Sailing to a New Country during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Some of you may be wondering how we’ve managed to continue traveling amidst a worldwide pandemic. I will start by saying it requires a lot of research. I typically begin my research on the government websites, but quickly find the websites aren’t updated with the most recent information.

One thing I think is important to note is that unlike flying into a new country and going through Immigration at the airport, we have to seek out the Immigration and Custom offices. We have to go to both places, Immigration for us and Customs for One Life because we need approval from both offices in order for us both to be here.

Believe it or not, the best information I tend to find, as much as I hate to say, is Facebook. Each country we go to has a sailing FB group, for example ‘Curacao Cruisers,’ where I’m able to find a wealth of advice. I join these groups and reach out to other sailors who recently experienced the check in process in that country. Although not always 100% accurate, I tend to find out enough to get by. With our latest arrival in Curacao, I thought others may find the process interesting. So here it goes!
To keep it simple, I’m going to speak of our experience from Puerto Rico to Curacao only, since every country’s process is a new adventure.

Step 1. Departure

Even though we are US Citizens in a US territory, we need a Zarpe from the custom’s office. A Zarpe is a document that tells the next port authority that you are legally authorized to leave the last port. It is a required document to gain entrance into our next foreign port of call. The document contains information such as our previous port of call, specifications on the boat, how long we’ve been in the country, number of passengers onboard, arrival info for next port of call and confirmation of payment for any harbor fees. The document also asks if we have any animals, cargo or weapons onboard. In our case the answer is, no. Answering yes to any of those questions is a whole other ball game, which luckily we haven’t had to experience!
Obtaining a Zarpe is sometimes tricky and although the process itself is typically quite simple, the challenge is in finding what the process is. This process must be completed within 24 hours of departure otherwise it is not valid, so I always start first thing in the morning. After a few calls to several CBPO (Customs & Border Patrol Office) numbers I found online, I was directed to someone who was familiar with the clearance document needed. Luckily, we did not need to go anywhere ‘in person’ and the officer emailed me paperwork to fill out (which included the info listed above) and return. I received the paperwork, completed and returned it within 30 minutes of receiving it. And then we waited and waited and waited until I had to call back for a status update. We waited some more and then finally just as our 24 hour time limit was almost up, we received the email with the official clearance document.

Step 2. Health Forms

Once we had our Zarpe, we were required to fill out a health questionnaire on Curacao’s Tourism website. This must be done within 72 hours of departure, but I waited until we had our clearance paperwork just in case something went wrong. The fun thing about the health questionnaire is it is always aimed toward tourists arriving by air and not sea, however still deemed mandatory by private vessel entry. The health questionnaire asks the typical Covid questions, such as have we been exposed to anyone with Covid? Do we have a fever? But also asks what are arrival flight number is, what resort we are staying at and what are departure flight information is. I always put SV One Life in those sections and so far so good. The health questionnaire also requires you to upload a copy of your vaccination card or a negative PCR test (also within 72 hours). Once this is submitted you receive a confirmation email with the details of questionnaire to present to officials upon arrival.

Step 3. The Sail

We pulled anchor and sailed for several days hoping when we arrive in Curacao the process hadn’t changed and we are granted entry! As we were 5 nautical miles away from the port of entry in Curacao, we hailed the Coast Guard on channel 16 via VHF. They responded and asked for our intentions. Per guidance from another sailboat friend, we asked for permission to enter the quarantine anchorage. After a few questions about our previous port of call and persons onboard, we were granted permission to enter along with instructions to the quarantine anchorage. We were instructed to raise our yellow quarantine flag and stay on our boat until the Coast Guard visits us the following morning at 9:00 am.

Step 4. Quarantine and Testing

The Coast Guard arrived the following morning, just as expected. They pulled up along side us and tied a couple lines to One Life (this is a good test for our anchor!). We were asked for our Zarpe and health questionnaire which we were instructed to send to them via WhatsApp (common app used for text messaging). Someone onboard from the medical team then administered our PCR tests. In this case, we had our throats and noses swabbed. Typically we only get the nasal swab so this was a first for us! After our swabs, we were given more documents to fill out. The documents pretty much all contained the same thing, info about our boat and ourselves but each agency (customs, immigration, health department and port authority) all needed this info recorded on separate documents. We handed over our completed paperwork, passports and vaccination cards to the Coast Guard, which they told us to pick up from Immigration later. We don’t love handing over our passports but what do we do, say ‘No’? We were instructed we would receive an email within 24 -48 hours with our test results and further instructions but until then we must remain on our boat. So we waited.

