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A clearance paper chase

Aug 6, 2010

We recently spent considerable time in Indonesia while voyaging on our boat Bahati, a center cockpit Montevideo 43. One thing you can say about the bureaucratic labyrinth of yacht clearance in Indonesia: it’s unpredictable. No one can tell you exactly how the process will play out. At best, it is a relatively easy affair. But at its worst, clearing into Indonesia can be a nightmare. Often, it feels a bit like you’re caught-up in the Shakespearean play, “The Merchant of Venice” and everyone you meet is Shylock, trying his best to extract what he judges to be his rightful “pound of flesh” (in the form of Indonesian rupiahs).

It’s the name of the game in this part of the world and, as long as you’re willing to play with a bit of goodwill and not take it all too seriously, we promise it won’t hurt too much — in fact, it can actually turn out to be kind of fun.

We cleared into Indonesia in West Timor having fulfilled the requisite “paper chase” not once, but twice, as we had originally intended to make the passage from New Zealand northerly round Australia and on to Bali, but found ourselves delayed due to family health issues and the need to replenish the “cruising kitty” en route.

Using a local agent
When we first explored the various options for clearing-in to Indonesia we followed the advice offered on www.Noonsite.com, Jimmy Cornell’s online compendium of good cruising guidance. Noonsite suggested we contact Bali Marina who would, reportedly, handle our clearance for a fee of $250 U.S. and a projected time lag of six to seven weeks. We e-mailed them and heard back quickly from their office saying, “no problem...we’ll be glad to help you out.”

We filled out an online application, forwarded it (plus proof of our bank draft for $250 deposited to their Jakarta account), forwarded copies of passports for all crew intending to join us entering Indonesian waters, all scanned and e-mailed to their address in Bali. In exchange they would supply us with our CAIT (the required Indonesian security clearance document) plus, if we chose, a “letter of reference” for our “social visa,” which would, in theory, extend our legal stay for as much as month, maybe more, all for an additional $70 U.S.

The “social visa” must be applied for in-person in a foreign port at an Indonesian consulate before arriving in Indonesian waters. Most yachts coming from the east stop and walk through this process in Darwin, Australia. We did it in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, when I flew there on business from Bali. This seemed fine with the powers that be even though we’d already cleared-in at Kupang, West Timor. Sound confusing? Yes, it was.

It depends
The long and short of the story is that sometimes these rules and procedures are followed and sometimes not. It all depends on who you talk to and who you happen to meet first upon arrival. The truth seems to be that you can manage all of the paperwork on your own upon arrival (with the exception of the CAIT which must be applied for and obtained before arrival). However, we heard from several boats that they never actually saw the requisite piece of paper until they arrived and it was presented to them by the folks who signed them in.

In our case, the final version of our CAIT was not available until we landed in Kupang because we’d had several last minute crew changes which required that the CAIT be updated and re-stamped in Jakarta. Good news is that “Haryo” and “Charlie” at Bali Marina were very responsive and managed to get everything accomplished and e-mailed to us in time for our arrival in Kupang. All I needed to do was find an Internet café and download the document in Kupang so I could present it to the immigration officer, aptly and artfully named “Rembrandt,” upon request.

Of course, there is the ongoing question about “the bond” which everyone who plans to travel to Indonesia by boat has heard of and worries about. Everyone you talk to has a different story to tell about this mysterious “luxury boat tax” which, in theory, is supposed to cover the expense of dealing with your boat should you choose to abandon it in Indonesian waters.

In Indonesia, the whole “bond” issue seems to have been a creative way for a few clever people to collect a little extra cash by taking advantage of unwary yachtsmen. The reality is that no one has figured out how to enforce this recent regulation and everyone we talked with involved in the yachting industry agrees that this “bond” concept is really just a good way to discourage people from visiting Indonesian waters.

As Rod Heikell writes in his Indian Ocean Cruising Guide: “the whole process is so labyrinthine that many choose to go on one of the rallies from Darwin to Indonesia,” instead of trying to sort things out for themselves. You can pay a hefty fee to join the rally and, yes, the rally organizers will wade through the bureaucratic swamp for you but, in reality, it’s not that difficult to sort it out for yourself if you have the stamina and willingness to send the necessary e-mails and negotiate with the locals in true Indonesian style. It can actually be fun if you don’t let the myriad twists and turns get to you! Noonsite continues to be a great clearing-house and resource of the latest cruising info coming out of Bali and elsewhere around the world. In this case, it seems quite up-to-date so it is well worth researching for the latest information available.

The first version of our CAIT arrived via e-mail in less than a month following our online application filing and we were able to pick it up in Noumea, New Caledonia, a nice surprise, and ahead of schedule. It was hand-typed on an old ribbon typewriter and stamped/signed by officials in Jakarta. Very archaic, but official looking. No sweat.

Changed crew list
When our crew list changed en route we simply sent new photo copies of passports to the good folks at Bali Marina and, for an additional $70, the new names were typed into the document, scanned and e-mailed back to us again. In the end we had to change, or actually add to our crew list, at least four times between leaving New Zealand and arriving in Indonesia, but no one seemed to mind the updates and we only had to pay the change fee once.

En route between Thursday Island in the Torres Straits and Indonesia, we were advised by “Charlie” at Bali Marina that we might best stop in Kupang and contact their “agent” there, named “Napa,” who could take care of all clearance issues and, in fact, give us a three-month visa instead of the two-month variety (or as little as 14 days!) we might expect to receive “on arrival” had we sailed direct to Bali.

We heard horror stories in 2008 about boats being “impounded” and fines levied when the Darwin to Indonesia Rally used Kupang as their clearing-in spot. We were nervous about having the same thing happen to us, but after a long, slow, engine-dominated crossing from Thursday Island, and knowing we needed to refuel anyway, we decided to take the risk and drop-in at Kupang first. We were told to simply “call Napa on VHF” as we made our approach, which we did several times receiving no response.

