Bureaucracy Gone Wild!

Clark June 9th, 2007

Bureaucracy Gone Wild!
31º19′ South, 71º27′ West

The Chilean Armada has finally crossed from the bureaucratic to the ridiculous.

When I checked into Coquimbo, 48 hours ago, I had to take a taxi all the way across town to the Port Captain’s office. This took about two hours in total, and was a bit irritating since Coquimbo was just an intermediate stop and I already had clearance papers all the way through to Iquique. So that I wouldn’t have to do the same again upon departure, the office told me that Anita, the clerk at the yacht club, had a form we could fax to them instead.

Dutifully I went to see Anita on Friday afternoon to have her fax the form informing the Port Captain of my departure at 8AM Saturday. The computer was down and she lost the form, but eventually little Anita pulled it together and faxed in the form. I ran some errands and came back later. Anita informed me that they would not give me port clearance because the minimum safe number of crew was two, and I was only one. Anita is not a great thinker, so the ridiculousness of this was lost on her, but I persuaded her to call the office and plead my case, figuring I had a better chance with the yacht club acting as my intermediary. She got off the phone and told me I had to go in person. I took a taxi all the way across town and appeared at the Port Captain’s office…again.

The Port Captain’s office in Coquimbo was brand spanking new, gleaming with fresh paint and little custom plastic signs. Shiny new black Dell computers hummed on every desktop. About a dozen midshipmen in sailor suits with Popeye hats shuffled around, very purposefully doing nothing, while two armed sailors stood at attention guarding the door. Looking past some filing cabinets were half a dozen officers, dressed to the nines with epaulets, bars, and fancy hats, also very purposefully goofing off, but doing so with a certain level of military decorum.

The clerk on duty informed me that the minimum safe number of crew aboard was two. I told him that I had been sailing in Chile by myself for over five months, that I had sailed all the way around the world by myself (I little fib), and that this just wouldn’t do. He immediately deferred to his superior, who immediately deferred to his superior. Soon I was standing in front of the Port Captain himself, who informed me that two was the minimum safe number of crew, and that they would not issue me a port clearance.

I know that when in foreign countries we must accept their ways and abide by their laws, no matter how absurd, and that we should not argue or question, but at this point I was pissed off. I showed him a stack of port clearances from throughout Chile, all approved by various Port Captains, and maintained that the problem was unique to the port of Coquimbo, that no other port in Chile had such a policy. He deferred to his superior and I was escorted back into the rare air of the offices.

I sat across the desk from the Commander of the First Naval Region of Chile, who informed me that two was the minimum safe number of crew aboard, and that he could not issue me a port clearance. Right behind him on the wall was a giant organizational chart of the Armada. I felt slightly proud that I had already escalated through six levels. At the rate I was going I was only two steps away from a meeting with the Joint Chief of Staff, three steps from meeting with the Minister of Defense, and four steps from meeting with President Bachelet herself.

The Commander of the First Naval Region had definitely been promoted to the level of his own incompetence. I made my case and presented my evidence once again, and he said that his hands were tied. I was getting very upset and starting to lose my cool. I told him, “I am leaving this port at 8AM. I already have port clearance from Quinteros to Iquique, signed by the Port Captain in Quinteros, and I will use this as the governing document of my voyage. I am doing my best to conform to you ridiculous policies, but enough is enough. I am a United States vessel visiting your country, and you have no right to order me to take on additional crew. To do so would be to invite a stranger onto my boat, someone who I have no idea of their sailing abilities, their mental or physical capacities, or for that matter, if they are a known criminal. To do this would be very dangerous for me, and I refuse!”

He hemmed and hawed about hiring a professional sailor (ha!) but then this actually seemed to work. He got on the phone with his superior (the Joint Chief of Staff, perhaps) and they came to some kind of agreement, part of which must have been, “Throw the book at him!”

They reluctantly agreed to give me a clearance, but under the condition that I report my position every four hours, instead of the customary and totally preposterous twice per day. Various documents were drawn up, stamped, and signed. They asked me for my passport. I told them it was being renewed, showed them a photocopy of my old passport and my entry stamp, to which they replied, “But you must have a passport.” “Did you hear me?” (I really said this, and went silent.) Various calls and consultations were made, and they told me, “You must have a passport.”

I showed them the photocopies, showed them the shipping papers from the shipping company that would be shipping the passport, showed them my receipt from the US embassy in Santiago, and informed them that I really only needed a passport when I was leaving the country.

They beat me up a while longer, then finally when everything was almost done they brought out a guy to do the soft sell. He was the First Lieutenant Service Official and full of salesman’s smiles. He told me in fatherly tones that this was all for my own protection, that it was dangerous out there and that by reporting in…blah blah blah. I was still pissed off and I’d been there about three hours: “It’s not for my own protection, it’s so the Armada can maintain control of all foreign yachts. I listen to the announcements on the radio. My reporting in doesn’t enhance my safety at all. The only way it would is if I were in trouble and needed help, in which case then I would call. What is dangerous is for me to be spending hours every day away from the helm, not standing watch, trying to reach various Armada stations along the coast. I have been sailing all my life and have sailed to fifty countries, and Chile is the only country in the world with policies like this.”

Perhaps not the most diplomatic thing to say, but we were done.

Some of my commie friends in Santiago told me that under Pinochet an arrangement was made that the Armada gets ten percent of copper revenues for the whole country. With copper prices at an all time high, this adds up to a small fortune. The Armada just bought two new submarines; they’re buying fighters from the US, and the latest and greatest in weaponry. The only country in the region that could touch them militarily is Brazil, and this is just because of Brazil’s sheer numbers (180 million Brazilians versus Chile’s 16 million).

I’m pretty much fed up. Visiting Chile by yacht means spending dozens of hours dealing with officialdom. These guys make India’s bureaucracy seem efficient. They make Myanmar seem forward-thinking. That said, there’s no corruption, just bureaucracy run amok. And Coquimbo had some of the friendliest people I’ve met anywhere, who were all very sympathetic and apologetic about the mess. I actually would have liked to stay longer, but after all the trouble to get that port clearance I wasn’t about to try to extend it. Coquimbo’s seafood was amazing too, but at what price fresh scallops?

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Comment by Bob Grant
2007-06-10 14:01:13

Thanks for helping me to walk through two of my biggest sailing fears. The first was being hit with a supertanker and the second was the prospect of port bureaucracy. Cheers!

Comment by Clark
2007-06-16 07:45:13


Chile has been the worst in the world…other countries are usually more laid back. Being hit by a ship is not laid back at all. A freind just got AIS (Automatic Identification System) which has just come out for yachts…I’ll be curious to hear how it works out. Should be the way forward for preventing collisions.

Comment by Bob Grant
2007-06-21 17:35:39

Love to hear what your friend has to say about AIS. It seems to be the answer.

Tugs, here in the Hudson, tell us that they can’t see us, even if the boat has a reflector.

Comment by Clark
2007-06-23 12:12:54


I’ll be curious too, and I’ll post the results. They got it with the Singapore Straits particularly in mind. Big ships have been using it forever and if you’re in a dense area you can definitely hear radio chatter based on AIS information. The big change is that a small, relatively cheap, 12V version has just come on the market.


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