Sovereign of the Sea

Sovereign of the Seas

This Feadship’s unforgettable South American circumnavigation gets off to a rocky start when she encounters Brazil’s insufferable bureaucracy.

By Capt. Ian van der Watt — May 2006

Pamela Jones

 More of this Feature

• Part 1: Sovereign of the Seas
• Part 2: Sovereign of the Seas
• Part 3: Sovereign of the Seas
• Sovereign of the Seas Photo Gallery

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Many yacht owners dream of embarking on ambitious cruises, but few actually do them. From late 2004 through 2005, the 131-foot Feadship Queen of Diamonds circumnavigated South America, heading down its east coast, passing through the Strait of Magellan to Chile, and cruising on to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. Capt. Ian van der Watt, who’s run the yacht for several years, documented the expedition. On this, the first leg, the challenge is more about overcoming bureaucracy than seeing the sights.


As Americans need visas and we had Australian crew who also needed them, we had attempted to get tourist visas for our impending visit to Brazil. We were told we needed to have work visas and that the process could take six weeks. I decided that we could not postpone a trip because of a visa, plus we had Merchant Mariner documents issued by the U.S. Coast Guard. The Brazilian consular Web site said they would be accepted.

When we started on our leg to Recife, Brazil, we had several “polliwogs” who had never crossed the equator, so we had to initiate them in a line-crossing ceremony so that they could be accepted as “shellbacks.” King Neptune—a.k.a. our engineer, John Todhunter—conducted the initiation.

The weather was fairly calm until we arrived east of the Amazon River, where we encountered some rough seas with a steep, short chop. After nine and a half days, we arrived in Recife. Our agents and a delegation of authorities were waiting on the quay. We were aware of the bureaucracy, but this was a real wake-up call. After the pilot departed, our world was disrupted as officials took over our home. In retrospect we believe the agents were egging on the officials to deport us.

We had declared our firearms at sea but they nevertheless caught the eye of the Policia Federal authority. The weapons immediately became a big problem, and the agents, who had been presented with pictures and descriptions of the weapons before our arrival in Brazil, did nothing to help alleviate it.

To add fuel to the fire, our Merchant Marine documents were not going to be accepted. Even though we presented commercial mariners’ licenses and crew agreements, we were told the engineer, chef, and I would have to leave immediately for another country to get visas after we had each paid a $2,000 fine.

Our passports were stamped with statements that we had arrived illegally and were going to be deported. The authorities left to confer with their superiors in Brasilia and returned two hours later, for the engineer and me. We were taken to the federal police office, where we spent another two hours listening to them joke and pantomime at our expense, after which we were taken to the airport to get our pictures and fingerprints taken. We were returned to the boat at 9:30 pm. (We’d arrived at 2 p.m.) The officials and agents vowed that they would be back in the morning. When I told the agent that I was sure the U.S. authorities treated foreign visitors with more dignity, I was immediately told that Brazilians were given a difficult time when they went to get visas for the United States and were grilled upon entry. All of a sudden this seemed like a case of revenge for a previous bad experience.

We spent the next afternoon, Thursday, waiting on a decision from the authorities as to our fate. I’d contacted the American consulate in Recife and an attorney, recommended by a friend, who was to assist us in Rio. When frantic phone calls were made, we noticed an immediate change in our agents’ attitudes. Thursday merged into Friday, and we were told we could refuel but still not leave the vessel. Finally, late Friday afternoon we were told that the crew could enter Brazil legally, but the firearms would have to be “donated” to the Federal Police, who would return on Monday to pick them up. That meant we’d be unable to leave until that day or Tuesday.

I decided that if they were going to get our guns, they were never going to be able to use them, so I had the engineer disable them before I was taken with them and our ammunition to the police station on Monday. I grudgingly signed documents stating that I was donating them. We then returned to the boat and that afternoon were finally given permission to sail to Rio de Janeiro.

Next page > Part 2: Sovereign of the Seas > Page 1, 2, 3, 4

This article originally appeared in the June 2006 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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