How Not to Clear Customs

14 Nov
They are watching you

A few days back, we cleared customs in Sint Maarten (Also, known as Saint Martin, but we’re on the Dutch side of this tiny, amiably divided island so I’ll honor their spelling). There was no inspection of the boat so this took just a few forms and a handful of minutes. It was a world of difference from our Bermuda entry. Here we are on our way into St. George’s Harbor, Bermuda:

That’s a local police boat, making sure we don’t pitch any drugs overboard

Per protocol we called on the VHF when we were a few hours out of the harbor but at that distance communication was a bit garbled. When we called again near the entrance nothing seemed out of order until this police boat showed up. They trailed us by about 100′ and when we tried to hail them on the VHF they barked at us on a loudspeaker to ‘maintain course and speed to the customs dock’. Of course we did exactly that.

At the customs dock they were ready for us. As we got our passports in order a police van pulled up and released a couple stern-looking officers and their drug dog onto the scene. Still, we were optimistically ignorant. Strong security, sure, but maybe they do this for every boat?

Following the passport rigamarole they commenced with the search. Bob, our captain, was brought aboard with the police while the rest of us were told in no uncertain terms to keep off of the boat, and not communicate with him. While we twiddled our thumbs on the dock they went through the boat, opening every bag and locker, searching them and photographing the contents. They were exactingly thorough. However, they were also quite polite throughout. By the time it had become amply apparent that this small group of unshaven sailors was not much of a threat, they even let Bob pet the drug dog.

This genial attitude seems to be the way things are done on the island. Even while we were suspected drug smugglers the officials were polite and once that little matter was cleared up they let us up to see the operations center.

Yes, security for the island is still run from a fort!

The innocuously named Bermuda Radio is actually a very high-tech surveillance and control tower at the top of the island which is used to monitor shipping and, occasionally, air traffic. It is built into a fort, complete with moat and slits for shooting arrows at invaders. Visitors are allowed in each evening to take a look around, as long as they call in advance.

Arrow slits, good for repelling nosy tourists

We went up one evening and chatted with Gordon, the guy on duty (who wouldn’t let me take his photo). In the course of our conversation it came out that he was actually the one who called the cops on us. Gordon clearly felt a bit sheepish about this and he spent a while explaining exactly why he made that call. It mostly has to do with Bermuda Radio’s high-definition radar array.

The heart of Bermuda Radio is an array of high-definition radar and security cameras

This is the inside of the station and those screens are radar and surveillance equipment with a range extending for miles on all sides of the island. It was here that Gordon was watching us on radar long before we reached the harbor, wondering why we hadn’t yet contacted customs (apparently, the guy on shift before him hadn’t mentioned our first garbled attempt to hail them). Watching us, he saw a local fishing boat come rather close, cutting behind us to cross our wake. This is when he called the cops. Apparently, wake-crossing is a big red flag for the radar guys because it’s a standard technique for smuggling. You sail up in your boat, put the drugs/guns/whatever in a styrofoam container and then you drop them into the water for a local boat to pick up.
Gordon also told us about a recent event that had put everyone on guard. Apparently, a couple months back an Eastern European solo sailor had come into Bermuda, fleeing a storm. He was out from Columbia, bound for home and after checking in at customs he tied up at a dock and spent a couple days innocuously fixing his boat. It was only after they got a tip-off that customs inspected the vessel. They found a pistol and a few kilos of cocaine, very much out in the open. The guy had a ready excuse though; he wasn’t importing the stuff to Bermuda, he was just in transit!

St. George’s, Bermuda

This article was syndicated from Safe At Harbour But Meant For The Sea: DIY Sailing with Paul Calder


  1. Jesse

    I’ve always been very impressed with the complete professionalism of Bermuda radio and customs check in @ St Georges. They dutifully keep track of every single vessel that approaches the island from a wide circumference. And yes, you are supposed to hail them, and if you don’t make first contact, they will call you. They have ready reference of relevent information of any boat which has entered the island in the past. Sounds like you had some bad luck with the timing of that vessel cutting across your wake. There are a lot of places where that politeness you describe, which is a classy way to conduct themselves, would not have existed, to say the least. Sint Maarten too, was a place where we were treated respectfully and amiably by customs in Marigot, though in a more cheerful caribbean fashion. In my sailing in the Caribbean, the one place where a customs agent was on his high petty bureaucratic horse, and treated our out checking in disdainfully, was in Antigua.

  2. Marta Crichlow

    We sail in the Pacific Northwest between Oregon, Washington and British Columbia Canada. We love the Nexus Pass system. We interviewed with both USA and Canadian Customs. The pass is good for 5 years. All we have to do is clear customs when about an hour of crossing the international boarder and let them know our port of entry and where we came from. In our last 4 years of cruising we have only had to check into Canadian customs twice. One time they said if we were not boarded within 60 minutes we were free to leave. The other time the inspector did not board us, he just wanted to see our Captains face. You can be sure we will renew our Nexus Pass.

  3. Carl Herzog

    In addition to VHF, Bermuda Radio and the Bermuda RCC can be contacted by email, phone, INMARSAT and SSB:

    Tel: (441) 297-1010 / Fax: (441) 297-1530
    Emergency Tel: Dial 911 and request Marine Rescue
    E-mail: RCC Bermuda / Duty Officer (24 hours)
    Telex: INMARSAT C (581) 431010110 / INMARSAT C (584) 431010120
    MMSI: 003100001 (MF and VHF DSC)
    SSB R/T: 2,182 kHz or 4,125 kHz USB
    Marine VHF Channels: 16 or 27

    Additionally, yachts can provide advance notice of arrival via an online form available on Bermuda Radio website:

    Bermuda also produces a free, detailed cruising guide for visiting yachts that is very helpful. It can be downloaded as a pdf from the Bermuda port authority website:

  4. Steve Burrows

    This sounds like the case of the British yacht Arturs which went through the courts in June 2012 when I was there, though some of the details have changed. A search of the Royal Gazette under ´yacht cocaine´ yields only the Arturs case. In 2012 the Royal Gazette covered the trial of a Latvian, delivering a boat from Trinidad to Latvia for a Russian, who arrived in Bermuda in July 2011.
    Customs found 166kg of cocaine hydrochloride and a 9mm Beretta with extended magazines.
    Though the skipper´s story does have some plausibility, I believe he´s now enjoying 25 years of free accomodation in Bermuda. The Royal Gazette also reported the case of the British yacht Ocean Voyager, on delivery from the Caribbean to Europe in August 2001. The crew found part of the 586kg of cocaine on board, when trying to fix the toilet at sea. They reported the find to Bermuda before entry, the U.K. authorites took over the case and no-one was convicted.

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