, plus the additional threat of terrorists possibly infiltrating through small and lightly guarded ports such as Cruz Bay on St. John.
Trying to sneak across the border can be very expensive both for boaters and for charter firms. The charter firm risks loss of the boat to government seizure, while the charter customer (having broken a highly specific clause in the charter contract) automatically loses insurance coverage and becomes personally liable for all subsequent costs — including the replacement cost of the boat.
BVI Yacht Charters (www.bviyachtcharters.com), which we used on our trip, was blunt about this. “If you are going to the USVI, it is mandatory that you clear out of the BVI, clear into the USVI and do the same on return,” they e-mailed us. “Failure to do so may result in confiscation of the vessel, a large fine, and they may even decide to put you in jail. The U.S. and BVI customs have made this VERY clear.”
Both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands have very similar rules — reporting (or “clearing”) out of one country as you leave and reporting into the other as you arrive — but they differ in some important ways.
We spent a lot of effort trying to clarify what, exactly, those differences were. While we had little trouble with customs on our trip, we did waste some money trying to follow the rules. We never did resolve the confusion.
Clearing out of BVI Customs
Entering or leaving, only the captain of the vessel is required to report in person to BVI customs, and must bring the boat’s papers (charter contract, boat registration, BVI cruising and national park certificates), as well as the passports for the entire crew.
The tiny BVI customs office at Jost Van Dyke and the larger office at Sopers Hole on the West End of Tortola are considered easier to clear through than the main customs office at Road Town, the capital of the BVIs. It’s a good idea to moor close enough to the customs office that they can see your boat if they want to, but don’t tie up to the customs dock, as that space is reserved for commercial, ferry or government boats; dinghy in instead.
We picked up our charter boat — a 32-foot Beneteau monohull sloop — in Road Town and crossed over three days later, clearing out at Sopers Hole early in the morning and then sailing to Cruz Bay at St. John to clear into the USVI. At Sopers, we tied up to one of the commercial docks south of the blue BVI Customs building. While my wife reprovisioned the boat, I went over to customs to clear out (the small floating dinghy dock, well to the right of the customs building, is easy to miss). A door at the dock is clearly labeled “Yacht Clearance.”
The procedure went quickly, as I was their only customer. A pleasant young customs officer gave me a long form where I was to report boat and crew information; it took between five and 10 minutes to fill out. I was then directed to another office to pay the $1.50 exit fee, and finally returned to the main office where an older and more experienced customs officer closely examined the passports for the proper entry stamps. I was out the door in only 15 minutes.
The two main ports of entry for cruisers in the USVI are in Charlotte Amalie at St. Thomas (not recommended because of its size, volume of visitors, and delays), and Cruz Bay at St. John. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is located in a small, one-story, yellow building on the north part of the tiny Cruz Bay harbor, just below the National Park Service center.
It’s a good idea to keep your boat out of Cruz Bay harbor, as it’s small, the CBP dock is short and the ferry traffic is heavy. All the mooring buoys in Cruz Bay are private, and you will struggle to find anchoring room. Instead, cruisers should take a National Park mooring in Caneel Bay (around Lind Point), dinghy to the ferry terminal dock, and walk over to the U.S. customs office.
Be aware that commercial dive boats visiting the BVIs frequently return their customers to Cruz Bay late in the afternoon, which adds to the crush of traffic through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office. Clearing in at Cruz Bay typically goes faster earlier in the day.
U.S. paperwork is much the same as in the BVIs: Fill out a long form about the boat and the passengers. For this, you will need your charter contract, boat registration and passports, along with the BVI paperwork documenting that you properly cleared out. One big difference: While re-entering the United States, all members of the crew must appear in person, not just the captain. Also, the U.S. allows you to clear out the same time you clear in — just report your expected date of departure on the form and you’re saved the trouble of another visit to customs.
As in the BVI, the entry fee is $10 per vessel; there is an extra fee ($30) if you come through on the weekend.
Although the BVIs have a reputation for red tape, it was U.S. immigration procedures that wasted some of our money. The CBP Web site (www.cbp.gov ) declares that a “CBP User Fee Decal” must be purchased and affixed to all recreational boats 30 feet or longer entering U.S. waters. Our charter firm had never heard about this, but I dutifully bought one anyway before the trip and took it along. Sure enough, the CBP office at Cruz Bay never asked about it. My wasted $27.50 decal stayed in the envelope.
Perhaps the biggest regulatory confusion involves prohibited food products. In the BVIs, because of concerns about Hoof-and-Mouth and Mad Cow disease, boaters are not allowed to bring in meat products. U.S. CBP rules prohibit the importation of any fresh fruits or vegetables in an effort to keep out agricultural diseases.
Re-entering the BVIs
Four days later, when we were done exploring the coast of St. John, we returned to the BVIs, clearing in at Great Harbour on Jost Van Dyke. We arrived at 1 p.m., just after the immigration officer had left for lunch, and were told to return in an hour.
Wandering back two hours later, after a delightful visit to Foxy’s beach bar, we discovered the officer was still at lunch. Luckily, the attractive young assistant clerk had a visitor who turned out to be an off-duty customs officer. The off-duty officer jumped in and handled the paperwork quickly, working from the BVI exit form we had been given at Sopers Hole. Our boat papers and passports were examined again, a $10 entry fee paid, and we were done.
The wild card entering the BVIs, especially in high season, is whether you have the bad luck to arrive behind a cruise boat or ferry, because the captain will be carrying the passports for all tourists on board. If that happens, be prepared to spend some island time waiting.
One point that should be obvious, but all too often is not: Be sensitive to the racial and cultural differences that exist between local residents and most tourists. BVI is a very small country and its economy is totally dependant on tourism. Plus, the history of the islands — St. John was the center of the barbaric Caribbean slave trade and the scene of a horrifically bloody slave rebellion in the 1700s — is not abstract for the majority of the people who live here.
Not surprisingly, its citizens tend to be wary of tourists because of past encounters with people who were arrogant, rude or thoughtless. You will do yourself a favor by being polite, presentable, and respectful when you go through BVI customs.
This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.