Thursday, June 4, 2009

The dreaded clearance was easy and pleasant

Australia suffers a terrible reputation regarding Customs and Quarantine clearances for visiting yachts. In fact, we know of several cruisers this year who are going to great distances and lots of discomfort in order to avoid coming to Australia for just that reason. They feel that it is not worth the trouble and the cost to visit Australia. There have been several instances of yachts being searched and interiors demolished by Customs and extremely rude/rough treatment by officials (especially in Brisbane). There also has been at least one incidence of an American yacht being seized for failure to provide 96-hour advance arrival notice -- they only provided 48-hour advance arrival notice because the Australian Consulate in Noumea incorrectly told them that the requirement was only 48 hours. That seizure was fought through the Australian equivalent of the Supreme Court and the owners did regain their yacht but the heavy fine was upheld. Ended up costing them about 75k USD and a year of legal hassles. But Australia got the message across loud and clear to all visiting yachts that they are serious about enforcing the 96-hour advance arrival requirement. So, needless to say, we were a bit apprehensive about clearing into this country.

Well, those fears were totally unjustified. Our clearance into Australia in Mackay could not have been more pleasant. It was so simple and easy and the officials were efficient and courteous. We had emailed the 96-hour advance arrival notice before we departed Noumea and had again confirmed our progress and anticipated date of arrival several days ago. I had downloaded the advance arrival form and had it completed before the officials arrived. We also had notified AQIS of our anticipated date of arrival several days ago. Both agencies had confirmed receipt of our advance arrival notification so we thought we had done everything required. We later learned that we were also supposed to notify Mackay VTS (Volunteer Traffic System) via VHF radio when we were within the pilotage area of this port. All vessels greater than 10 meters are required to report to Mackay VTS when entering the pilotage area (on the charts) or before departing a berth. Guess they figured out which one was us moving around out there because no one contacted us about this. The Hay Point pilotage area has the same type restrictions but we don't yet know where that is. Mackay is a main cargo point for Queensland territory of Australia and is the sugar capital of the country. We passed more than a dozen ships moored just outside the port on the night of our arrival.

We delayed our entrance to the harbor for an hour while a rainstorm passed, and Customs had no problem with that. We arrived at the designated place and tied up to the vacant dock without assistance. Within a few minutes the AQIS official arrived (Quarantine). He was friendly and courteous in the performance of his job. Quarantine was one of those big worries that all the cruisers talk about: what are they going to take?

We all get online and try to determine what will be allowed and what is forbidden so that we don't waste money stocking up on items that will be removed upon arrival in each new country. But it always seems that the laws are never enforced exactly to the letter of the law. Not one country that we have visited so far has removed every single thing that the official website for that country says they will remove. My theory is that it pretty much depends on how the Quarantine officer feels that particular day when he clears you in. If he is having a bad day then you likely are going to also have a bad day. Cardinal rule is to always be polite and friendly. It is pretty much a given that all fresh produce and eggs are forbidden; but many countries also prohibit fresh or frozen meat, cheese. yogurt, milk and nuts. Mayonnaise and popcorn are also a big no-no in a lot of countries. Some countries also prohibit any canned meat; some allow canned beef or pork but not chicken or turkey. The list has almost endless variations and some items are always open to interpretation or question. Australia is extremely strict about food items allowed to be brought into their country; as they should be because they need to protect their agriculture and livestock. You would find the USA equally strict if you were arriving in our country on a yacht.

Because we had a few days of rough weather just prior to our arrival we had not eaten all the prepared meals onboard. Funny how you do not get hungry when sailing conditions get really rough. So I had tossed those overboard prior to arrival in port. Hated to throw away that good barbequed pork but knew it had to go. Ditto for the Italian sausages. Bill and I ate the last of the bacon and the last tomato on sandwiches just before arrival. There were a few slices of meatloaf in the freezer but those were sealed in plastic and I didn't see the point in cutting these open just to toss the meat into the sea; figured Quarantine could incinerate it -- plastic and all.

The AQIS officer who handled our clearance and inspected our boat was great. He filled out all the forms and all we had to do was sign them. He inspected the fridge and freezer and a few of our food lockers; mainly he was interested in pastas and spices as those items often contain bugs. He found no bugs in anything on our boat. He was impressed with how efficiently I had everything separated and vacuum-sealed and I said that is exactly why there are no bugs on this boat. Every taco seasoning or fajita or gravy or spice mix packet is vacuum-sealed separately. Made it really easy for him to check for any bugs because they would have been visible inside the sealed plastic. This is what he removed from our boat:

3 packages of frozen homemade meatloaf slices
1 package of deli ham slices from New Zealand
1 package of deli brie cheese from Noumea

That's it. I could not believe it was so simple. The AQIS website states that coffee, tea, nuts, mayonaise and a bunch of other things are also not allowed. But the officer did not take any of those things. We had no open jar of mayonaise but did have unopened jars in a locker; he looked at it but did not take it. Maybe the brand makes a difference. This was Edmond's Whole Egg Mayonaise that we purchased in New Zealand. Since I have 8 jars of the stuff I am really glad he did not take it. He looked at opened container of nuts and did not take it. He did not care at all about coffee or tea, but he did look carefully at each bag of pasta and flours. All the cheese in the fridge was still sealed; nothing had been opened. I had read that commercially prepared and packaged cheese is allowed as long as it is still sealed. The brie was obviously commercially prepared and still sealed but maybe soft cheeses like that are not allowed; I did not ask why he took it. But that was the one thing I wish we had felt like eating underway. Hated to see the good French brie get tossed. I knew dried beans would not be allowed so had cooked them in Noumea (with no meat) and stuck them in the freezer. He let us keep those packages of cooked beans. He also let us keep the remaining frozen breakfast fruit-filled pastries that I had baked in Noumea. The one thing that really surprised me was that he let us keep a frozen sausage roll from New Zealand. Now that should definitely have been removed because it is meat filled pastry. He looked at and read the label but tossed it back into the freezer. Don't know why.

