Tuesday, 9 November 2010

A Big Mistake Coming In

Owen hoists our oversized courtesy flag and yellow quarantine flag.
Amidst the realization that we actually did it, crossed the Pacific in a sailboat, was a terrible sinking feeling we'd made a big mistake.

In fact it was more than a feeling, we DID make an unbelievable mistake.  We came to the wrong place!

So sure of our ability to arrive in a country with documents and our confident selves ready to face Customs and Quarantine officials, we failed to question the information published in the three Cruising Guides we were using.

Note to any cruiser planning to check in at Scarborough, or Manly in Queensland; don't try it.  The official check-in office is now Rivergate, on the Brisbane River.  There is no other check-in location for a Brisbane landfall.

Queensland's Glasshouse Mountains with Bribie Island foreground
Talk about embarrassing!  That was the least of it.  We still wonder if our VHF radio is "on the blink", i.e. only working intermittently.  We could hear officials on Channel 16 but not one person responded to our numerous calls for instructions as we approached Scarborough, knowing our arrival would be in the dark.  A big change from everywhere else in the world is that the radio is quite silent here, perhaps due to the fact that many Australian boats don't use VHF as they still require operators to be licensed!  Most cruisers come in further north, to Bundaberg or Mackay, so there were no boats like us to talk with.

With the threat of a major storm with lightning and damaging winds forecast for Moreton Bay, we congratulated ourselves on getting to Scarborough in the dark, before the storm.  The volunteer with the Coast Guard was visible in his "ivory tower" so we radioed but he was unable to give us any information and no, we could not tie up at the fisheries dock because we were not authorized (thanks for the welcome).  Someone in a slip yelled that customs had moved to Manly and they could make a phone call for us.

Storms at sea
The wind was picking up, the storm was closing in.  Robert circled Bristol Rose in the tight quarters available to us.  We could not wait there, circling, with the fear that the wind would soon force us into the slipped boats and rock retaining walls.  So we headed back out through the narrow winding channel hoping to get some protection somewhere.  Manly seemed too far.

A radio call came from the volunteer Coast Guard, "Captain, what are your intentions?".  Hmmm, so the Coast Guard DOES care about where we are and wants to keep an eye on us?  Followed was what seemed like a scripted conversation on the CG's side, suggesting that "You're the Captain so it is up to you, but you could come back in and tie up at the public dock until the storm passes".  By this time it was about 9:00PM.  Ok, we'll do that, sounds like the best offer we've had tonight.

At last we were tied up, no help offered, awaiting the storm and feeling a little shell-shocked after our welcome and the past 8 days at sea.  We feel like we have the plague.  Knock, knock, thump, thump, three armed Officers of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service are standing on the dock beside us.  Welcome aboard!

After being read the riot act about illegal entry into this fine country of ours, and being questioned about why we came to Scarborough, they decided not to press charges.  They proceeded to then process our customs and immigration clearance on the spot, while the rain poured down and the lightning and thunder welcomed us to Australia.  Not exactly what we would have planned.  We finally got to sleep around midnight.

The mouth of the Brisbane River.  Beyond is Moreton Bay.
Turns out that only two weeks before our arrival, another vessel arrived at Scarborough, also seeking shelter from a storm.  It was an Australian vessel which had reportedly been involved in importing large quantities of drugs.  At least they did not make the mistake of thinking they would be able to do customs, immigration and quarantine clearance at Scarborough.  Their surprise reception was of a different calibre.  Obviously the locals were a little nervous about unfamiliar boats entering there, hence the reluctance to speak to or help us.  You can bet more than one phone call was made to authorities about our arrival that night.

On a very positive note, we have to dispel some of the bad news out there in the cruising community.  Yes the officials are very serious about their role as protectors of Australia's borders.  God help anyone who comes in with ill-intent.  The approach is equivalent to what we experienced in Puerto Rico with the US Coast Guard and what we encounter entering the US.  No messing around.  There's nothing to fear when arriving with nothing to hide.  The officials, once they established we'd made a silly (very embarrassing) mistake about port of entry, were extremely courteous and helpful and did indeed welcome us with sunny smiles.  We slept, comforted with the thought that our protection was assured.

No comments:

Post a Comment