Warning LONG POST a head.
The most common question’s we seem to be getting these days are how much longer are you here for and where are you going next?
Well I thought it was time I answered these questions or at least tell our story.
In August of last year when we were in Madagascar we decided it was time to quit our job and come back to the USA to complete our project. We were absolutely ecstatic to finally be making plans to do something for ourselves. We couldn’t wait.
We had the vision that we would arrive, find a place on land to stay, work on the boat during the week and enjoy our weekends exploring this country. Enjoying some land time whilst working towards getting our future home fit to live in. It all sounded easy enough and I had hoped it would have been a fun relaxing time finally working at a slower pace towards our future.
How far from that dream has the last six months been.
I will start at the beginning cause it does require some understanding of what is like to get here. There is several different visa’s for visiting the USA. With the exception of once on a 10 day holiday, we have always come here boating related. Even then in the marine categories there is various different visa’s. The both of us have always had B1/B2 American Visa’s. These visa’s are valid for 10 years and normally allows entry into the country for up to 6 months at a time. You have to apply in advance for these visas, which is a fairly lengthy online process that can take 2-3 hours and it asks some of the strangers of questions. I’m not sure if someone who had a plan to do some wrong doing here in the US would actually answer those questions honestly. Hmmm well we have no intention of doing anything wrong here, we have a clean record and we have always been approved. After the lengthy on line application process and after paying the approximate processing fee of $160 you have to make an appointment from the online schedule. Then you go to your appointment and prove why you want to enter the country. Just going to an American Embassy is a process in itself and really puts you on edge. I’ve gone through this process four times to date, first in Belize, then in Singapore, last year in Capetown and most recently in France.
After getting married last year and getting a new passport to carry my new maiden name I needed to apply for a new American Visa. This I did on arrival in Capetown in October of last year. Under occupation I have always put ‘Yacht Cook/First Mate’. When at my interview last year in Capetown I was asked why I wanted a new B1/B2 visa. My reasons was because I work on boats and have my own boat in the USA to. At the end of the interview I was told by the official that my visa was approved and I would be receiving a 5 year B1 visa within a few days. I questioned why just B1 and not the B1/B2 that I applied for and was told ‘they don’t issue those visa’s to people like myself anymore’. We all know not to argue with an American in authority so just assumed things had changed and this would all be OK. After all American was in for big changes with the presidential election and new President announced.
So fast forward to December when we arrived in the country. We had just completed a circumnavigation, done a 10 day extensive crew handover and had packed up our lives from the last 3.5 years and arrived at busy Miami International Airport. It was a few days before Christmas and our plan was to spend Christmas with my Uncle and Aunt in Florida before coming up to Charleston to start on our project. As we approached the American Immigration line Morgan realized that in his haste he had packed his old passport containing his visa’s in his check in luggage. Crap. Not a problem though as we had also gone through the online process to apply for a Visitors Esta Visa which allows up to 3 months stay over a 2 year period. When the official asked what Visa’s we had we explained that Morgan had forgotten his B1/B2 visa in his old passport that had been checked in. He said not a problem just use your Esta. So I asked should I do the same as I had a Esta and a my new B1 visa. So he said no use your B1 thats better. Not thinking anymore of it we had arrived in the USA.
In February we had to go to Antigua for 10 days for Morgan to be part of the race crew on Louise. He had committed to this for months before. On arrival back into the country on the 25th February, things didn’t go as smoothly. We arrived back at about 9pm in Charlotte North Carolina. When we went through the initial immigration line the officer starting asked questions. ‘You were here before for nearly two months, why are you back again’? Then he took our passports and handed us a red card instead and sent us on our way. With the red card in hand we soon got ushered of to the side and into another room where there was a Indian guy and a Mexican family. Well secondary inspection isn’t a great deal of fun at all. The Customs and Border Protection official was not very happy with us. I remember his words like it was yesterday. He said ‘You two will need to explain yourselves. I will deal with you first (pointing at Morgan) and then you after (thats me). They have such a way of talking it makes your knees start to go soft. We were both scared and trying to figure out what we had done wrong. They were not happy that we had just left the country 10 days before and were trying to come back in again. He proceeded to tell us that going to Antigua was not classed as ‘out of the country’. All neighboring countries and Caribbean Islands were not classed as being away from the US and especially not considering the time frame we had been gone for. Like seriously…….all these countries have their own governments, flags, money and even language, but hey you can’t tell an American official that when he’s on a roll. He kept repeating that even though we had gone to Antigua for 10 days this wasn’t classed as leaving the country for any significant time. So then he wanted to know why Morgan had come into the country in December on a Esta, so we explained why, then he asked why I had come in on a B1 so I explained. Then