There’s a widespread disease called 'epauletsy' that afflicts some officials – customs, immigration, policemen, parking attendants, school crossing attendants and the like being particularly susceptible. We first heard the ailment described that way in Carriacou, though never saw any evidence of it on that enchanting island. The characteristic symptoms of epauletsy are usually a smart uniform (with or without epaulets), a brusqueness of speech, and a manner driven by an inflated self-esteem.
Fortunately, this is a fairly rare affliction but there have been instances when it does arise. I remember a notable occasion some years ago when we entered a Caribbean anchorage, dropped the hook and hoisted our Q Flag. It was Saturday, around lunchtime and we knew the local officials were probably knocking off for the weekend. We had no urgent need to go ashore so decided to sit it out.
This is known as ‘yellow flagging’ in the sailing community a phrase that arises from the fact that the Q Flag is a solid yellow rectangle made of cotton bunting, typically flown from the starboard crosstrees. It signifies that: “My vessel is healthy and I require free pratique” – the last two words requesting permission to go ashore. It’s often assumed that the ‘Q’ stands for ‘quarantine’, despite its modern meaning being a request for exactly the opposite. Another possible origin springs from the fact that, in Britain in the Middle Ages, heretics were sometimes obliged to wear yellow to mark their ungodly beliefs – again a warning rather than a plea for admission
Anyway, Monday came and we went ashore, heading immediately for the local Customs House. Now, in my days as an officer in the Merchant Navy, it was routine that a port health official would come out to a recently arrived ship and satisfy himself as best he could that the yellow flag assertion was true. Only then would he authorise clearance. Of course, in these days of armadas of small pleasure craft converging on an anchorage, this sort of individual attention is impracticable, but it does raise an interesting point.
Again, returning to our Caribbean customs officer. “Why did you not come ashore on Saturday?” he repeated. “I could fine you, you know.” And, before I could answer, he pointed out of the window. “And if that yellow and white yacht is yours, I notice you’re not flying a courtesy flag.” (Meaning their national flag, customarily flown as a mark of respect, also from the mast to starboard).
Once more I repeated my plea that I believed the custom house could be closed – a point he didn’t challenge. As for the courtesy flag, I mentioned in humble tones that we weren’t being discourteous, but I had been taught that this is raised only after pratique has been granted. “But, most importantly, consider this,” I continued. “What if our vessel wasn’t healthy? What if we had come ashore covered in spots, coughing our lungs out with the news that we either had smallpox, Ebola, or perhaps bubonic plague? Would you have wanted us to roam your streets then?”
He laughed and we parted friends; and have since repeated our visits to that place with huge enjoyment. Indeed, many months later that same official was on duty at the airport and recognised us queuing to pass through immigration. He came over and patted me on the shoulder. “I see the spots have healed,” he said with a grin. Epauletes notwithstanding, the Caribbean is never short of a sense of humour.
But the basic point is this. For sailors, many of who have sailed thousands of miles to get there, customs and immigration are often their first encounter with the locals. And of course, it’s entirely understandable that every country must protect their borders. But, since many of these relatively tiny nations are crucially reliant on tourism, it seems a shame that a visitor’s first contacts with an essentially welcoming community might be conducted in a haughty and discouraging manner.
I had just finished this article and was about to post it in the above form when Chele reminded me that we needed to extend our visitors’ visas. It was the day before yesterday, another Saturday – mid-morning this time – so we unleashed the inflatable and chugged ashore, there to climb the steps to the combined Customs and Immigration office. Inside were a couple of young men – aged in their twenties at a guess – slouched in civilian clothes. We assumed one dealt with Customs, the other Immigration. Not a uniform nor badge was in sight so they could have been either – or indeed neither. Their manner made us feel we were intruding on private leisure.
The Immigration Officer – if such he was – curtly advised us that he couldn't help us. We would have to go into the head office in town to renew our visas. Having so informed us, without a further word he pointed to the other man (Customs presumably) who with equal economy of words relieved us of $50 (EC) for a new cruising permit. To this point Chele, in her role as manager of everything spendable, was handling the transaction. I had commandeered a chair in the background. Although easily within Chele’s reach, while maintaining his slouch the paperwork was instead waved in my direction – twice – rather in the way one tantalises a dog with a stick you’re about to throw. I ignored it and the waving became more insistent.
Two sad cases of epauletsy was my certain diagnosis. Hopefully they’ll grow out of it. Thankfully, we knew they weren’t representative of a people from whom warmth and kindness overflows. But if that had been our first encounter with the locals we might just have sailed away.
After we had cleared our parts, of course. (see photo)
P.S: We finally got our visas extended on Wednesday (Chele's birthday!). I'm pleased to record that the procedure was both polite and helpful.