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March 26, 2014

Shoreside AIS Enhances Safety

It’s often said that making landfall in the Marquesas, after weeks on the open ocean, can be one of the most magical moments in a sailor’s life  especially if he/she arrives in one piece.

© Sally Peterson

When you make the 3,000-mile crossing from the West Coast of the Americas to French Polynesia, you’re really on your own. Even though sailors whom we call Pacific Puddle Jumpers often participate in daily radio nets, and many use services that ‘ping’ their lat-long location daily, the need for complete self-sufficiency — especially in the middle stretches of the crossing — is very real. 

Just last week nervous family members of a Puddle Jumper sought our help in assessing his situation, after his daily satphone calls suddenly ceased. We’re happy to report that that episode had a happy ending. But it illustrated just how hard it would be to locate and assist such a vessel — which was well over 1,000 miles offshore — in a dire emergency.

It’s a small step, but a new AIS receiving station on Hiva Oa could be a real plus during emergencies.
©2014 Latitude 38 Media, LLC

Whenever offshore emergencies occur, rescue authorities in French Polynesia, the US, New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere always make outstanding efforts to assist vessels in distress. And, thankfully, modern technology is making their jobs a wee bit easier. Today, they are able to access the last-known position of many vessels via tracking tools and software (Spot, SailMail, Winlink, etc.), and they have the authority to divert commercial ship traffic to assist via the Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue System (AMVER).

Local authorities and NGOs are also taking whatever creative steps they can to enhance vessel security and safety. A case in point is the recent installation of five AIS receivers in key locations in French Polynesia to help sailors and resources in SAR (search and rescue) operations. The work was done by the FEPSM (Fédération d’Entraide Polynésienne de Sauvetage en Mer).

This morning, the 15-meter American-flagged sailboat Audeacious was the only vessel that showed up on the system. We’d be curious how many targets are received in a few weeks, when the bulk of the fleet arrives.
©2014 Latitude 38 Media, LLC

The organization’s president, Marc Dalla Pozza, wrote us to explain, "FEPSM is a non-governmental organization that has only one mission: the safety of life at sea in French Polynesia." He informed us that the latest installation has just been completed in Hiva Oa, the easternmost of two ports of entry in the Marquesas — a typical first stop for Puddle Jumpers. "We can now see skippers arrive on the website:," Marc explains. (Anyone can check it out.)

He and his associates hope to "create a community all around the world to help the FEPSM in our mission." You can learn more about them here.
True, these installations are only a small step in the big picture of monitoring offshore vessel traffic, but if they help to save one life, or serve to expedite one rescue, these efforts will be well worth their expense. Just a few years ago a singlehander went missing while en route between two Marquesan islands and his boat wasn’t found until many hours later, with only vague clues about his whereabouts. He was never found. Perhaps the outcome would have been different, had these systems been in place back then.

Would Latitude Take Its Boat To Mexico Now?

We recently received the following letter from David Cleveland of San Diego:

"Latitude 38’s coverage of the Mexican boat impoundings has been extensive, and obviously personal to publisher Richard Spindler, as (his boat) Profligate was an impounded boat. However, having talked to some who have been down to Mexico since this event, I find myself wondering if somehow this has been blown way out of proportion, as it appears there are still cruisers going to and coming from Mexican ports without a hint of what appears to have been a one-time event with Mexico ending up with egg on its face.

"During several sailing events here in San Diego since the first of the year, I have inquired of several sailors about their intention to sail the Newport to Ensenada Race that starts on April 25. What I have found is that there is a very real fear of heading into Mexican waters at this time, and skippers whose boats have made Newport to Ensenada an annual event are now begging off, primarily due to the events as they have been reported in the pages of your fine publication.

The long-established Newport to Ensenada Race is an annual tradition for many Southern California sailors. But this year, some may be afraid to enter Mexican waters.

© D Ramey Logan / Wikipedia

"The specific fears are having one’s boat impounded or being boarded at sea during a race. What I, and I imagine most skippers, really want to know is whether it is safe to take our boats on this race. Though the publisher of Latitude sails in the Caribbean this time of year, would he be willing to enter his catamaran Profligate in this race? It would be a strong statement that indicates to all sailors that he believes that it is okay to sail into Mexican waters again.

"It would also be great to have something from Hacienda, the Mexican IRS, stating that they will not have an inspection for boats entered in the race, and for the Mexican Navy to state that they will not board any vessels during the race. Though the last two items might be politically unpalatable to the Mexican authorities, the entry of Profligate would indicate your belief that there is no anticipation of the issues of last year continuing. Please advise, as your readership values your opinion and your actions go a long way to support that opinion.

