French Customs

Chapter 6-  June 25, 2005

Sam Writing


Leaving L'Aber

Chapter 6.    French Customs

The French appear to have many customs.  We have found them to be nice, but a lot.  In fact, we had four aboard Debryn Ruth just last week.  The reason they came aboard was because so far American customs haven’t been so nice.  That said, we’d rather not have anything to do with any country’s customs, but this cannot be avoided.   Let me explain.


When we bought Debryn Ruth, we did so in England.  Therefore she was under the purview of British Customs.  As we are not British we needed to register her with US Customs (or, to be exact the US Coastguard).  Therefore we had our bill-of-sale made out and notarized in the UK.  This, along with our application, was submitted in early April to the USCG.  Normally the process should have taken 2-4 weeks after which Debryn Ruth would have successfully immigrated and become a US citizen.  Well not quite a citizen, but a US registered vessel in the eyes of international law.


In theory deregistering a vessel from one country and reregistering it in another is fairly straightforward.  However, in practice it usually works much better if a title company is brought in to shepherd the paperwork through the bureaucracy.  This we did and as with anything to do with boats we paid a fat fee to make sure all went quickly and smoothly. 

Trebeurden, north Brittany, France.


Fast forward to May

We first discovered things were not going quickly when we arrived in England.  Transworld Yachts (the yacht broker) swore up and down that they had not received anything either from the title company or from the US Coast Guard in the 6 weeks since we’d been gone.  This was impossible to believe as we had been assured that our paperwork would have been processed and awaiting us in England by the time we arrived.  Several e-mails to the lady at the title company generated no reply.  Phone calls were always met with “Tracy has just stepped out of the office.  Can I have her call you back?”  followed by no return phone call. 


Something smelled fishy.  By fishy I mean big, stinking, rotting, baked-in-the-sun-and-covered-with-flies fishy.  As an avid fisherman I have come across just such fish in the past and therefore feel highly qualified in identifying this smell.  In fact, just last summer at about this time I was in Kodiak, Alaska smelling just such fish with my brother Don and his Alaskan Airline pilot friend Lope.  They (the fish) had finished their spawning and their rotting carcasses had floated downstream and been pulled up on the riverbank by seagulls who had picked out their eyes and left everything else to rot.  I guess both seagulls and Chinese culinaries have determined that the eyes are the tastiest part of a fish…  I digress… 

Deb and Kaizen on a hill above Trebeurden.

At this point we were ready to sail for France in a matter of days.  So, dropping all pretences, I phoned the title company and demanded to speak to the most senior person in the office at that moment and yes, I’d wait on hold at USD3/min (I was on a cell phone) until they could free themselves to speak with me.  Well, this seemed to do the trick.  Before long I had the head of the company on the line.  In short order we were able to establish that Tracy who had been helping us “had some family problems which had distracted her” which was a euphemism for “completely forgot about your case, dropped the ball, screwed you…”  Needless to say this was not good news.


After some profuse apologizing, the gentleman, Jerry, on the other end assured me that he would personally handle my case.  With this assurance, I felt that surely our papers would be in hand shortly, so we struck out for France.  Transworld Yachts promised that they would call us as soon as they had received the documents from the title company. 


Fellow Sailor near Benodet


Fast forward to early June

We finally located internet in a little French port that actually provided free access for sailors.  The title company had written and was “sorry to have to tell you that the US Coast Guard has rejected your application because the Bill of Sale was notarized by a British entity and not by a US entity or an entity which is recognized by the Hague Convention of …”  Jerry went on to explain that at the heart of the rejection was the fact that the USCG was distrustful that the Bill of Sale submitted with our application was legitimate because a British Notary had attested to its authenticity instead of an American Notary.  Of course this made perfect sense.  Why would a British Notary know the legality of a document signed in England when obviously an American would know much better.  Once again, my nostrils began to smart.  And this time it wasn’t from fish…


After another call back to the US to chat with Jerry I was able to determine that the sagacious USCG was after something called an Apostlized Bill of Sale.  While not aware that there were any Apostles still alive to attest to our Bill of Sale this did sound par for the course so far.  Basically what we needed was an act of God, or at least an Apostle.  A little further research by Transworld Yachts revealed that indeed there were no living apostles, but that an apostlization could be obtained for GBP170 (about USD300) from some rare creature that was indeed recognized by the Hague Convention of ….  We of course authorized Transworld Yachts to approach this august individual on our behalf and were assured that things would now zip along at a dizzying pace.  



Plenty of breeze, not many fish.


Moored to a buoy in Belle Ile.

Fast forward to June 26th

Moored bow-to on a buoy with our stern tied to an old 16th century fort wall on a small but touristy island called Belle Ile, we are enjoying drinks in our cockpit while watching people stroll up and down the fort behind us.  My mind is idling in neutral as I enjoy the setting.  Finally, I notice that one cluster of people is paying special attention to us.  There are four individuals dressed in uniform not far off our stern on the fort wall who are straining to see Debryn Ruth’s name and hailing port.  In fact, they are gesticulating and scribbling something in a notebook.  Sure that we are famous as world sailors by now, I jump up and called out “may I help you?”.  “Where are you from?” is the reply.  “We are Americans who have sailed from England.” (Said with a “please know that you are dealing with genuine seafarers” attitude)  “Wait there! We will be boarding you in 5 minutes.”  (Said with a “please know that you are busted and we are coming to get you” attitude) 


Belle Ile

Twenty minutes later, after some frantic tidying up and a lengthy debate with Deb about whether tea or coffee or nothing at all would be appropriate to serve someone who is about to confiscate your boat, there was the rumbling of an outboard motor followed by a knock on our hull.  Sure enough all four officers had come along for the interrogation.  This did not bode well as that much man power would only be needed for one of two things – a) a complete strip search of our boat and all its contents and inhabitants or b) to subdue me as they bodily remove me from my good ship.


Hand gestures and bad English mixed with even worse French don’t transcribe well.  Therefore a summary of the events that followed will have to suffice.  I’m sorry to have to admit it but, French customs were very nice.  They did point out that we were in flagrant violation of their laws and could be fined on the spot if they so chose.  However, one gets the feeling that being in flagrant violation of laws might be something not as serious amongst the easygoing French as it is in America.  They wished us well and “bon voyage”. They even waggled a finger at us in a maternal way and warned us that the Portuguese were the ones to really watch out for.  With that, they exited.  We did too and went to have a glass of Bordeaux followed by a crème brulee – a very nice French custom.


Postscript – Fast forward to July 21st.  We’re in Spain.  The promises are flying thick and fast from Jerry at the title company and Jeremy at Transworld Yachts but, still  no documents… Yes, we’re in flagrant violation.  However, if Spanish customs are as nice as French customs...



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