Photo: The Harbour Police dock where everything civilised is supposed to happen...
The Harbour Police office had a notice posted saying that all transiting vessels must use the communication kiosk located at the outside corner of the building. The notice said this provided a link to the main police office downtown for processing incoming boat traffic and arranging for the requisite vessel inspection... except the kiosk didn't do any of that. There was a keyboard on the kiosk but some of the keys didn't work, so when dialling any of the four numbers given we then received a message on the screen saying we'd dialled an incorrect number. After fifteen minutes of trying our luck with the keyboard we somehow struck lucky and got the number right, a faint voice on the line then gave instructions that we could not quite make out because the voice seemed to be coming from somewhere around our feet.
Then we both realised the kiosk's speaker was located on the lower upright stand that supported the keyboard, the speaker was therefore at knee height. So Marie got herself on her hands and knees to listen, then through the face-height microphone I asked the woman to repeat what she had said. She asked the purpose of our call but I couldn't hear that, so Marie repeated what the woman asked and I explained that we were a foreign vessel having arrived in San Diego, we were now on the police dock as legally required and that we needed to arrange for vessel and documents inspection. We were told that we'd dialled the wrong number.
We dialled the correct number the police lady gave which was one of the three alternative numbers listed on the kiosk information board. After a dozen or so attempts with the dodgy keyboard Marie, still on her hands and knees eagerly informed me the number was dialling through. I couldn't hear a thing so Marie instructed me when to speak into the microphone. When the number connected I repeated what I'd said to the first policewoman who then told Marie to dial the number we'd first dialled. I explained that we'd already dialled that number but this lady said to Marie that we must try again. We tried the first number again which was by now extremely frustrating with the keyboard that didn't work, this time we got a voice message saying to dial the alternative second number we'd already dialled. This was a farce. We dialled both the other numbers listed too but they just dialled out, no one answered. So we dialled the second number a second time...
The second lady responded to Marie who still kneeled on her hands and knees to listen at the kiosk speaker. I wanted to hear too so I got down on my knees behind Marie, I intended to remonstrate with the woman when she again told us to dial the first number, which I knew full well she would. Whilst I kneeled behind Marie to listen in on the speaker a guy walked around the corner of the building then stopped suddenly when he saw me kneeling right behind Marie on her hands and knees. "Whoa," he said, "I'm sorry to interrupt you, it's a free world and you guys should do what you wanna do." He sheepishly disappeared back around the corner embarrassed. Marie and I looked at each other quite shocked. In the meantime the lady repeated that we should dial the first number and then hung up. "Let's get the four numbers and call them from our mobile phone on the boat," I said to Marie.
Marie called the second number again on our cellphone who told us quite emphatically and with a good deal of impatience to dial the first number. This time Marie explained in a much restrained normal manner that we'd already tried that number four times and been told to dial this number. The lady to her credit apologised but then connected us to the first number directly. We got the same first woman so we explained everything yet again giving our vessel details and asked for the required inspection. That couldn't be done, the first number said, that had to be arranged with the second number who'd already connected us. The first lady, who was obviously Hispanic in origin, then reconnected us to the second lady who, with some exasperation said the first lady was incorrect, she was the one who'd have to arrange for our inspection.
To give you some background we weren't allowed to proceed to the designated A9 anchorage here in San Diego without a police inspection of our vessel. The second lady, the one who wasn't Hispanic, informed us the A9 anchorage was full, that we couldn't go there anyway. So instead we called the department of Customs & Homeland Security to formally register our arrival, a legal requirement in every US Port for a foreign flagged vessel and they were fine, they took our details then told us that we must call the harbour police to arrange for the vessel inspection. We explained to Customs & Homeland Security that we'd already tried that without much success. Marie told them exactly what happens when you call the specified numbers from the kiosk. Customs & Homeland Security said the Harbour Police were dumb, their useless system needed sorting out and to call them from our cellphone. Marie said we'd already tried that too. Just then, whilst Marie spoke to Customs & Homeland Security to explain our problem, a huge American aircraft carrier passed slowly by right behind us making its way into its San Diego homeport - there's little doubt it was jam-packed solid with the world's most sophisticated communications systems and god knows how many nuclear weapons. No dodgy keyboards and knee-height speakers on that ship. Then a harbour police launch tied up on the dock right behind us - it had been escorting the aircraft carrier into port.
Marie jumped ashore to intercept one of the harbour policemen as he left their launch. She quickly explained to him our problem with the kiosk and the two numbers we'd dialled. The guy was genuinely sympathetic and told us the kiosk system didn't work since they'd closed down the office, the keyboard didn't function well and the numbers given were wrong he said. It was a Sunday too so the office that arranged for vessel inspections was closed. What should we do, we asked, we couldn't go to the A9 anchorage without an inspection or we'd be fined by the harbour police. He instructed us to go to the A9 anchorage area anyway, he'd mark it up on the board in the office so the morning shift would know we were there when they arrived for work the next morning. Then we could return to the police dock and arrange to be inspected. But we'd been told the anchorage is full, we said. "No it's not," he told us, "it's never full, it can only be booked online and folk book the anchorage ahead just in case, then don't turn up." The policeman also told us it was ok to anchor outside of the marker buoys if we needed.