"P.S. I looked at the NOSA website on the morning of March 18, and there were only 147 entries signed up this year versus a total of 203 that participated last year. That’s a decrease of 28%. In the Cruising classes there are currently 48 entries vs 69 total last year, a decrease of 30%. Granted, there are still five weeks until the race, and I do not have any stats on where NOSA entries were at the same time last year, but given the discount that NOSA was providing for early entries, I suspect there will definitely be a significant decline year to year. Given that the economic climate is slightly better in California this year than last, I find the numbers troubling — and almost certainly caused by the TIP issue in Mexico. Please consider promoting this in your April issue, and consider entering Profligate in the Newport to Ensenada Race. Don’t wait for the San Diego to Ensenada ‘Little Ensenada Race’ in October to raise the ‘All Clear’."

The following is the short response to that letter that will appear in the April 1 Latitude 38:

"The very abbreviated answer is yes, we would take our boat to Mexico now, primarily based on the fact that we’re told it’s safe by the president of the Mexican Marina Owners Association and all of the marina managers."

For those interested in a much longer, more nuanced, and too-long-to-publish-in-print answer, hopefully the following will give boat owners the information they need to make the decision for themselves:

In addition to publishing Latitude, the publisher also owns the Baja Ha-Ha Cruising Rally to Mexico, so we find ourselves in the same boat as you in the sense there is nothing we’d like more than to be able to guarantee boat owners that they have no need to worry about taking their boats to Mexico. Alas, the only ones who can give boat owners that confidence is the Mexican government, and unfortunately, they’ve done almost nothing in that respect.

We’ll be the first to admit that it’s been, and remains, a very confusing situation, because — according to Tere Grossman, President of the Mexican Marina Owners Association, although AGACE’s original plan was to ‘inspect’ all boats in all the marinas in Mexico, they stopped after all the bad publicity following the poorly executed inspections at the first eight marinas. As a result, there are now sort of four ‘classes’ of foreign owned boats in Mexico:

1) Those boats that AGACE didn’t inspect. 2) The boats that AGACE did approve from the get-go — even though they may not have even inspected them. 3) Boats that AGACE initially impounded, but has now approved. (These boats, including Profligate, are sort of special in the sense that there is now a document that states these boats have been approved. This makes them different from Class #2 boats, which were approved, but have no document to prove it. And, 4) Boats that are still impounded.

While there are a number of boats still impounded that have issues of one type or another that may well justify their being impounded, there are at least some boats that have been perfectly legal from day one that are still being held after four months. It’s outrageous. Further, there is at least one boat that has been confiscated because of an obvious date typo made by a Mexican bureaucrat. The owner is told he needs to pay a $7,000 fine — but even that won’t get him his boat back.

So, as we have repeatedly written, the majority of people with foreign-owned boats in Mexico are continuing to have a grand old time, many of them having never had any contact with AGACE. In addition to all anchored-out boats, this would also include all the boats from all the marinas in La Paz, all the boats in all the marinas in Mazatlan, all the boats in Nuevo Vallarta’s Paradise Village Marina, and all the other marinas that AGACE didn’t inspect. Also included in this group are all the boats that AGACE approved, whether they inspected them or not.

So has the situation been "blown way out of proportion?" We suppose it all depends on whether your perfectly legal boat is still impounded after four months, or whether you’re facing a big fine because a Mexican official made an obvious typo on your Temporary Import Permit. People who have had their boats approved, even if they were no more legal than most of the 338 impounded boats, probably don’t think it’s been a big deal at all.

The thing we believe has been overblown is how personal this situation has been to us as the owners of Profligate, which was impounded for two months despite being perfectly legal. Yeah, it pissed us off not to be able to use our boat for two months, but unlike a lot of people who had their boats impounded, we’ve been sailing in Mexico for 30 years and have seen and done almost everything. It’s not as though we were missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Plus, we were about to head to the Caribbean for three months of sailing anyway. Furthermore, after little more than a month, we were repeatedly assured that everything was fine with our boat, and it was just a matter of time — why the wait? — before AGACE would "liberate" her along with 95% of the other boats in the marina. So more than most people, we could sit and wait. But there are limits to our patience. If our boat was still impounded when we returned from the Caribbean in mid-May, we might just take off with her and kiss Mexico goodbye forever. 

The thing that really does make the situation personal for us is that we’ve been the biggest promoters of nautical tourism in Mexico for more than 30 years, and this one brain-dead move by a sub-agency of Hacienda has undone and continues to undo so much of that effort. We love Mexico, we love the people of Mexico, we love the boat workers of Mexico, and we think that events like the Ensenada Race, the Baja Ha-Ha, and individual boats going to Mexico are important for both that country’s economy and reputation. That one recently created sub-agency — through ignorance, poor planning, poor execution, and stubbornness — has undone so much of what we have worked so hard to develop is something we do take personally. That and the fact that somebody up high in the Mexican government power structure didn’t put an end to this nonsense months ago.