Step 5. Test Results

The next afternoon the Coast Guard pulled up to One Life with our negative test results. We were told we would get an email but hey, we appreciated the hand delivery instead! We were told to leave the boat in the quarantine anchorage and proceed to the Immigration office to pick up our passports and vaccination cards and then proceed to Customs. Of course, by the time we received our results the Immigration office was closed. This adventure would continue the following day.

Step 6. Immigration

We woke up early because based on previous experience we’ve learned clearing in with Immigration and Customs can be an all day process. We first dinghied over to our friends boat to grab some of the local ANG currency (Netherlands Antillean Guilder.) We needed a couple ANG to get us started on our adventure and since we were to go straight to Immigration and not the local bank, this was a lifesaver! We then headed to the nearest dock and caught a public bus downtown (public transport is cheap here! only $2 ANG/$1 USD per person.) The Immigration office was about a 20 minute bus ride, followed by a 5 minute walk over a bridge and 10 minute walk to a gated entrance that happened to be locked. This led us to walk another 30 minutes to the back entrance which luckily was open. We cleared in with security and make our way into the Immigration office. When we arrived at Immigration we half assumed our passports and vax cards wouldn’t be there. To our surprise the Immigration officer had them waiting for us! After the completion of more paperwork, with stamped passports in hand we left Immigration and took off to Customs. The Customs office is actually back where we got off the bus, but we couldn’t go to Customs first because we needed to have our passports which were at the Immigration office. We started our walk to Customs but this time the bridge we walked over to get to immigration was closed, so we hopped on the ferry to get across.

Step 7. Customs

We got to the Customs office and to our surprise clearing One Life in here was a snap. We filled in paperwork online on a site called SailClear and the officer gave us our entrance paperwork. He also informed us we had to get an anchor permit from the Harbor Master. We walked 20 minutes to the Harbor Master’s office to be told by the security guard we were in the wrong place. The person who issues the anchor permit is actually Curacao Port Authority not the Harbor Master, which happened to be back over by the Immigration office. Frustrated, we walked our way back toward the Immigration office. This time the bridge was open so no ferry needed. When we walked past the locked entrance, we took a quick look around and then crawled under the gate. We decided the risk was worth saving us from another 30 minute walk around to the back entrance.

Step 8. Port Authority

When we arrived back at the Immigration office, we learned the office we have to get the anchor permit from is upstairs in the office next door. No problem, except the office is closed for lunch from 11:30 am until 2:00 pm. So we waited. The Curacao Port Authority office opened up after lunch and we were finally able to get our $25 USD anchor permit. 25 bucks allows us to anchor in Curacao for up to 90 days. That is very cheap. For comparison purposes, it cost us $300 USD in the Bahamas. The anchor permit gives us a designated anchoring spot. This is the first time we’ve had a ‘designated’ spot. Typically we are free to anchor in any anchorage, but all countries are different. Feeling relieved we’ve completed all the steps, we exited the Port Authority office and started our long walk back to the bus stop. On our way back, we passed 3 other cruisers, who obviously saw the look of aggravation on our faces. They happened to have a rental car and gave us a lift back to our dinghy. Big thanks, guys!

Step 9. Back to the Boat

We dinghied back to One Life, took down our quarantine flag and moved to our designated anchorage spot before the sun went down. We were welcomed by a dude (who made sure to tell us he has been here for 10 months) yelling at us that we were anchored too close to him. After assessing the situation, we determined we were at a perfectly safe distance, and decided to stay put. We love boaters like this guy. What a way to get settled into a new country.

It was a long ass day and now that we are officially allowed to be in Curacao, we took off to the local pub with our new friends for drinks and Dutch karaoke. It’s finally time to relax and have some fun!

We’ve found to embrace the adventures of the Customs/Immigration/Port Authority/Health Department protocols as it’s actually quite a humorous exercise. And after all, my favorite thing to do is go somewhere I’ve never been!


3 thoughts on “Sailing to a New Country during the COVID-19 Pandemic”

  1. After all that, I can see why you would like to stay at ports for long periods of time. Have you ever had a hard time getting to any country? Your article was enlightening. Spent 6 years in the US Navy. My Military ID was the only thing needed in any country I visited.

  2. Peggy & Fred Schwartz (& Jessica)

    Wow! What a lot of hoopla! I know Fred would not have patience for running around like that! Sounds frustrating. But I’m sure once you’re settled in you find new adventures & it’s worth it!
    Love you guys… stay safe & enjoy your special adventures!

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