Cruising Italy – Your Sandbox – Your Rules…

Last month, Ocean Navigator published a piece that I wrote about the complicated European regulations which govern our time and decisions in Europe, so it isn’t as though this was news to us. In a very short nutshell, there is European VAT (or the avoidance thereof) on the boat – Gratitude in this case, and Schengen Immigration regulations which govern Alec, Jack and me.

First a few housekeeping notes on the way we operate aboard Gratitude. There are a few things that are mostly in my domain (Laurie) such as most of the galley responsibilities, and those things which are mostly Alec’s domain – the engine room. The vast majority of what we do though, is an overlapped system of checks and backing each other up. Thus, any oversight is a learning opportunity for all of us and we take it as such. Organizing dockage, marinas, paperwork, homeschooling, etc – is often done by either and sometimes by both of us. Running the boat is a shared mutual responsibility (and even Jack is taking part on a limited basis). But while I know what Alec is checking, actually doing the engine room checks underway is Alec’s domain. I am prone to seasickness and a hot engine room in a moving boat just makes me miserable. However, I have a much better working knowledge of the food in the fridge and the meals that I’ve preparing for the passage, so it makes the most sense that I do that.

So back to our immigration issues…

We had planned to leave Portugal (Schengen country) in March and travel to the UK (non-Schengen) for the 90 required days to be out of the area before proceeding to the Baltic. That was the plan. Then Covid hit. We were ordered to remain in Portugal until the borders opened. We asked for an extension to our Schengen time and were told that making an appointment was sufficient for the requirement. When the appointment time came, we were directed to extend the appointment as the office was closed due to Covid. We did that. The new date was after our planned departure date when the border re-opened on June 15 so we notified SEF, and obtained the departure stamps in the passport and that was that. Thinking that some time in Gibraltar, out of the Schengen area, would be a good way to start our tour of the med and then begging for extension upon arrival in Italy – we thought we had a plan that made sense.

We arrived in Gibraltar and decided to stay there for 3 weeks. We reasoned that this would be sufficient time to re-enter Schengen in Spain, clear back in for a few weeks en-route to Italy where we planned to ask for an extension.

We arrived in Italy.

The first failure of the Gratitude crew was to not re-check the requirements in Italy for vessels arriving from Spain. We had checked a month or two earlier but in these crazy Covid times, rules are changing day to day. So, 5 days prior to our departure from Spain, the rules were updated that now persons arriving from Spain would need a negative Covid test. After a few days of waiting under quarantine for someone to come test us to no avail, we decided to do what we should have done at the outset – Call in professionals who do this for a living.

“These angels of Mercy exist?” were the words of my friend when I told her we were getting an agent to help with our situation. Why yes, I guess they do. However, all agents are NOT CREATED EQUAL so if you are following our advice and getting help with regulatory issues in a foreign country – make sure you are getting a good one.

Our first agent somewhat competently arranged the Covid test. She then took 10 additional days trying to get us cleared into Italy and obtaining an extension to Schengen. We were honestly surprised that it was proving to be so problematic given what we had heard from other cruising friends and what we had read on the Schengen website. Given that our overstay was not entirely our own fault, we thought this would be simple to overcome for a professional agent with relationships with the authorities. We were wrong. When we began pressing for an expected completion (remember we still wanted to cruise and see Italy), she replied tersely that we were being denied an extension or access and were expected to remain aboard Gratitude until we were able to make plans to leave the country. She didn’t offer an explanation.

My research had indicated that each local or regional border police agency has some discretion over these matters. On the off chance that a full winter reservation commitment might make a difference, I decided to contact a different agent in Sicily, where we planned to winter, and plead our case. Now here is where finding a really good agent made the difference.

It was late Friday night. Not a particularly good time to try to get a crazy situation like this resolved, but we decided to give this 1 last shot. I called Roberto Giuliana with Luise Yachting Agency in Sicily and left a message. Within moments he called me back and listened carefully to what I had to share with him. He asked several questions and advised me to send in all documentation and he would meet with the authorities on Monday am. Over the weekend Alec, Jack and I began making preparations to leave Tuesday for Montenegro if things didn’t work out on Monday. We had been waiting in Sardinia for 3 weeks. Lovely though it was, there is so much more we had hoped to be doing in Italy by this time. Further, given that the cruising season was rapidly coming to an end, we needed to get moving either within Italy or to outside of the Schengen area (Montenegro).

Roberto Giuliana with Luise Yachting

On Monday, we proceeded as though we would be leaving on a 4 -day passage to Montenegro. We provisioned and I cooked meals. Alec readied the engine room for an early departure the next morning. Sardinia is a wonderful port for getting things done – a great place for crew to fly in and out, have boat maintenance conducted, or layup the boat for the winter if we flew home. It was an ideal time to get the stores filled up with items best suited to having a car, which we had rented for the week. And we were able to get a piece of upholstery repaired and the carpets all steam cleaned. Not a bad use of the time we were here.