We left for the A9 anchorage and it was full. It was dangerously full but with only half of the maximum twenty anchored vessels allowed between the four marker buoys, so we anchored safely outside of the designated zone as we'd been instructed. Early the next morning we were awakened by the harbour police launch saying we'd violated the San Diego Port Laws, we'd anchored outside of the designated A9 anchorage area and there was no record of our vessel being inspected - nor did we have a permit. But it's all been marked up on your marker board in your office by your evening shift, we explained. No it has not, they said, and issued us with the thousand dollar violation notice of being fined. We'd have to appear in the San Diego courthouse.
At this stage I related Article 33 of International Maritime Law and reminded them that the United States was a founding signatory of Maritime Law. As a foreign vessel the law allowed us forty-eight hours safe anchorage in any port to ensure the safety of crew and vessel, I said. It was down to them to provide us with safe moorage free from any harm or hindrance. I also hinted at the might of the British Navy and, as an afterthought, I reminded them of their former colonial status which, I have to tell you, was not that well received. Marie, in a more practical manner, explained everything that had happened since we'd arrived in San Diego the previous afternoon. One of the three policemen got on to his radio to ask about International Maritime Law. Then they quickly left and didn't come back, they didn't leave the Violation Notice with us so we didn't know what to do.
I got onto the Port Authority website to formally reserve the A9 Anchorage. It was full, it said and could only be reserved at least 24 hours in advance of arrival following a police dock inspection. It couldn't be reserved online but only stated that right at the end of the reservation process. How could we do that? We'd sailed four hundred miles from San Francisco, we couldn't know exactly when we would arrive in San Diego with the absolute vagrancies of the winds and seas. Which is why the anchorage usually gets overbooked just in case, there's no method of cancelling or amending your reservation if you're not gonna arrive exactly when you reserved your spot. So, in frustrated frustration we pulled up our anchor and left the A9 anchorage, we headed instead for the alternative A5 Glorietta Bay anchorage which also has overly complicated restrictions that we never did understand and which we were also supposed to pre-reserve online. We didn't reserve anything, nor did we ever proceed to the police dock for the inspection. Nor is there an Article 33 of International Maritime Law but no one ever knows that or even checks.
Three days later we'd had enough, so we quietly left San Diego to sail across the border into Mexico. Let me at this stage tell you that throughout our voyages American sailboat owners have continually bombarded us with terrible stories about the vagrancies of dealing with Mexican officials. It always seemed to us that Yankee sailors were on the verge of paranoia when discussing Mexican immigration and port authorities so we were understandably cautious when we headed south into Mexico. Without further mishap we sailed into Ensenada forty or so miles across the US border, there we tied up and made our own way to the Mexican harbour office to find the harbourmaster, quarantine, customs and Mexican border protection all in one easy location.
In less than thirty minutes we had everything done. The Mexicans were friendly, efficient and courteous, nor were they in any way corrupt like Americans vigorously claim. Then we proceeded to the Cruise Port Marina Harbour which was, incidentally, chock full of American sailboats.
Footnote: We have sailed into many first-world and third-world countries during our long circumnavigation. American officials in Hawaii and Alaska were exceptionally courteous and extremely helpful but less so in mainland America, particularly as we sailed south down the west coast. Even so we still rate US Customs & Border Protection extremely high given our own experiences... but San Diego is an infamous logistical nightmare well known to foreign flagged sailboats. There's thousands of private owned vessels located there many of which never leave the dockside because there's nowhere to take a boat except for some limited California coastal cruising - unless a boat owner is prepared to cross the Pacific Ocean or sail south to Mexico. But there's a curious phenomenon when it comes to American sailboats, whenever we've encountered Americans they seem to be overly paranoid about foreign countries and their border officials. Perhaps that's more a reflection upon US political policies and the way the American media plays its part - but of course I don't wish to get into any of that.
As a British flagged vessel we've been treated with a good deal of respect in most countries we've sailed into, perhaps with the exception of one or two of our own former colonial colonies such as Canada - which was a sudden shock to our system. New Zealand was fine though Australia less so... but the Aussies have a national obsession about we Brits anyway. In the Red Sea Arabic countries such as Sudan, Eritrea and Yemen we were exceptionally well treated, also in Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia. And the only official corruption we've encountered has been in Egypt, in the Philippines and in Thailand but we easily mastered that. But the diminutive five-foot tall official in Ao Chalong, Phuket is an infamous little bastard that every sailboat that passes through Thailand knows well. With him it's a game of outwit he wins each and every time.
In terms of here in Mexico can we say that Mexican officials are nothing unusual, nor are they overly bothersome or corrupt. It's purely a paranoid paranoia thing with seemingly highly-strung yanks that doesn't much exist in the real world.
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