the big problem came to light. He explained that B1 is for Business or working in the US on a boat, had I been working here? Well on my own boat but not making money. I told him that the officer told me in Miami to use that visa. They try to twist things around and said had we said we were working here and of cause we told them the truth which was no, why would we say that when Morgan had come in on a Esta. Its amazing how intimidating this whole process is. They kept asking the same questions over and over, ‘what were we doing here, how can we stay this long in the country without working and where were we getting the money from to support ourselves’. Seriously, we’ve worked our butts of for the last 12 years, we don’t own the big American house, or have the fancy American car, or the crazy American loan and we unfortunately don’t have a family either. This is how we can afford to be here. However how can you tell someone on a power trip this though, at this point you know not to speak unless you’re asked. Apparently because I am here on my own boat working this was classed as pleasure and therefore I needed the B2 section of the visa. So I again explained that I had just applied for a B1/B2 in the American Embassy in Capetown (I had all the paperwork to prove it) and was told they don’t issue those visa’s to people like me anymore (not sure what that actually meant). Anyway the officer said that was ridiculous and that I would need the B2 to stay here for pleasure. So thanks American Embassy in Capetown for screwing up on this. By this point I was nearly in tears as we explained we were here fixing up our boat which was a project and we would need at least 6 months to get the work done. We told them that no way would we get the work completed in three months and that we would have to leave the country again to come back. We asked ‘what was considered out of the country and for what period’. His answer was basically that we needed to go back to our country of residence or birth ie. the UK or France. However he wouldn’t answer how long we would have to go for. After over a hour and the same questions being repeated he finally said ‘I could just send you packing however I will be lenient on you and let you in for 3 months only on the Esta. Wow. He said he could give Morgan 6 months stay on his B1/B2 visa but advised us to stay together, which we agreed on, so he got three months to. At this point the officials were getting tired and even said its getting late its been a long day, yet they proceeded to ask why we had taken a one hour flight from North Carolina to South Carolina when we could have driven the 3 hour drive. Honestly you’re made to feel like you’re doing wrong no matter what. Our passports were finally handed back to us and we had to make the dash to our connecting flight which at this point over a hour later was about to take of.
So there we were totally deflated with just a three month stay in the country. A lot of pressure to try and get things done in such a short time. We always knew this project could take 6-8 months uninterrupted, and that was being optimistic. To now have this time pressure on us was not a lot of fun. Morgan worked 7 days a week the entire time, literally putting in 12-14 hour days. It was stressful and far from what I imagined our time here would be like.
By the end of March we could see how our progress was going and decided we needed to try to see if we could get a extension or something. So we booked an appointment with US Immigration Services. Although I had seen on line that there was no way to get an extension with a Esta, it was worth a try. The official was very nice and explained that Morgan could possibly apply for an extension however the paper work could take months and months to process and she would advised against it. We told her about our experience with the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and she basically said that its up to the individual we got at the time. The lady told us that basically they won’t say what is the time frame we needed to leave the country for because there was no rules on this and that the officer we get determines how long we can stay or not. She was very sympathetic to us however said at the end of the day the CBP officer has the power to make the decision he wants. Wow can you believe this is how the system works.
During the month of April we often saw CBP officers near the yard going out to the ships. One day we decided to approach an officer and ask him what was considered out of the country and for how long. He didn’t understand why we had been given a hard time. He confirmed that Antigua where we went was ‘out of the country’ and 10 days out of the country was fine.
At the end of April we went to the CBP office at the Port to enquire about what we would require to do when we wanted to leave with KB. We had a very nice lady CBP officer deal with us. At the end of our conversation she asked what was our ‘Immigration status’ so we explained the situation to her and what had happened on arriving in the country back in February. By this point we knew we would have to leave the country by the 25th May to then return. So we asked where would we need to go and for how long would we need to go for to come back to the country without any problems. She didn’t see why we had had any problems coming into the country however took our passport details and said she would enquire this to a CBP officer in the Immigration section. The next day she called to confirm that we shouldn’t have a problem coming back into the country. We didn’t need to go to France or the UK and could just go to the Bahamas for a week and that should be fine. Again we would just need to prove to the official that checked us back into the country that we didn’t want to live here. We made the decision to go to France to see family before our time expired. Whilst there I also applied for a new B1/B2 visa at the American Embassy. I explained my situation and presto was issued a new 10 year B1/B2 visa. We felt confident at this point that this would make our lives much easier.
