Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sri Lankan clearance dance

Clearing into Sri Lanka on a yacht is different than other places we have visited. 

1. One must receive permission from Galle Harbour Control to get near the outer breakwater.   Port Control will not allow you to approach until your agent contacts them first.  So arriving boats must have a method of contacting their agent, either email or satellite phone (or VHF radio once you get within radio range). 

2.  Next a Navy gunboat comes out and directs you to a spot to anchor just inside the breakwater.   You might wait there 10 minutes or many hours.

3.  Normally the next step is that the gunboat returns and tells you to raise the anchor and move to a large rusty mooring and tie off.   We lucked out and skipped having to tie off to the nasty mooring.   The naval officer (only 1 for us) came to our boat at anchor.  I think this happened because there was a huge sailboat tied to the mooring; there were 7 boats waiting to be cleared in; and the officer wanted to get on with his work, finish with us and get us out of his area.

4.  When your boat is secured to the rusty mooring, a couple of Navy officers arrive to conduct your "interview" and search your boat.  Again, the wait for the officers might be only a few minutes or several hours.  The interview is very informal.  For whatever reason, our boat was not searched.  We were the only boat cleared in that day which was not searched.  Have no idea why.

5.  The Navy officer really liked Bill's polo shirt with BeBe embroidered on it.  He said he needed a size small.  Bill gave him a size XL shirt; the last new one Bill had.  The officer said he has a collection of boat name shirts filling up an entire wall at his home.  He did not ask for cigarettes or booze, just the boat name shirt.

6.  Then a small Navy skiff guides you into the main harbor.  Galle Harbour is a Navy harbor.  During the years long war with the Tamil Tigers this harbor was mined.  The Tamil Tigers were finally wiped out a couple of years ago.  One assumes all the mines have since been removed.  The small skiff guides you to one of several options to berth, depending on what is available.  The 25 boats participating in the Bluewater Rally are now in Galle Harbour.  Add to that number the normal annual cruising yachts, and this little harbor is completely filled with visiting yachts.  There are 2 remote floating plastic docks on either side of the harbor, and a primary floating plastic dock in the rear of the harbor.  We were guided to the primary floating plastic dock --  right next to our friends Bill & Amy on S/V Estrellita!!!  What a surprise!!  Ending up being berthed right next to them.  They were leaving the next morning to press onward to Cochin, but at least we had a day to visit.  This "dock" is really stretching the meaning of the word.  It is just a bunch of blue plastic cubes interlocked together and floating in a long strip.  It is barely secured to some very lightweight underwater concrete blocks, which move as boats bump up against the "dock."  The whole arrangement is very unstable.  Everything was wiped out during the big tsunami in late 2004, and this is the best they have been able to come up with as replacement facilities.  There obviously is no electricity or water available on this "dock."  

7.  After your boat is tied off on this "dock" then you wait for your agent to appear, accompanied by the Customs officer; another wait of several hours.  This official is an absolute total jerk and makes his job a joke.  He makes no pretense of doing his job as a Customs officer.  He is simply on a personal shopping trip.  As instructed by our agent, prior to arrival we had prepared a printed list of all tobacco, spirits, wine and beer.  Bill handed the list to the Customs officer and the man said to show him the cigarettes.  We have 4 cartons of Marlboros that will be needed to give to the pilots in the Suez Canal, plus 6 packs of French cigarettes purchased back in Trinidad in September 2006.  Don't you know those old things are dried out and disgusting.  The Customs officer came right out and said "I will take a carton of the Marlboros."  To which Bill replied, "No; those are gifts for our friends in India.  You can have the 6 blue packs, but you cannot have the Marlboros."  They went back and forth several times, but Bill refused to give up a carton of the Marlboros.  Next the official wanted to see the spirits on our list.  I showed him the bottles and mentioned that I thought all the bottles were opened.  He found 1 bottle of rum which was still sealed and said, "I will take that bottle of rum; it is still sealed."  I told him that he could not have that bottle of rum because it was our only bottle of rum.  So next he wanted to see the wine.  Bill opened the floor locker and showed him the stacked bottles of wine (several cases).  Again, with the "I will take a bottle of wine."  At that I turned around and said most emphatically that this was my wine and it had to last until we get to the Mediterranean and that he could not have any of my wine.  Bill spoke up at this point and said we wanted to bond all alcohol and cigarettes.  Our agent jumped right up and whipped out the paperwork to start the bonding process.  The Customs officer was not at all happy with this course of events.  It would require him to process a lot of paperwork for us to bond stores aboard our boat and then to refund the bond upon our departure.  Suddenly he decided that accepting the 6 blue packs of cigarettes was going to be all he was going to get off our boat, so he took those and left without processing our bonding request.  Great!  Navy done; Customs done; only 2 more officials to deal with and we would be officially cleared into Sri Lanka.

