Clearing Customs In Mexico

I thought I’d share the lengthy customs process that Mexico has. We’d heard from several sources that clearing customs in Mexico can be challenging. They require you to clear in with the Department of Agriculture and sanitation, customs, immigration and the port captain, as well as get an import sticker for your boat. All of this involves trips to many offices and the bank, hopefully when all of these places are open. One of our cruising guides and an online reference site both suggested to stay at Marina Paraiso, where the dock master will be your “agent,” and help you check in. After an eventful passage, and two cool, cloudy, bumpy, windy, windy, windy, maddening weeks at anchor, some time at a pier and help with customs sounded like a great idea.

As we arrived in the area on Tuesday afternoon, and the marina came in sight, we hailed them on our vhf radio but got no response. Instead of hovering and waiting for someone to eventually answer, we decided to just go and tie up at the end of a pier, dealing with an actual slip reservation afterward. When we arrived, a friendly dock hand was waiting to help catch a line and tie us up. He informed us that “Chepo,” the dock master, would be along soon to help us with customs and a slip reservation.

Soon after, Chepo arrived with some papers to fill out for the marina, and told us that he’d be back at 8:30am the following morning, to start the customs process. Although we weren’t cleared in yet, it was ok for us to wander the marina grounds, use the pool and visit the bar and restaurant. After having just finished a 51 hour run, some food (that I didn’t have to cook) and a margarita sounded very inviting, so we showered off our crossing and headed to “Barlito.” Luis made us some delicious margaritas, we shared an awesome buffalo chicken sandwich and then collapsed into comas.

The next morning, at 8:30 sharp, Chepo came to give us some papers to fill out (boat name, documentation number, captain’s name, last port of call, etc.). We then followed him to the marina office, where he made copies of our passports, the boat’s documentation form and a courtesy clearance form that we’d gotten from Customs and Border Patrol in Key West (we’re not required to clear out of our own country, but Mexico still wants to see something). We also filled out a crew list (obviously short, since it’s just the two of us, and Howard doesn’t make the cut) that he copied as well.

Chepo explained that he’d pay for all of the fees, and then we’d reimburse him. In addition to the customs and immigration fees, the marina charges 50.00 for Chepo to help us, and then we add on any tips that we wish to give to him and the officials. Fine with us, one stop shopping sounded great.

As soon as we got back to the boat, Chepo was right behind us with the man from the Dept. of Sanitation. He took our temperature and asked us about our general health, did we have any symptoms of sickness (fever, nausea, etc.) and if we’d had measles and flu shots. In the small world we live in, this man went to college in Baltimore, and rented a room from a woman who lived in Canton (a neighborhood just to the east of downtown Baltimore)!! We chatted about the area, the blizzard that the Baltimore had just gotten and then he was on his way.

The Dept. of Agriculture was next. They’d deal with our fresh food and Howard’s papers. Any meat that we have is supposed to be in supermarket packaging. I disregarded this, against Scott’s wishes, and broke up the packages to vacuum-seal the meat into smaller, more compact packaging. I had the freezer full of it, and the stuff would very likely be confiscated. Chepo suggested that we put the meat into a cooler, and stash it in the engine room. He was already earning his tip! As I started to stuff a soft sided cooler with most of the freezer’s contents, there was a knock on the side of the boat. It was a diver, who was cleaning the bottom of a nearby boat. Chepo had sent him to get our cooler. It would be stashed on the boat that he was cleaning, and we could grab it back when the Dept. of Ag. had gone. Chepo’s tip grows!

Two people came on board from the Dept. of Agriculture. I think that one was training, but was never sure. They poked around inside our refrigerator and freezer (I’d left some meat in there, figuring that an empty freezer was more suspect) and asked about any fresh produce. All I had left after our two weeks at anchor were some onions, garlic and sweet potatoes. They asked how long we were staying. We were about to reply at least a month, when we caught sight of Chepo, who was holding up five fingers. Not even thinking of questioning this, we replied five days. They spied my bread, and looked it over. In the end, they didn’t confiscate anything, and turned to Howard.