5 weeks ago on the 3rd June we arrived back from 2 weeks in France (Morgan’s country of Birth) and entered the country via Miami International Airport again. We got asked the same questions at the immigration booth, ‘why are we coming back into the country, how long do we want to be here, how can we afford to be here’. You are really made to feel that they don’t believe you and its intimidating process. The CBP officer looked at my passport and new visa and stamped my passport for 6 months. Phew a sign of relief, then he looked at Morgan’s and slipped a Orange card in his and told us to wait. Here we go again. This time we got escorted through to another office and was made to wait with a bunch of other people of mix origin. There’s a movie we saw years ago based on a group of people in a Secondary Inspection room. I forget what its called but its a horrible movie but its a true portrayal of what it can be like in secondary inspection. You are treated like you have done something wrong. You are literally barked at. Why they don’t realize they can get the same message across without shouting or being so authoritative is beyond me. Based on our previous experience of nearly losing our flight, we had booked to have a 6 hour lay over in Miami. It was a good thing to as nearly two hours later Morgan was finally called up to the window for his interview. I went with him holding my passport but was told in such a way ‘to go sit over there’. Therefore I don’t know exactly what was said but Morgan explained to the CBP official why we were here. Apparently this official was not interested in anything Morgan had to say. He told Morgan that he didn’t have to explain himself as he could see his records of being in the country. We had all the paper work to back up why we were here, boat papers, letter from the yard, but he didn’t want to see any of it. Instead he told Morgan that he had been in and out of the country too many times in the last 10 years. Morgan explained that previously it was mainly because we worked on a US flagged vessel that we had been here and prior to December we hadn’t been in the country for 3.5 years. Nope this young CBP officer had a attitude and was clearly on a power trip. The only reason that this officer had for not allowing Morgan in for longer was because he had been in the country too many times in the last 10 years. Really. Which is absolute bullshit as we have been traveling together for the last 13 years yet I got a six months stay granted. Knowing I had already been approved in the country by the previous officer he then asked Morgan what was the minimum time he needed to finish the boat. Morgan said two months hoping we would at least get three. Nope he was stamped in for just two months. The officer also told him that should he try to leave the country again to come back his visa would be revoked. Morgan asked him what was seen as a ‘reasonable time frame out of the country’ but again that question was ignored. On top of only stamping him in for two months he also wrote on his stamp ‘Limited Stay’ and stamped Morgan in on B1. B1 means for business or work, even though we had explained we were here for what is considered ‘pleasure’ B2. So if an officer was to look at our passports now Morgan would be considered to be here working. Seriously the system is completed screwed.
So there you have it, it would appear that going to our country of residence or birth being France had no pull in the matter. Basically that last CBP officer contradicted everything the previous officer in February had told us. According to the CBP officer we spoke to at the Port non of that is true anyway. There is no time frame needed out of the country or any preferred locations that we would need to go to to qualify being out of the country. Its all just ridiculous. The power is in the CBP officer’s hands, the first American contact you have when arriving in this country. Its amazing to think that your life is in the hands of this one individual, and if they are having a bad day, going through a divorce or perhaps even racist then your day could probably end up bad to. Aren’t we human, isn’t this how it works. If you’re not happy everyone around you feels the vibe. For weeks this whole ordeal has angered me as we are not doing anything wrong here. We have tried to explain ourselves until we are blue in the face, all we are doing is spending our hard earn cash here and trying to get our boat ready to leave. We have the paperwork and the boat to prove it. We have no intentions of living in this country. I have always said entering the USA was not fun and you could think that perhaps arriving by plane to join a boat you get this experience. However back up to five years ago when we sailed into the USA on a US flagged vessel. We arrived in early February (Winter) in Newport. It was a cold frosty morning with temperatures at minus degrees. We were the only boat there as we arrived early to get a massive refit done. When we saw the two officers coming down the dock, Morgan and Ronan our crew stepped onto the dock with one foot on the boat to pull the boat in for the officers. Immediately they were shouted at to get back on the boat. So honestly in our experience I don’t know if there is a difference.
We can say we have officially sailed around the world, and have dealt with corruption, bribery and cultural difference. The United States of American for both of us takes the prize for the worse treatment. This whole experience has left a horrible taste in our mouths. Our plan was to return next year to do the North West Passage. Honestly I don’t know if I want to come back to this country again.
So the bottom line is we have to be out of here by the 3rd of August. We still don’t know exactly where we are going yet. North or South. Although North would be out of the hurricane season, South might be easier on us. So for now we are leaning in that direction. Right now we are thinking Belize. We are not ready to leave, the boat isn’t ready to leave, we still have a ton of things to do, but what choice do we have. We have to leave and this time we are taking our boat with us.
So the next few weeks we are going to have our heads down to try and do as much as we can to make the boat safe for our departure. For those that follow us I will give you an update in a few weeks.
Thats our story. Welcome to the USA.