Oct. 24, 2017
By Dorie Cox
As a yacht stew waited her turn to talk to the U.S. consular officer in Italy in September, she could overhear each interview of the people ahead of her in the large, open room. The sole officer asked each of them questions and ultimately granted visa request after visa request.
“There were other crew from a different boat, and they all got their visas,” she said by phone from Europe. “I was denied.”
She thought she had properly prepared for the B1/B2 visa application interview by bringing her passport, the ship’s registration, and a letter from the captain on ship’s letterhead. But then the consular officer asked if the boat charters. She began to explain that while the yacht did charter in the Mediterranean, it was going to the U.S. for a yard period, but she was interrupted.
“He said I was not allowed [the visa] because the boat does charter,” she said. “He said, ‘I’m sorry, I cannot help you any further,’ and the interview was over.” She asked that her name be withheld until her status is resolved.
Ambra Sartore, a yacht agent with All Services in San Remo, Italy, has worked with crew on two yachts that had similar problems this fall. One of the yachts is now without a captain for the trip across the Atlantic. It is the first time that she has seen crew denied their B1/B2 applications because a yacht charters in the Med, even though it will not charter in the United States.
“In fact, the yacht will arrive and maintain a private yacht status for the entire visit to the U.S.A.,” Sartore wrote in an email. “[It] has been difficult, so far, to find any information why this has changed, as in previous years, assuming all documentation was correct, there was no problem to obtain even 10-year visas.”
Sartore has seen visa application denials happen to South African, Australian and New Zealand passport holders.
“I would imagine the same applies for other nationalities,” she wrote. “I know that it has always been difficult to get a B1/B2 for South Africans, but the reason now seems to be not because of the nationality, but because the yacht did commercial activities in Europe.”
Yachts present unique situation
The issue stems from the fact that many yachts chartering in the Mediterranean have finished the season and are heading to the United States for yard work. These charter yachts hold commercial registrations or flag-state documentation and switch to private registration on their passage to the United States. The vessels enter the U.S. as private pleasure vessels, whose crew require a B1/B2 visa, according to U.S. law.
“The problem revolves around commercially registered yachts attempting to obtain B1/B2 visas for their crew,” said Capt. Steve Walker, of the 55m Feadship M/Y Huntress II, describing how several of his crew were denied B1/B2 visas. “Most yachts in the Med are commercially registered for the season and then flip to pleasure or private status while crossing the Atlantic back to the U.S.A. The immigration authorities only recognize the commercial status and don’t understand the flipping procedure. In the Med, at the time crew present themselves, the yacht is most always on a commercial registry if the yacht is a charter vessel.”
When his crew present themselves to an embassy officer, Capt. Walker said, they have the yacht documentation (registration), their passport and a letter from the captain on the yacht’s letterhead stationery.
“I try to keep the letter on the yacht letterhead as brief as possible because things can be lost in translation, so I don’t put the explanation in the letter,” he said. “They go with a copy of the registry, which is a problem in itself if they [officials] see the word commercial on the registry and comment.
“I tell my crew, if they don’t mention it, don’t say anything,” he said. “But if you get the chance, explain that we will switch to private before arriving in the U.S.”
Capt. Walker understands U.S. laws and wants to abide by them. He just hopes that officials can more clearly understand the unique situation of yachts and their crew.
“The problem with crew presenting themselves to the immigration/customs officials is in the wording or dialogue,” he said. “So, there lies the problem. It is a tricky situation.”
Another captain, in transit from the Med to the U.S., said he understands that officials are cautious in granting visas. But he feels the letter he writes for his crew – an official document with a signature that states the yacht will not be for rent or hire in the U.S. – should be sufficient.
“That should be enough to show they should get a visa,” he said.
Applying for combination encouraged
Several industry associations are aware of the fact that some crew have had trouble getting visas this fall, and they offer this advice.
“We encourage crew to apply for both the C1/D and B1/B2,” said Kitty McGowen, president of the U.S. Superyacht Association. “They are in the business of being a mariner, and sometimes they work on private and sometimes commercial vessels. They go into this as a business and need the ability to enter on both visas.”