BTW, the only other docking option in Galle Harbour is a high rough concrete quay.  There is electricity on this concrete wall.  That is where we hoped to be berthed so that we can leave the boat for a few days to travel around the island.  We would not feel that the boat would be safe left on the flimsy blue plastic floating docks.

8.  You still cannot leave your boat until all the officials have visited you, accompanied with your agent.  We wanted to go to lunch with our friends but were stuck on the boat for several more hours.  Eventually the Practique (Health) Officer arrived with our agent.  This was a very nice guy.  He wanted to see our Yellow Cards (the International Vaccination forms) and our "de-ratting" (fumigation) certificate.  Hey, guess what!  Neither of those are a problem!  We do each have International Vaccination forms, last updated with boosters in New Zealand in March 2009.  All our yellow fever, typhoid, tetanus, hepatitis, etc., vaccinations are all up-to-date.  And we also have a proper fumigation certificate.  We prepared one in Panama in March 2008 because we knew the Galapagos Islands would want to see one.  Sri Lanka did not care that this certificate was more than 2 years old; the official was just delighted that we had one.  Only 1 official remained to clear us in!

9.  Shortly after 13:00 the Immigration Officer arrived with our agent.  Remember we started this process with the Navy inspection around 07:00 so already this has taken the better part of a day.  The Immigration guy could not walk on the flimsy floating blue plastic dock.  Someone had to hold his arm to keep him from falling.  Bill helped him step aboard our stern steps from the dock.  He came downstairs and we processed more of the umpty-jillion forms required.  In addition to all their forms we also had to provide a total of 9 crew lists and 9 copies of our passports and 6 copies of our boat documentation.  The officer gave us each a blue piece of paper and said these were our passes allowing us to move around Sri Lanka.  We would have to come to the Immigration office with our agent and have our passports stamped (he did not have the correct stamp with him; it was only at the office); then we were free to walk out of the port and go wherever we liked on the island.  He warned us that we must keep both our passport and our blue pass on our persons at all times while in Sri Lanka.  

And then he asked for a bottle of rum to take back to his office.  No hinting around that he would enjoy a gift from us; just flat out asked for a bottle of rum to take back to his office.  Bill whipped out a glass and said that he could not have a whole bottle but that he was welcome to a drink if he wanted one.  Well, yes; as a matter of fact he would enjoy a rum and Coke.  He then proceeded to drink 6 rum and Cokes!  I had thought he was drunk when he arrived and couldn't walk straight; he was most definitely drunk by the time he stepped off our boat.  He also asked for cigarettes and I told him that we do not allow smoking inside our boat.  Around 14:30 he said we were finished except for coming to the office and having our passports stamped, and he finally left.

We walked with our agent over to the Immigration office and accomplished that final step and were finally free to walk outside the port.  The guards are armed with German made semi-automatic 12-gauge shotguns.  There are guys with guns all over the place inside this naval port.  Each time we leave and return the guards record our information and check our passports and passes.  Probably the safest docks we have ever stayed at.

We left with Bill & Amy to find a place for a late lunch.  Finally. 

Oh, yeah.  Almost forgot.  While the gate guard was recording Bill's information I read the sign posted on the wall behind the guard.  As I whipped out my camera to take a photo of this sign, the other guards standing nearby starting laughing.  They know what goes on around this port and the officials demand bribes to do their jobs and clear in boats.  Here is the sign posted at the port entrance guard station:

We printed a copy of this sign and gave it to arriving friends the next day.  They placed it on the table when the Customs officer came to process their clearance.  When the Customs officer started to ask for things, our friends just tapped the paper.  He quickly gave up and finished their paperwork without further hassle.  I recommend that all future cruisers do the same.


  1. What a great idea to take a picture of the sign and give it to your friends. Sounds like it worked. We're not cruising jut yet, but it sounds like checking into most countries includes having to give up something. Sounds like those guys have it made! After your passage to Sri Lanka we hope you're now having a great time.

  2. Picture saved! Great idea and thank you very much!

  3. This is great, guys. Mining your blog as we prepare to head to Sri Lanka next month, I'm going to keep a copy of that photo with our paperwork! We're planning to go to Trincomalee, not Galle, who knows if it will be any different...I'd like to be ready, either way. Sharing this with other boats headed to SL as well.

    1. Trincomalee still is not an official clearance port according to info on Noonsite. Who knows what kind of reception you will have there. When we were in Sri Lanka it was not too long after the Tamil Tigers finally had been contained. The last areas of fighting were in the NE part of the country. The fighting had stopped but Trincomalee was still off-limits when we were in Sri Lanka. When we heaved-to for a day to wait out that storm in the Bay of Bengal, we were very close to Trincomalee but did not attempt to stop there. Looking forward to reading about your experience there. Road less traveled and all that.


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