The man petted Howard, who was very curious about the attention. However, when the man tried to see Howard’s teeth all bets were off, and he received a sound hissing with a swat. I picked Howard up, and then the man tried to see if Howard was neutered. He poked around more than I thought necessary, as it should be pretty obvious that important parts were missing. As this was going on, Howard was trying to attack both me and the man. Soon, the man was either satisfied, or just nervous for his safety, and stopped poking and prodding.

They took Howard’s vet papers, with proof of his shots, and also his international health certificate. I was told by Chepo to meet them up at the marina office. Once there, the two spent more time than I expected on the papers. It seems that they were trying to find out what kind of codes to mark on their form. They asked how old Howard was, which was noted on his papers, and if he was a male..really, did you not just poke all over him on board?

They finally finished their form and gave me a copy, along with my original vet papers. I headed back to the boat, where Scott had just finished with the customs officer. This man was concerned that he could not locate a serial number on our motor. Scott explained that the boat was 30 years old, and that this was a re-manufactured motor, which may not have the original number. I don’t know if the man was concerned about the motor being stolen, or that we stole it, or what. He and Chepo spoke awhile, and the man finally let it go, but told us that we’d have to have the number to get an import sticker for our boat. Again, I think Chepo smoothed this over, growing his tip even more!

Then, we both went to the office, where we met with an immigration officer. We filled out forms similar to those that you are given on an airplane as you come into a foreign country, and he made copies of our passports. Quick and easy.

I was then asked to bring my cat form back to the office for the Dept. of Agriculture people. When I returned with it, I realized that in all the confusion of what codes to enter, they had forgotten to stamp and sign the form…please make my cat legal!! Now, there were four people at various tables, and Chepo was dancing back and forth between them and the copier. It was a small circus, and I excused myself back to the boat, to let them get on with it.

It was approximately 12:30. We had lunch aboard, and then decided to move the boat to the slip that we’d spend a week in. The winds were picking up, and only supposed to get worse as a cold front arrived, so we wanted to make the move sooner than later. As we tied up in our slip, we noticed how sooty our transom was, from the passage here.

Once we were settled in, we spent some time on the bow, in the sun, and waited for Chepo. After all of the forms were completed, copied and compiled, he took them to the port captain for us. Just before 4pm, he arrived back at the boat with a stack of papers.

We again accompanied him back to the marina office, where we paid for a week’s stay, and settled up with him for all of our fees and tips. They totaled just under 300.00, which was well worth us staying in one place, and Chepo doing the chicken-with-it’s-head-cut-off dance! So we were now cleared and legal, except for the boat. If we planned to stay more than 30 days, we had to get an import permit for it. We thought it was worth taking care of it while we were in Isla Mujeres, rather than being stuck farther south, at 31 days, and not having access to get a permit.

The next morning, we rode our bikes into town and hopped on a ferry that would take us 20 minutes to Puerto Juarez, where the import office was located.

After arriving at the terminal in Puerto Juarez,I resisted the giant beers for sale in the ferry terminal, and we made the short ten minute walk to the office.

Chepo had told us to see Elizabeth. We located her, and handed over copies of all of our papers. She also needed a copy of Scott’s import card. Since we only had the original, we were sent back down the street to a hotel, where we could get a copy made. We were pretty sure that there was a copier somewhere in that massive building where she was, but didn’t argue. Upon finding the hotel, we paid a man five cents to copy the card, and headed back to Elizabeth. In under five minutes, we had a sticker, good for ten years. Total for sticker and round trip ferry (less the cerveza I had on the way over) was 82.00. We were beginning to think that we should stay for a year!

After ferrying back to Isla Mujeres, we had some lunch  at a nice second story restaurant that was great!

We enjoyed the fact that after two days, and much help from Chepo, we were all (us, Howard and the boat) cleared into Mexico, and were now proudly flying the Mexican courtesy flag…Hurra!

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”


Our Time At Anchor In The Dry Tortugas

Knowing that we didn’t have the weather to get all the way to Mexico, we went as far as the Dry Tortugas, to wait there for our next window. It ended up being two long, challenging weeks of wind and cold fronts.

At least three back door cold fronts (unusual weather, that we are learning about), generated by low pressure systems, came through while we were anchored (it may have been four, but we lost count or blocked it out). All had winds that were sustained in the 30 knot range, with gusts in the 40s, and our favorite, that had sustained 40 knot winds, with gusts up to 56. We have come to realize that after 25 knots, the sound of wind becomes unnerving…very unnerving, especially when it blows consistently for days. One front would come right on the heels of the previous one, giving us barely a day of relief in between.