McGowan said she has heard the stories of visa denials and said many things may play a factor, including technology, security and politics.
“Maybe there has been a sea change that can be attributed to a world that is more cautious,” she said.
Officers are not afraid of letting yacht crew into the United States, McGowen said, but she believes many government agencies are told to work more closely by the book.
Patience Cohn also facilitates information between U.S. officials and the yachting industry as industry liaison for the Marine Industries Association of South Florida. She clarified that crew should apply first for a C1/D, then ask for a B1/B2 add-on at the same time.
“It is what the aviation industry has done for years,” she said.
The C1/D visa is a combination of the D (for crew working on sea vessels or airlines that intend to depart within 29 days) and the C1, which is the transit portion of the visa. The combination B1/B2 visitor visa is for crew who want to enter the United States temporarily for business (B1) and/or tourism, pleasure or visiting (B2).
It is a common occurrence to see both the C1-D and B1-B2 visas in a passport, said Michael Silva, public affairs and border community liaison for communication management operations with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Miami & Tampa Field Office.
“In the majority of cases it is approved,” Silva said.
The topic seems clear to the yachting community, but U.S. visas are fairly complicated and there are more than 20 non-immigrant visa types for people traveling to the United States temporarily.
Although several crew recently have been denied visas due to the commercial status of the vessel at the time of the application, it is only a few people, Cohn said.
“The percentage of denials is the same no matter which embassy, whether the embassy does 4,000 or 400,” she said.
There are many players in yachting and they can all help with education, said Phil Purcell, executive director of MIASF.
“If we truly want to minimize these issues, then everyone in the industry needs to step up – flag states, management companies, agents,” he said. “If it’s a worthwhile proposition, they need to invest.”
But the the final say on whether crew are allowed to come into the United States rests with U.S. government officials. According to the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs website, “We cannot guarantee that you will be issued a visa” and “a visa does not guarantee entry into the United States.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Silva said when crew arrive in the U.S., the first question a CBP officer usually asks is, what is purpose of your visit?
“It is very important that arriving yacht crew state to the CBP Officer, that they will be joining a yacht and not a commercial vessel,” Silva said. “Therefore applying for admission under their B1 visa. The C1 visa is for transit to join as a commercial crew for up to 29 days. Once onboard the commercial vessel, the C1 is converted to a D1 crew member. If crew are on a yacht and the captain and/or broker realizes the repairs are going to be for an extended length of time it is highly recommended to speak with CBP management at the port of entry.”
Silva said the CBP office works to facilitate trade and travel and work together with the yacht industry.
“Communication with CBP at the port of entry is key and should commence ahead of the vessels arrival by the captain, yacht management, yacht agent or broker,” Silva said. “We encourage all involved to start the discussion of the yacht’s entry with the Notice Of Arrival, it is then is up to the port’s discretion. “
At the U.S. border, crew may request to speak with a supervisor. If denied the visa at the embassy, however, it is different. Several captains said they have attempted to talk with embassy officials after crew are denied, but find that the consular official is the final word.
The stew who was denied her first visa application said her captain tried to phone the embassy after her denial to explain and was told there was nothing he could do.
She said she has learned from her experience.
“I was not 110 percent informed,” the stew said. “I thought it was common knowledge about how yacht charters work. This boat does charter, but it’s important to make the interviewer aware that the boat does not charter in the U.S. Crew can’t lie, but it should be on the letter: ‘This boat does not charter in the U.S.’”
Since the stew was not able to travel with her yacht, she lost her job and found another on a private yacht. She then reapplied for a B1/B2 visa at a different embassy.
“When I went the second time, the official asked questions and it just took a few minutes,” she said. “The only difference between the two letters was that this yacht only does private.”
She is grateful she had a second chance.
“I can’t work if I can’t access the countries the yacht travels to,” she said. “If I was not lucky enough to join another boat, I would not have a job.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below.
Helpful links for U.S. visa and travel information:
U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas.html
Websites of U.S. Embassies, Consulates, and Diplomatic Missions: www.usembassy.gov
U.S. Embassy and Consulates in the United Kingdom: uk.usembassy.gov/visas/temporary-employment/air-and-sea-crew-members