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Doing the customs two step

Aug 29, 2014
The Bahamas customs office in Georgetown on Great Exuma.

The Bahamas customs office in Georgetown on Great Exuma.

Robert Beringer

To the editor: Recently, I left my Catalina 34 in the Bahamas and flew back to the U.S. for some long-delayed errands and to purchase equipment for the boat. Upon return I breezed through immigration with a copy of my cruising permit, then moved on to customs. The agent was a polite young man and wore a collared short-sleeve shirt with epaulettes.

“Good afternoon sir,” he said with a disarming smile. “Do you have anything to declare?”

“Affirmative,” I answered with confidence. And I plopped a VHF antenna, radio, and cruising permit on his desk.

I was about to discover that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Before I left for the states, several salty veterans had informed me that at customs I only needed to present my cruising permit with an impassioned explanation as to why the equipment in my possession is necessary for the safe operation of the boat. Thus, I would avoid paying a large import fee for a “dutiable item.” I was ready to do that, but what happened instead caught me completely off guard: “Could I see the receipt for those items?”

I guess those old salts weren’t very salty after all. The agent stared at me with a subliminal “gotcha” look, and yes he sure did. I simpered back at him, and rubbed my temples. He let me squirm for a very uncomfortable minute, then — the classy guy — he stepped in and saved me. “Well, since it’s under $100 it qualifies for the general exemption. You can go now.”

I got into the cab a chastened sailor. He could have really un-made my day, but he let me slide.

Word of mouth advice is good, but always verify it with source information. I had no excuse not to go to the customs office in Georgetown beforehand to see what I needed to bring to avoid import duties, or to research the law at

If you intend to leave your boat in the Bahamas while you visit another country and return with replacement parts:

1. You must present a copy of the receipt for all “boat parts.” Failure to do this may result in parts being detained by customs to obtain estimate of fair market value.

2. All declared boat parts are added to the boat’s manifest and qualify for special exemption to import duties of 1 percent or minimum of $10.

Also note that these imported boat parts must never be sold, leased, or bartered. They are strictly for the use of your private vessel. If convicted of this offense, that person is liable for full payment of import duty as from date of importation, and a maximum fine of $10,000, or an amount equal to three times the amount of the duty. And be careful who you leave your boat with. If it is chartered out for any commercial venture in your absence (with or without your knowledge!) it is subject to seizure.

—Robert Beringer’s Catalina 34, Ukiyo, is based on the St. John’s River in Florida. He holds a USCG 50-ton license.

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