Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Crazy Customs Fines will have a negative effect on the yachting sector.

In recent weeks some of the yachts clearing into the port of Jolly Harbour have received huge fines due to technicalities which in normal circumstances would have been overlooked by rational thinking customs agents. I'm sure there are more but I only know of the ones I will mention here.
I guess I should first explain the law that is being used to give the fines. It has to do with coming off the yacht before "clearing in". The ancient customs law states that all crew and passengers must remain "in the vicinity" of the vessel until the Master (captain) has cleared the vessel into the country. It goes on to say that if the crew or passengers need food or drink that the master can leave the vessel to obtain these things and return to the boat. It says that in times of "stress" and or for health reasons others may be permitted to leave the vessel. In all other circumstances the Master, Crew and Passengers must remain "in the vicinity of the vessel".

Anyway, recently a locally registered Luxury yacht was entering the country after leaving on a private charter from St. Martin and arrived at the customs dock in Jolly after the three agencies had left for the day. Immigration, Customs and The Port Authority usually close in Jolly Harbour at 6 pm but sometime this summer they had shortened the hours until 4:30 pm. By the way, there is another law that says that a vessel must not come to dock up after 6pm. Once on the dock the lady chartering the vessel went for a walk.
In the morning customs arrived and told the skipper that she had learned that the passenger had left the customs dock and that this was an offence which meant that the vessel would not be cleared in until the Comptroller of Customs had dealt with the situation.
In the end a fine of EC $5000 was levied. The skipper of this Antiguan registered vessel could have chosen to fight the fine in the courts but knew that the boat would be out of operation crippling his company until it had been resolved. He paid the fine after loosing nearly a week of trade.
The second situation I know first hand since the boat in question was mine and the Master in question was yours truly. The even happened almost exactly the same as the one just mentioned except we walked 45 feet over to the Al Porto Pizza for dinner after arriving on the customs dock at 5:45 pm on a Wednesday evening. My wife had gone just down from the customs dock to use the bathroom. I figured these things were so insignificant since we were on their dock that I truthfully told the customs lady what we had done. She refused to clear us in until we had seen the main boss in St. Johns. The comptroller was away on a seminar and couldn't see me to hear about my alleged offence until the Monday. We cancelled our charters on Friday, Saturday and Monday. On Monday i met with him in St. Johns thinking this silly matter would be dealt with quickly. WRONG!
He told me to come back the next day when he would question me in front of the customs lady who refused to clear us in to the country. Tuesday morning came and I was sick as a dog and asked if I could come in later that afternoon. He told me to come in at 3pm and I did as I was told. Sadly the customs lady didn't show up so he told me to come back tomorrow morning at 10 am. 
I got there Wednesday morning at 9:45am and saw three customs officers including the young customs lady from Jolly Harbour go into the Comptrollers office. Twenty minutes later I was asked to come in. I just couldn't understand how something so petty could be taking so much of the Comptrollers time. This is the single most important tax man in Anitgua. I was interrogated as if I was a mass murderer for 45 minutes. They told me that I had no right to release my crew from the vessel and that it was an offence. I reminded them that I was in the vicinity of the boat. They said I had no way of proving that Al Porto restaurant next to the customs dock was the only place that my crew and I went to. They read the law with regard to boarding from their tattered old book and carefully explained to me that it was an offence to come to the dock after 6 pm. They explained that the 24 bottles of bio degradable boat soap that I had on board should have been declared as ships stores. They went on to explain that ships stores for local boats are taxable. I got a little frustrated at this point and had to remind them that i arrived and tied up on their dock before 6 pm and that I never was even permitted to fill out a customs form and therefore didn't declare "ships stores". It was the strangest thing I have been through. I know they had better things to be doing and couldn't understand why they were wasting their time and mine over something so simple. They didn't catch me offloading contraband on a secluded beach or find a boat loaded with Heineken beer. Me and my big mouth told them that we had gone for pizza and that my wife had gone to use the toilet at home in Jolly Harbour.
Anyway, after a fourth customs agent came in and started asking the same questions that i had been answering since I had arrived into the country one week earlier, I gave up and said I was leaving. The Comptroller said that they would let me know about fines.
Needless to say, they didn't contact me and I had to go to them once again. This time I found out that I was being fined EC $5000. I spoke to my dad (a lawyer) and another lawyer who both told me that we could file an injunction forcing them to clear my vessel into Antigua and then let them take me to court for the EC $5000. I asked how long this would take and figured that cancelling more charters just wasn't an option for my business's cash flow or more importantly for my businesses reputation. I went back to the comptroller and paid the $5000. After that it was another visit to the nice customs lady in Jolly Harbour to clear my vessel in 8 days after we had arrived into the country.
I have to be honest in saying that this experience made me have a huge variety of unpleasant emotions. I am sure that many people will quickly say that I was wrong and that customs was right, but if you run a business here and see what goes on in this country every day, then i think you understand my frustrations.

Anyway, a few days later on November 1st (independence day for Antigua and Barbuda) a charter boat with Russian charter guests came into the same port. They were told that the customs was closed and proceeded to the marina where they paid for a berth. They were told by someone on the dock that there were activities and a parade in St. Johns, and they decided to go into town. Big mistake! Or at least it was a big mistake to voluntarily tell our same nice customs agent about their trip into town.
This time they were told that it would be a EC $20000 fine and once again were not able to clear in until the Comptroller had interviewed and interrogated them.
The manager of Jolly Harbour Marina joined the Russian captain and pleaded with the officials to be lenient as it was and honest mistake adding that for the sake of tourism and the yachting sector it would be a good idea to use discretion in this case. The manager told me that a customs agent replied to him saying; "you see, that's the problem with people like you, you just want tourists to come here and do as they like."
Anyway, Customs decided to be lenient and gave the same EC $5000 fine that seems to now be the standard if you step off the boat and don't walk directly into the customs office.
As you can see in the photo above, my fine was for leaving the boat without permission. I will make sure that I don't make that mistake twice. If you know of any yachts coming to Antigua and specifically to Jolly Harbour, please warn them to be very careful to adhere to the rules.
I could say so much more on this issue, but I don't think it will be of much help to anyone really.
The IMF employees are changing the way things are done in this country and while I am sure that they will get their pound of flesh, I am not sure the country will be better off after they are gone. This is just one of the many similar stories that are floating around at the moment.