We weren’t alone in our frustration with the fronts. When we’re at anchor, the vhf radio stays on scan, to hear any talk between boats or any information from the Coast Guard. Large commercial shrimp boats were continuously talking back and forth, about how unusual this string of weather was. Many hadn’t even left their docks to go out, and many were anchored on the other side of the reef from us, waiting out the weather and wind for days. Their conversations back and forth were very entertaining for us. They managed to swear in all forms of grammar!

With the waves crashing on the reef in front of them, it appeared as if they were underway.

On our side of the reef, we were surrounded by smaller commercial fishing boats. Our first night at anchor, we had eighteen of them around us..close quarters! Most all would leave during the day to fish, and then return for the evening, except during the exceptionally windy days, when everyone would stay put.

There were only one or two other cruising boats at any given time. At the first 24 hour break in the weather, they would leave (we guessed for Key West, as it was close and reachable before the next front) and one or two more would show up.

So, we’re stuck in place because of strong winds, and have seen all that the fort and the small island that it sits on has to offer. Even if we wanted to go to shore, most days were just too rough to get into the dingy and make the unpleasant ride. Oh, and did I mention that these fronts contained no sun??!!?? Seriously, if you add up the hours of sunshine that we had, it would just total fourteen days! The temperatures were colder than normal, in the low 70s, but that was the least of the unpleasantness. So what do you do to pass time??

When it was decent to get to shore, we spent a day touring the fort with Ranger Mike, and afterward spent 7.00 each to have lunch aboard the ferry that comes from Key West every day. Scott made the world’s largest sandwich, and I had seconds of both tuna and potato salad, so we got our money’s worth. Another day, we went to shore and walked around on our own, seeing some things that Ranger Mike didn’t cover. Then we joined him for a tour around the fort’s moat, learning about the various fish and coral that surround it. After that, it there wasn’t much to do ashore, and most days it was too windy and bumpy to get in the dingy and make the journey there anyway.

Motivation was nil, so we ended up watching a lot of tv and movies on dvd. I’d like to say we caught up on sleep, but the noise of the wind outside, the water slapping against the hull, and the sound of the water in our full tanks slapping back and forth made for a restless night’s sleep. Wind that sounds like a train, slapping noise and rolling from water (inside and out), cool temperatures, cloud-filled days, and peaks of sun that just mocked us. By day eight, madness was starting to set in.

Thankfully, during our last days, we met and spent time with a Danish couple…yay!…social interaction! Henrik and Signe were waiting for an opening to head toward Cuba. They have been cruising for three years, making their way across the Atlantic and spending time from New York City down along the East Coast before meeting us at anchor in the vortex of crappy weather.

There was a very important silver lining in the two weeks of madness. Our anchor, the Incredible Hulk, held like a champ. Like our windy days spent in the Exumas, it didn’t drag once! When we drop anchor, Scott sets a point on the ipad for both the anchor and the boat itself. If the anchor is holding, we should make an arc as the wind swings us. Scott would set a point every time the boat moved, to track our swing. We would take the ipad to bed with us, checking during the night to see if the boat was moving out of the arc path. We made a 360 degree swing every time that a cold front came through. The hulk held fast through it all. Here is our circle…

I apologize for my initial “Are you serious??” comment, at the size and cost of this anchor. It is now my favorite part of this boat! As the sounds of the wind frazzled us more and more, confidence in our anchor grew with each front.

Here are some photos that we took during our two week stay off of Fort Jefferson. For you non cat people, I apologize for so many of Howard. We were stuck aboard for two weeks, with little to amuse us!

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

Hola Mexico!

We are in Mexico!! After two long weeks of waiting  for decent weather and winds to continue to Isla Mujeres, a tight window finally appeared. It wasn’t the best scenario, so we discussed our options:
1 – Head to Mexico, and hope that the weather forecast was correct, knowing that it wouldn’t be the smoothest journey.
2 – Go back to Florida and get a mooring ball(in Ft. Myers) and wait for the endless string of cold fronts to slow down, most likely taking a month. We’d spend money that was meant for Mexico, need an additional 18+ hours to get there and have a month less time to get past Costa Rica before hurricane season sets in.
3 – Stay  anchored off of Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas national park. We’d endure at least two – three more weeks of cold fronts at anchor, losing what was left of our sanity (more on our time at anchor here later).

