After three hours in the Immigration Office in Grenada, I'd finally resigned myself to the fact that I actually would be spending the night in prison.
The Caribbean is a wonderfully friendly smattering of nations and cultures, where it's almost too easy to cross borders and travel freely. Especially by sailboat. Even our most recent passage, a relatively long one by comparison between Union Island and Grenada was an easy one, just a long day sail of 50 miles or so. Since coming down from St. Martin over the previous three weeks, our teenage crew had covered a lot of ground, and we'd gotten quite adept at handling the customs and immigrations procedures along the way. In my backpack, safely wrapped in plastic, were 13 passports and the boat papers, and it was only a matter of filling out some forms and smiling to the friendly government people, and we were off, free to explore another country.
It's also very easy to get lulled into a sense of complacency, to fall victim to 'tropical stupor,' that lazy, languid state of mind created by balmy weather and easy-going, where you 'just can't seem to get anything done.'
My brush with the Grenada officials came about due to a combination of the factors above, with the additional stress of playing both captain and psychologist for a boat-full of teenage emotions. One particularly rebellious student had finally crossed the line in the Grenadines - we booked him on the first flight out of Grenada the following morning, a scheduled 6:30am departure. My first mate Mia (who also happens to be my fiance), woke before the dawn at 4:00 to accompany the student to the airport, meeting the taxi at the St. George's Yacht Club.
I realized something was afoot when I went to clear customs that afternoon. The head Immigration Officer seemed to know who I was before even introducing myself, and gave me a wry smile when I asked to be cleared into the country.
'Have a seat, Captain,' he said, emphasizing the word, almost taunting me for my apparent mis-step. The bottom line, he explained, was that I'd illegally disembarked a crewmember without first clearing him into the country. By his logic, he had no idea if I'd disembarked him at all, going so far as to suggest I could have thrown him overboard 5 miles offshore.
After 10 minutes, I realized the situation was quite serious, despite the officers friendly demeanor. I remained seated, while he towered over me, staring at me through the corner of his eyes as his head gazed off in the other direction.
'Andrew, Andrew, Andrew, I hope you can come up with brilliant idea to help me decide what to do with you...'
Brilliant idea? Was he talking about a bribe? I had no idea how to handle myself, and decided to just answer his questions honestly, and hope he'd let me go on account of my responsibility to the kids (who were sitting outside, waiting for me to emerge, which was starting to seem increasingly unlikely). He called Mia in after an hour or so, asking her if she was capable of sailing the boat onward to Trinidad while I lingered in the local jail, awaiting my trial and potential $10,000.00 fine. Though she would have been quite capable to do so, leaving me behind was not an option. The walls were closing in, the room was getting hot, and I was getting desperate. I had only myself to blame - my innocent slip-up was about to put me in the biggest trouble in my young life. Forget the principals office - jail in a foreign, third-world country suddenly seemed tangibly real, and each minute that passed was another minute to contemplate my fate. I'd quickly sobered up from my bout of 'tropical stupor.'
As the third hour came and went, so did my hopes of sleeping aboard that night. The officer assured me that I'd be taken care of - a private cell, a hot meal and a shower. By then I was simply grasping for bright spots, and the idea of a real shower after 25 days actually sounded pretty good.
'Do you know what this means, Captain?' he asked me, handing me a sheet of paper, completely out of the blue. I looked at what appeared to be my clearance, both into and out of the country, and I gave the officer a puzzled look.
'Does this mean you're letting me go?' I nervously replied.
'Yes. But only because you have ten young lives to look after, and you seem like a good man. Now go.'
Dumbfounded, I stood on wobbly legs, walking out of the office without even thanking him, corralled the kids and walked - practically floated on air actually - to the dinghy dock, where freedom was instantly manifested in the form of a small rubber inflatable.
The lesson, of course, is to simply take customs and immigration as seriously as it really is. Clear in immediately upon dropping your hook - this must be a priority. If you can't, fly your yellow 'Q' flag and do not let anyone go ashore until the skipper has completed his responsibilities. Once cleared, fly the courtesy flag of the country your in from your starboard spreaders while you're in their waters. It makes you legal, but more than that, it lets people know you respect not only the law of the land, but more importantly, the laws of the sea.
It's so easy to take this for granted - the Caribbean is so laid-back and friendly, that clearing in and out becomes formality, routine. But what if the tables were turned? Imagine a Grenadan boat disembarking a crewmember in New York City, where he subsequently boarded a plane en route to a foreign country, without first going through customs. The skipper in that case most certainly would be in prison, no questions asked.
In the end, the officials in Grenada remained friendly and polite throughout the ordeal, as was every other customs official I encountered throughout the whole of the island chain. I was scared stupid not of them, but of my waiting prison cell.
Back at the boat, dinner never tasted so good. The kids wanted to know word for word what had happened. I obliged with a stupid smile plastered on my face, breathing in the air of a free man, acutely aware how wonderful it was to be sitting in the cockpit of a sailing boat and not behind bars.