Roberto called Monday afternoon and told us the news. Essentially, Italy was willing to overlook some of the Schengen issues but not all. Where we had gone sideways? We should have insisted on a passport stamp in Gibraltar and again in Cartagena, SP. At each stop we were given a form and assurance that it was sufficient because due to Covid nobody would come to the boat. We had a cleared Immigration customs form, but it was produced by the marina, not the governmental agency. We should have known better. If you are reading this and following in our wake, make sure you get a stamp in every country you enter no matter what the marina advises. You see, they are mostly accustomed to dealing with other EU boats and they aren’t all that versed in the problems which will come raining down on you later. GET THE STAMP! But better still – get an agent.

So, lucky for us, we actually had a talented agent who was able to intervene on our behalf and fully understood and could explain to us what was needed to remedy the situation. We had planned to just leave and do the 4 day passage to Montenegro where we would get time outside of the Schengen area but our agent advised this was not only not necessary, but if we did this, that country had just gone “red” meaning that their Covid cases had risen to the point that other countries were blocking arrivals from there. What that would mean to us is that not only would we be putting ourselves at greater risk for catching the virus, but we would not be able to travel back as we were originally hoping we could.

The authorities would, however, accept a stamp from outside the Schengen area (Tunisia) and offer us another 90 days upon our re-entry. This blog post is already exceeding the usual length and attention span of most of my generous readers so Ill cut to the chase here. We went to Tunisia where we needed to go anyway within the next 3 months in order to clear our EU clock for Gratitude or have to pay 20% duty on her (Ill pause while you do that math:-) We had a 36 hour passage from Sardinia to Tunisia, Spent 1 hour on the dock getting all of the required paperwork handled, and we are now underway for 35 hours from Tunisia to Syracuse, Italy. Our agent will, hopefully, be there to help us with the Italian authorities as he had arranged for an agent to be at the dock in Tunisia who handled all of the formalities there. We are not completely certain of what would be required of us arriving from Tunisia. We have been instructed to expect another Covid test and/or a 2-week quarantine in Syracuse and we are prepared for either or both. It’s a tradeoff to spend 2 weeks quarantined aboard Gratitude (where we can get ahead on our schoolwork and boat chores) but at the end of it we can explore, for the bit of summer remaining, all of the places we have been so excited to see. This whole experience had us heartbroken that we would be unable to share with Jack the History, Culture, Architecture, Art, Opera, AND FOOD that Italy has to offer. This allows us to still cruise to what extent we are able, and hopefully stay for the winter and see the sites we have missed along the way.

Lessons learned.

Back in my early days of flying I had a colleague from Cuba who told me of a Latin saying which translated means “shoemaker to the shoes”. I have used this time and again with Alec in the 20 or so years we have been together, usually as he attempts to do something I deem foolhardy, like cleaning out the gutters after a rainstorm. I plead “please let someone who does this for a living have a job!” It would take one injury and he would have lost much more work from his “real” job than he would have paid the person who does this professionally. I have said this over and over and yet still, I learn that sometimes you should just leave making shoes to the shoemaker – or in this case, HIRE THE AGENT.

So, should you find yourself needing help in Italy, the agent you should talk to is: Roberto Giuliana or the folks at Luise Yachting, Sicily. I’m told that this agency has been saving visitors by yacht since the mid 19th century.

Post Script

We arrived safely in Siracusa, Italy on the island of Sicily this morning to agents and dock hands ready to assist with lines and paperwork. The authorities were notified and ready to clear us in and out – we were instructed to take down the quarantine flag and consider ourselves “VERY WELCOME TO ITALY”. It has been nearly a month of waiting and praying and crossing our fingers but thankfully, hiring the right person for the job has gotten it all handled.

Just two other items of note for the mechanical minded of our readers. We have recently developed a small issue with our AC Pump following longer passages in a very hot engine room, whereby it shuts down until the ambient temperatures cool a bit. Alec has troubleshooted this problem and indications now are likely that this pump is at the end of it’s life.

While approaching Tunis while Laurie was at the helm a small sounding “bang” was noted followed by a “thunk thunk thunk” noise. I immediately pulled the throttle to idle and noted the temperature of the engine which appeared normal. Alec quickly arrived and together we decided that it was likely we picked up a trap. Grateful to be in 80-degree water, Alec put on his mask and equipped with a knife dove to investigate. With Jack our liaison and me at the wheel, Alec discovered a very interesting fishing contraption picture below. So sorry to the poor fishman who lost his trap. We make every effort to avoid such pitfalls for all of the obvious reasons, but the poor visibility combined with zero reflective properties for our radar to see, we were hooked. Caught up by the prop but wrapped around the starboard stabilizer, Alec cut it off and we brought it to shore.

This was wrapped around the stabilizer following impact with our prop Alec dove down and cut it free while on passage to Tunisia