All yogurts, butter and the UHT milk and canned milks were okay. Heck, he even let us keep the little jar of bacon grease in the fridge! That surprised me. I fully intended to throw that out and wash the jar before our arrival but forgot about it. I know someone who cleared into Darwin last year and they did take her jar of bacon grease, container and all, as well as about 40 other items. But our little jar of rendered bacon fat was left untouched. Go figure.

Every time someone clears into a country their experience will vary from the next person's. Each clearance is unique. You just never know how it will go. We had it very, very easy and had a nice guy in the bargain. He inquired about our anti-foul bottom paint and asked to see the receipts from our last haul-out proving what kind of paint was used. He has the option of using an underwater camera to inspect the bottom of our boat but since it had only been 2 months since our haul-out we were saved that expense. He also has the authority to take a paint chip from the bottom of our boat to have it tested if we did not have receipts proving what kind of paint it is. Australia is trying to protect their waters and reefs from paints that are poisonous and damaging to the environment. That would have been an additional cost to us if it had been required. AQIS also has the authority to order a boat to be immediately hauled from the water if they feel that the growth on the bottom or if toxic paint has been applied. They are trying to get the message across to all visiting boats that you should do a haul-out just before arriving in Australia or they will make you haul-out when you arrive. And it is almost always cheaper to do that haul-out before you arrive in Australia.

That finished his inspection and he was on his way. We paid the $240 AUD fee for the minimum one-hour Quarantine inspection by charging our Visa card since we obviously had no Australian dollars yet. Since we had now been on the dock for almost 2 hours the AQIS guy said he would stop by the Customs office and remind them that we were waiting.

Good thing he did that because they either had forgotten us or had not been notified by the marina office of our arrival. A few minutes later 2 Customs officials came sauntering down the ramp. The man sat at our saloon table with Bill and filled out forms and the woman checked our passports for the visas and stamped us into the country. Then she proceeded to search the interior of our boat. She did a fairly thorough job and that was that. We were cleared in. Later in the day she tracked us down and gave us a sealed envelope containing the paper work necessary for the Australian port which will clear us out. That envelope is to remain sealed until another Customs official asks us for it -- which probably will be in Darwin. After our clearance was finished we talked with the 2 officials about the new Queensland salvage insurance requirements. Neither official was even aware of this requirement and wondered which agency is charged with enforcing this new law. They said that as far as they knew, Customs is not charged with enforcing it.

FWIW, our costs to visit Australia thus far total $715 USD - which makes this the most expensive place for required fees to date that we have visited, surpassing even the Galapagos Islands. Our visas cost $100 AUD each; the Quarantine inspection cost $240 AUD; and the required salvage insurance cost $350 USD. Hopefully there aren't more fees to come.

Bill walked up the the marina office; paid for a week in advance; and we moved to our slip. Bill immediately removed the autopilot linear drive and we set out in search of a place to ship it to the Raymarine service center in Briscoe, New South Wales. Took a taxi to a mall and found everything we needed: shipped off the drive for repair; exchanged the last of the New Zealand dollars for Australian dollars; bought a SIM card so we now have a cell phone for this country; and did a grocery run to replenish our freezer and fresh produce. There were 2 supermarkets at this mall as well as 2 butcher shops inside the mall. That is the first time that we have seen butcher shops in a large shopping mall. Seemed really weird but there was no noticable meat smell. By the time we loaded everything into taxi we realized that we were beat. The exhaustion was setting in quickly. Should have bought more stuff at the supermarket since taxi are not cheap, but were just too tired to care.

Wednesday I spent the day doing laundry and Bill cleaned out and reorganized our sail lockers. He moved a lot of heavy lines to one of the forward sail lockers; trying to get more weight into the bow because we feel the boat is stern heavy with all our clothes and stuff packed in the aft cabin lockers. Good thing he decided to do this because the sail lockers had about an inch of water inside and that would have caused mold and mildew. The lockers are not leaking; this was condensation accumulation from those cold nights and warmer days in New Zealand. We raised and dried the assymetrical sail and the Amel ballooner sail. The storm sail was barely wet on one end of the sailbag so it dried while laying flat on the deck.

This morning we removed the vinyl bimini and took it to a canvas shop to have a zipper re-stitched. We had the zipper replaced in Bonaire and that shop used regular thread rather than UV thread. The regular thread had rotted away. The shop is going to give us a bid for replacing the entire bimini but at least the old one will be repaired. Then we returned to the boat and dug out our big shade awning since the bimini will be off for several days. Haven't used that awning since Bonaire in August 2007 and both of us had forgotten how to put it up. But memories slowly revived. Bill then washed the boat and now we are relaxing for the rest of the day.

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