Scott left the decision up to me, releasing himself of blame from whatever option was chosen. None of them were good, in my opinion. I definitely didn’t want to spend unplanned money or go backward and add time to our Mexico trip, so option two was out. The thought of staying two or three more weeks at anchor where we were made me crazy, but I was very nervous to continue on with the current weather window. After much back and forth, I told myself that we’d chosen the Krogen for it’s seaworthiness, and crossing conditions weren’t always (almost never) going to be perfect, so on to Mexico it was!

Knowing that the sea conditions in the area still weren’t great (the winds had died, but swells take more time to settle), we left Sunday at noon. A cold front with strong winds was coming to Isla Mujeres on Wednesday, and we wanted to arrive ahead of it. The plan was to leave in  “bumpier” water, and eventually have it get better as we traveled. We  hoped to be at the marina in Isla Mujeres sometime on Tuesday afternoon.

Scott had a track mapped out which would take us southwest toward Cuba, more westward off of Cuba, south once we rounded Cuba and then west  toward Mexico, before heading north to Isla Mujeres. It wasn’t the most direct path, but he chose this route to try  and cross the Gulf Stream current  (which would oppose us and slow us down) as quickly as possible, and then stay in it’s counter current, keeping our speed up. We also planned to travel with our motor at a higher rpm than normal, hoping to stay at 6 knots or above and make our arrival window in Isla Mujeres before the coming cold  front.

Once  out of the reef around our anchorage, we realized that the waters were more than bumpy. The swells were pretty large, close to nine feet. It was quite an adjustment, but swells aren’t as jolting as waves, so we rolled our way toward the waters off of Cuba. We traveled at 8 and 7 knots for the first seven hours, which was great! I came on for my shift at dark, and things settled down over night to a much more comfortable ride.

At one point, a boat appeared on the radar about four miles off of our port side. After some time, it dropped back behind us, and then headed off of our starboard side and off of the radar. Scott assumed that it was the Coast Guard, making sure that we weren’t headed to Cuba.

By daylight the winds had calmed even more, and we enjoyed a terrific ride for most of the day. Scott was even tempted to make a drink and enjoy some time up on the bow! All good things come to an end however, and by late afternoon, the winds had increased again. Scott took us closer to Cuba than expected, trying to get some protection from the building winds. We were about 14 miles  off of the coast and still in the counter current, making about 8 knots.

When I came on again at dark on Monday evening, our ride was getting more “spirited,” as Scott likes to call it. We were rounding the western coast of Cuba and heading south, still in the counter current and still making good speed. Wind and waves continued to build, and it felt at times like we were on a roller coaster ride, rising and falling, and then jolting from side to side suddenly along the way.

Once in awhile we’d get a really good roll (or should I say jolt)to the side, which would wake Scott. He would come up and make a course change, trying to smooth things out a bit. It would be effective for awhile, and then we’d start to hard roll again, and he’d have to readjust. He’d planned to turn more south overnight, but it would have put us in a pretty big beam sea (side to side) even with our paravanes out, so we stayed where we were.

I stayed on watch for eleven hours overnight, trying to give Scott a chance to rest and stay out of the pilot house as much as possible. By 2am or so, things started to calm down a bit, and I think he  got some bits of actual sleep. At 6:30am, when Scott came back on watch, I was looking forward to some actual sleep myself, in calmer conditions. That lasted all of 40 minutes.

I awoke to  another, bigger, faster roller coaster ride. Knowing that Scott would call if he needed me, and not wanting to see what was causing the roller coaster ride (I had a sleep mask on, to keep daylight out, and also the site of big waves), I stayed on the couch, which was a bit challenging.

We were rolling so hard that the couch was trying to move, even though Scott had it screwed down. The same was true for our table, that was tied to the wall. It was doing it’s best to come across the saloon toward me. Our end table moved back and forth so much that one of the legs unscrewed itself. Thankfully, I had stuffed towels into the refrigerator and some of the cabinets, to keep the clanking of bottles down.