As close as we dared
Eventually, the British captain of a small coastal tanker answered our call and stated “if you just go on in and anchor, Napa will find you.” We did just that, dropping our hook off the beach near “Jimmy’s Bar,” as recommended. We were immediately hailed by a Swiss catamaran, the only other yacht in the anchorage, who told us to get even closer to the beach because “Napa only has a dugout canoe and won’t come out if you’re not as close as possible.” We followed this advice and got as close as we dared anchoring in slightly more than two meters of water. Sure enough, as soon as the hook was down a voice came on the radio announcing in clear English: “Hello...this is Napa on the beach...be right out!”...and then… “maybe you just come get me in your dinghy as I do not have good boat?”

It was the middle of the first week of Ramadan, the Muslim high holidays, and we were surrounded by serenading Mosques from dawn ‘til dark, and even throughout the night. Napa, or at least the “Napa” we met, was most helpful and, when we finally got ashore, ran me around town on his scooter to do the necessary paperwork after telling my all-woman crew to “go walking-walking-shopping-shopping.” They were happy to do that and I ended-up at Napa’s house just as evening prayers were being sung. We sat in silence for awhile after which he shared some simple food and drink with me...the first he’d had all day since he was following the custom of fasting during Ramadan. It was a pleasure breaking bread with him and meeting some of his family. We shared stories about our mothers, both of whom had died the previous year.

A couple of million should do
While riding on the back of his motorbike I asked him how much money I would need to retrieve from the ATM to complete our clearing-in process and buy some extra fuel? “Oh, a couple of million should do!” My initial shock dealing with Indonesian currency! After taking me back to the beach and reconnecting with my crew, exhausted from their “walking-walking-shopping-shopping,” he promised to return with our empty jerry cans full of “good clean diesel” by the next morning. In fact, he showed-up, this time in his dugout canoe with a helper, under the cover of darkness around 2400. He surprised us out of our deep, post-passage nap in the cockpit. When I offered to turn on the deck lights so we could better see what we were doing he quickly motioned to us to shut them down. Clearly he was nervous about being seen selling us this “black liquid gold.” What’s the story behind that one? We’ll never know.

Next morning he called again bright and early: “It’s Napa on the beach.” He asked that we come in and get him and the customs agent, “Rembrandt,” who wanted to “see our boat.” We brought them both out and they sat politely refusing any libation. (“It is the Muslim custom to fast during the day,” Rembrandt reminded us. “And, though I am Christian, since Napa is Muslim, I honor his tradition.”)

When I offered to return Napa’s hat to him, which he had left behind during the secret diesel run the night before, he signaled me with a wink and a wave to put it away. Again, he clearly did not want his good Christian friend to know that he had already been aboard Bahati. Rembrandt artfully signed the necessary papers and we returned both our visitors to the beach, quickly.

Later, Napa returned to collect his hat and the money for the fuel. He told us his fee would be collected from Bali Marina as he was only acting as their agent. But we could tip him if we wanted and did we have any whiskey on board? “I’d love a bottle for after Ramadan is finished.” We gave him a bit of extra cash and a bottle of JW Black Label which no one aboard had been interested in drinking since we left Maine. Napa departed looking and sounding quite happy after exchanging cell number’s so we could “stay in touch and recommend our friends” to his good service.

A fine line
In the end, we were very satisfied with Napa’s help and we experienced our first Indonesian cultural adventure in the process. Just beware that if you ask “how much?” he may respond “it’s up to you!” which can put you in a tough place. How much of a tip is appropriate? Of course, finally, it is up to you. But in Indonesia there is a fine line between “tipping” and “graft.” In the end we gave him a few thousand extra rupiahs and he seemed very pleased. No doubt we spent more money on this whole process than we needed to, but Napa took the pain out of running around chasing the papers and stamps ourselves. So, at least for the time being, best advice is to “Call for Napa!” on VHF 16 when you arrive, but don’t expect any response until you are fully “anchor down” and close enough to the beach. By the way, when we quizzed Napa about “the bond” he said, “No bond, no worries.” Welcome to Indonesia.

The other option is to go straight to Bali and check-in at Bali Marina. Again, you can do the run around to necessary offices and banks yourself, but much easier to let “Charlie” and “Haryo” manage it for you and pay them the required fee. We also found, after arrival, that you can anchor around the corner in Serangan and let Alvin at TM Marine Services (also the home base for the Royal Bali Yacht Club), do the checking-in and out for you. Alvin’s a good guy and, though Bali Marina will tell you otherwise, there seems to be no problem letting him do the bureaucratic chase for you. The bottom line in Bali, and all of Indonesia, is that everyone wants a “piece of the action.” You will be charged something by whoever you deal with and everything is negotiable.

Again, the much-feared issue of “the bond” is a non-issue it seems, at least for the moment, as no one knows how to enforce it and everyone realizes that it is hurting the yachting business to try and hold people to this kind of extortionist payment. If you arrive with your CAIT processed, a smile on your face, and a willingness to cough up a few extra rupiahs to help pave the way, life will be easy.

We also met at least one “super yacht” agent in Bali who had apparently found a way around the whole bond issue for his clients by “guaranteeing” payment himself should they overstay their welcome. Everyone we talked with, including this “super agent,” the good folks at Bali Marina, and Alvin at TM Marine Services, were actively lobbying with the government in Jakarta to try and do away with “the bond” issue all together. How it all plays out next season, only time will tell.


Nat and Betsy Warren-White are circumnavigating on their Montevideo 43, Bahati, visit their blog at: www.bahati.net.

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