three hulls, two people, one trip around the world…

San Diego – almost there, and back again

Clearing out of Mexico was no problem, we did it with the help of the marina staff on Thursday and then set off on Friday. The wind picked up quickly, beating against the wind took time, but we made progress. We were a bit nervous because we couldn’t be sure whether we had all the necessary documents. ESTA, vaccination certificates, the difficulty of the French leasing for the boat. So the saying “we’ll cross that bridge, when we’ll get there” became our mantra. The trip lasted into the night. When I woke up for my watch (around 11:30pm) we were just passing Tijuana, you could see the lights of the city. Several tankers and a few fishing boats were also in the area. We sailed slowly but surely towards a group of four fishing boats that were only visible on the radar and by their lights and were hardly moving. There was no choice but to sail around them with motor assistance. After that, things got even crazier. We sailed a course against the wind, 4 sailing yachts appeared on the AIS, all long and narrow boats, so probably racing yachts. They would cross our course. We had right of way, but that can’t lull you into safety. Some sailors don’t know the right of way rules, others don’t want to obey them and racing sailors often feel they have the right of way built into their boats. But the 4 yachts seemed to have seen us and went around our stern. Then there was another one (Badpak) with poor AIS that we could only see as a radar spot from time to time. She was sailing precariously close to us. We looked at the lights. The yacht only had red lights, but a white flashing light that she was shining in our direction. What’s the point of this? Should we give way? How and where to? We were reaching, so we could only stop, or bear away towards the other boat. That’s what the right-of-way rules are for, so that the one who can make the easier manoeuvre does so and takes action. All we could do was to hold course and keep a lookout. The yacht eventually passed about 50 m behind us. Later we found out that the boats had participated in the annual Islands Race of the San Diego Yacht Club.

Here you can see the tracks of the sailing boats that took part in the race and the rest of the traffic on the 26th. The yellow track is us.

After this excitement, it began to dawn and we prepared to enter the port of San Diego. San Diego greeted us in beautiful sunshine with a good wind. Really worth the trip.

Through our research in October, we already knew where the Harbor Police dock was and that we had to go there. You could call via app and so, shortly after we had moored, two border officials came to us onto the boat. The first thing they did was check our passports. It turned out that we didn’t have the right stamps (see below for a more detailed explanation). The officer in charge now had two options: He could arrest us, record our identity and then deport us, or he could send us straight back. A call to the supervisor probably only revealed that we were missing a form that could be obtained when entering the country by plane and that he would have to detain us. The border official, however, did not want to handle it that way. He was very nice and preferred to just send us back. However, he imagined that we could just cross back over the border, park the boat in Tijuana, take a taxi to the border station, get a stamp in our passports, go back to Mexico, get on our boat and be back in San Diego in the evening and the immigration procedure could continue. Well, Tijuana doesn’t have a marina at all, only a gas terminal for tankers, and even if it did, we would have to move illegally in Mexico, since we had checked out of the country there. The first port of entry for Mexico is Ensenada. In short, all that remained was to return to Ensenada and hope that the Mexicans would let us re-enter the country without an international Zarpe (exit document for the boat from San Diego).

So we spent just over an hour in beautiful sunny San Diego. It wasn’t an unfriendly welcome, but the rules were very unfriendly. The return trip to Ensenada only lasted from noon to 10 pm at night. Downwind, we could sail only with genoa or genoa plus jib at 6-7 knots for a good while. At the end there was calm and motor again. Because we couldn’t do anything on Sunday anyway, we allowed ourselves a rest day at anchor. We had to let the events sink in and see what we wanted to do. On Monday, we returned to the marina in Ensenada and checked into Mexico again. First a health inspector came to see us, then again to the harbour master, immigration and customs. To our great relief, this went off without a hitch, despite the lack of a Zarpe.

Here is an attempt to show what difficulties we faced:

Tricky bureaucracy: To enter the USA with a private boat, you need a B1 visa (valid for 10 years and stay up to 180 days at a time). We do not have such a visa and it is currently very difficult to get one. The process involves an interview at an American embassy, preferably at the embassy in your own country (so for us in Berlin). These interview appointments were no longer available during Covid, but now they are possible again, but depending on the embassy, the waiting time is at least 300 days (and non-residents of the country are put in the back of the queue). That’s why we looked for an alternative. For Europeans there is the ESTA programme, the possibility to get something like a visa without having to go to an interview. You are only allowed to stay in the country for 90 days at a time instead of 180, but still. But you can’t enter the country via a port of entry with the electronic ESTA alone; it has to be activated by means of a stamp in the passport. And this is where the misunderstanding comes in. The ESTA application is valid for 2 years. We thought it had been initialised when we flew to the USA in October, as all our fingerprints were now registered. However, when we arrived in San Diego, we learned that the ESTA is only activated for 90 days, which tick from the time of entry. The stamp in the passport is given a start and an end date. Between these two dates, you can leave or enter the USA as often as you like on foot, by car or by boat. These 90 days had already expired after our October flight. You can get a new 90 days, but only by flying into the country again internationally. So we would have to fly into the US, get the stamp, leave, get the boat and come back. Then we would have a new 90 days from the new date of entry by plane, which is 90 days minus the time it takes to get the boat to actually sail in the US. So far, so bad. There are no direct flights from Tijuana to the US (or to LA, where we could have met up with Maika.) All travel from here happens via the small border traffic with San Diego’s airport. So you’d have to fly a whole day, via Mexico City or Guadalajara – a bit stressful and a waste of time. But that’s not all. There is another clause in ESTA that makes even flying to the US a lottery game. If you leave the US for Mexico or Canada within the 90-day ESTA period, the time keeps ticking. The stay in Mexico or Canada must therefore take place within the 90 days, otherwise you will not be allowed to re-enter. The purpose of this regulation is to prevent people from simply scurrying across the border and then coming right back, thereby extending their visa again and again. Now, we were not in Germany in between. So how would our stay in Mexico be assessed by the border official? There are no rules on how often 90 days can be approved. In our case, it would be a matter of discretion for the border official, unless we were to return to Germany and then fly back in. All something we have little desire to do.

To cut a long story short: we decided to stay in Mexico. We are now allowed to move freely here again for 180 days, without a visa. In terms of the route, this means a return journey. First along the Pacific coast of Baja California again. A second chance to visit the whales at Abreojos!


So it’s time to stock up again:

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