When I finally couldn’t hold off  a trip to the head any longer, I made my way there with the sleep mask on, not wanting to catch any glimpse of what was going on outside through windows. I managed to feel my way there and back,  flopping onto the couch and assuming a braced position on my side.

I kept waiting and waiting for the winds to calm as I laid on the couch, trying to hold on without getting my fingers pinched as it tried to move back and forth. After almost four hours, things seemed somewhat better, so I ventured up to the pilot house  to see how Scott was faring. I learned that my decision to stay put, with my mask on, was a wise one. We had come into big, BIG seas. Our autopilot was working, but Scott had to constantly change course, to keep the confused seas on our stern, so he ended up hand steering through it.

Scott estimated that the waves were as high as 14 feet. My husband doesn’t exaggerate, or embellish for effect. Believe me, we’d much rather brag that we had glass calm seas! The waves around us were larger and higher than our boat. Scott’s eye level is approximately 12 feet off of the water line when at the wheel, and the waves were well above his eye level. He’d see the wall of water coming at him, and then a hole would open and our boat would go through. Waves were  higher than our flybridge on all sides.

We would roll to about 30-35 degrees, and hold there, until another wave came from behind to push us back. At some points, the waves were large enough and steep enough that we were sliding down them sideways. Again, I was VERY happy to have been down on the couch, with my mask on….can you say heart attack at sea?! During all of this madness, our speed went down to as low as 3 knots, when we weren’t surfing down a wave at 9!

We were still clawing our way south. Every time Scott would change course, the waves and winds would pick up again and we’d have to adjust back to the north. There is an entrance to Isla Mujeres from the north, but a sandbar runs across it. Scott was worried about waves from the large swells breaking  on the sandbar, causing us to drop and hit bottom, or causing our paravanes to hit bottom, so we stayed on course for a southern entrance. By noon, things had calmed to a  “normal”, big roll, and we were approximately two hours or so from Isla Mujeres. Those last two hours felt like two days! Seas were still big, and we were still fighting our way south.

FINALLY, Isla Mujeres came in sight!

As we moved behind it, the waves died down from protection of land, and we picked up some current that pushed us back up to 8 knots…thank the Lord! We had to bring the birds in, as we came into waters below 25 feet or so. To do this, the boat has to be at idle and pointed into the wind. Thankfully, as the waves  had died considerably, this went really smoothly. We’ll take smooth wherever we can get it! Scott also raised the paravanes up, to prepare for coming into a slip.

We made our way past beaches and hotels along the shoreline, and into the harbor of Isla Mujeres. After finding Marina Paraiso, we tied to the end of a pier, to await our slip assignment and instructions on how to proceed with customs (more on this later). We arrived at the dock at 3pm on Tuesday, 51 hours after raising anchor in the Dry Tortugas.

Looking back at those few hours of stress and worry in huge seas, we realize how great our boat handled it. Had Scott not hand steered, it still would have been fine. He was just trying to make it somewhat more comfortable for us. We could have let it continue on autopilot, and would have made our destination with no problem. This  boat has crossed the Atlantic with a previous owner, without paravane stabilization, so a few hours of 14 foot seas was probably just a blip on it’s radar.

The best that Scott can figure, is that the high waves were caused by a combination of depth change (as we entered more shallow waters) and eddy currents (currents that spin off of a main current) opposing the  25 knots winds. All of these factors came together at the right time to cause large, confused seas.

Howard weathered the trip like a champ, enduring it better than us! He was tucked into his “triangle of safety” on the pilot house bench, where he now spends long passages.

When we had a sudden roll, or a wave would break on us, he’d raise his head, eyes wide. We just had to pet him a few times and tell him he was fine, and he’d settle back into his travel coma (not drug induced this time!). I don’t think he was actually getting much sleep either, more like just trying to get through it, like the rest of us.

Now that it’s all behind us, we’re  thrilled to be here! I will be posting about our trip from Key West to the Dry Tortugas, and our two weeks at anchor there soon, as well are our customs experience. For now, we’re still getting settled here, washing our salt covered boat, doing laundry, orienting ourselves to the area, etc. Hurra Mexico!

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”