You say this "appears to have been a one-time event." We hope so, yet it’s not something we can guarantee. After all, about two months ago, the head of SCT, which controls the ports and port captains, was quoted on the front page of Reforma, the influential Mexico City newspaper, as saying there wouldn’t be similar audits in the future. Yet on the front page of the next day’s Reforma, one of the officials from AGACE was quoted as saying, "Oh yes, it will happen again, because we’re creating a database of all boats in Mexico." Thanks for the clarity, folks.

So is it safe to sail one’s boat to Mexico? First of all, it is in the sense that there is nothing to fear from the Mexican Navy. Those folks are your friends. You need help, call them. All of the problems have been the work of AGACE.

Profligate will not do the Newport to Ensenada Race because we’re sailing in the Caribbean until the middle of May, and we’re hoping to take the big cat up into the Sea for the early summer. But if Profligate were in the States, we would enter her in the Ensenada Race. Unfortunately, that’s a little bit of an unfair answer, because as we mentioned, she’s now officially been cleared by AGACE, and there is a document stating such.

Would we take some other boat we owned to Mexico? Yes, we probably would, providing we had all our ducks in a row — boat document, visas, passports, TIP (showing engine serial number[s] and HIN), insurance, and a letter from the owner if the boat was being operated by someone other than the owner. The ‘probably’ is that we might not if the boat were also our home and/or represented a very large part of our net worth. In that case, the risk/reward ratio might be too high.

What would our rationale be for thinking it was safe to sail to Mexico? First, belief that this indeed was a one-time deal — at least in the sense of how poorly it was planned and executed — and that the reason that some perfectly legal boats are still impounded is a combination of AGACE’s not wanting to back down and lose face, and the fact that all bureaucracies take forever to get anything done. We would not be surprised if Mexico tried another means of creating a database of all boats in their country, but given the terrible publicity, we think they’ll do a much better job — i.e. not assume everyone was guilty unless there was at least an inkling of proof. By the way, if they want a database, we’ve got no problem with it. Lord knows they sure need a database of the automobiles in Mexico, so many of which are stolen or have fraudulent documents.

That said, just because we’d do something doesn’t mean anyone else should. As we’ve written, this is the single most stupid thing any country has done in the last 35 years of dealing with cruising boats — Australia comes in second — which makes one unsure of what AGACE and the Mexican government might do in the future. On the one hand you can argue, "They can’t possibly do something as idiotic and counterproductive again." The compelling counterargument is, "What they did was so stupid and so self-destructive that there is no telling what other self-destructive things they might do in the future."

As we said before, it’s the job of the Mexican government to make much-needed nautical tourists feel safe by very clearly stating the following: "We welcome all foreign boats to Mexico. To cruise our country you will need documents X, Y and Z, and to follow procedures #1 and #2." Just as they do if you temporarily or permanently import a motor vehicle to Mexico. It’s not that hard, but we’re still waiting for the Mexico government.

Get Hacienda write a letter saying they won’t inspect/audit foreign boats? That’s going to happen right after the United States IRS writes a letter promising a certain segment of the business world that they won’t be audited.

For the record, the San Diego to Puerto Vallarta Race had a tremendous fleet of boats and MEXORC (this week) looks as if it’s going to be a huge success, again raising the profile of sailing in Mexico. Also for the record, both the Puerto Vallarta and Cabo Tourism Boards have invited Latitude on all-expense paid trips to inspect their nautical facilities. So yeah, the Mexican government is totally schizo on this.

We know you were looking for a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, but the best we can do is present the facts as best we understand them and let everyone decide for themselves. If we only get four entries in the 2014 Baja Ha-Ha because we refuse to guarantee that all boats going to Mexico won’t have any problems, we’ll be bummed. On the other hand, we’ll sleep soundly at night, knowing we didn’t make any false guarantees just to make a little money. We’re pretty confident, however, that the Mexican government will clarify things before the start of the next cruising season, perhaps with the introduction of a much-rumored new TIP. For the sake of the Newport to Ensenada Race, we hope they clarify things before the start of that great event also, although time is running short.

On Friday, March 21, the paperwork was completed to "liberate" the last of the ’embargoed’ foreign boats at Marina Coral in Ensenada — nearly four months after they had been impounded.
Our recent photo quiz was a snap for many Bay Area sailors, as Rat Rock lies right near a popular weekend anchorage off China Camp State Park in Marin County.