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Dispute As To Facts Of Kiribati Yacht Arrest

By doina — last modified May 31, 2008 05:19 PM

Published: 2008-05-31 17:19:27
Topics: Cruising Information
Countries: Fiji , Kiribati , Marshall Islands , Tuvalu

Several concerned sailors have contacted Noonsite regarding a news item we published in April regarding the arrest of the crew of German yacht Atlantis in Kiribati after failing to clear in to the country. Walter and Gisela Mittasch of SV Atlantis disputed the facts of this news report, stating they stopped in a genuine emergency, but several sailors who were in that vicinity have claimed that Atlantis sailed to Butaritari with the intention of stopping without clearing.

The authorities in Kiribati treat any failure of yachts to comply with the correct entry procedure very severely. It would appear to be part of a general trend, that individual yachts choose to flout clearance procedures in small Pacific nations, with consequences for all those yachts that follow them as the authorities seek to impose stricter formalities.

The Mittasch claimed that it was due to engine problems that they made the decision to stop on Butaritari without clearing, and although this did initially result in their arrest, once the Kiribati authorities had established it was a genuine emergency stop, they were permitted to stay until repairs were completed. You can read their account at the end of this report.

Following Noonsite's publication of the Mittasch's story, two concerned sailors contacted Noonsite to express their reservations, having been sailing in the vicinity at the time of the incident.

Bruce Allman writes:

"Yacht ATLANTIS cleared out of Majuro, Marshall Islands, for Vanuatu. When they were found in Butaritari, Kiribati, they were 109 miles off their course. To get to Butaritari from Majuro, they had to make easting, pointing into the wind and likely motor sailing — an unlikely choice if their engine was overheating. Vanuatu would have been the best sailing angle, and Tarawa the next best. They claim health problems. The port-of-entry destinations like Tarawa and Port Villa are the only locations a foreigner can get medical attention, not a remote atoll like Butaritari. Several yachts in Majuro report having had conversations with ATLANTIS, in which the captain and his wife spoke openly about their intention to stop in Butaritari without clearance. Others heard them report the same plan on the SSB radio, while they were in transit. Though they checked in regularly on the net to report their position, they never mentioned anything about engine trouble or health problems.

When ATLANTIS arrived in Butaritari they were arrested and the captain was put in jail. The diplomatic thing to do would have been to admit they made a mistake and apologize to the authorities, appealing to their natural generosity and kindness toward visitors. Instead, they chose to force the hand of the Kiribati government by hiring a lawyer and filing a counter lawsuit for $50,000.00 in damages, citing engine and health problems to justify what they now called an emergency stop. The Kiribati government made arrangements to have an Australian Admiralty prosecuting attorney flown in for the case. Soon after this was made public, ATLANTIS set out to sea without notification. In the eyes of the Kiribati government, they just disappeared. The bad feelings and tension this has caused has strained the relationship between the Kiribati people and foreign yachts, and will certainly affect the reception given to the yachts that follow.

These types of illegal actions have generally been tolerated by the cruising community that turns a blind eye, either out of a sense of helplessness, or in some cases, a sense of entitlement, not realizing the ramifications these actions are having on the future of cruising throughout the Pacific. Just before the ATLANTIS affair, a German boat cleared out of Majuro, Marshall Islands for Kosrae and then stayed six weeks in the outer islands of the Marshalls, along with a Canadian boat. Apparently, they believe that if they can get away with doing it, it is harmless. They don’t realize what goes on behind the scenes, and that the same thing occurs in all these small island nations. The locals, put off by the unlawful presence, report them to government officials on the CB radio. Limited by the lack of resources to pursue the illegal yachts, the officials can only note the illegal activity. Their frustration, however, builds, and in time, shapes future policy towards visiting yachts. This is happening all over the Pacific where offending yachts push the patience of local authorities. The island nation of Tuvalu has reacted by closing all their outer islands to yachts, and imposing an eleven dollar per day harbor fee for anchoring in Funafuti, the capital island and port-of-entry. Fiji reacted in January 2008 by imposing a policy reducing the one-year granted to yachts to a three-month maximum stay. At the urging of the local marine businesses, they have since reinstated a nine-month policy, with a possible three-month extension, however they now require all vessels arriving in Fijian waters to notify customs and immigration 48 hours ahead of their ETA arrival. Kiribati is currently reviewing their on-going policy. Sadly, many Pacific nations are tightening up on visiting yachts due to the actions of the few who feel entitled to disregard local authority and impose their will on the people. The issue is broader and greater than any one yacht. Yachts need to take into consideration the wake that they create, and how this affects others who follow behind them."

Jerry McGraw writes:

"Having just read Walter's account of their arrest in the Kiribati's. I must disagree! I am presently aboard my vessel "Po Oino Roa" in the Marshall Islands and was present when "Atlantis" got underway. I along with several other yachties here heard Walter state that they were headed to Bataritari. I also monitored the "Rag" net on the morning when after Walter stated his destination was Bataritari another cruiser asked how he had acquired permission to stop there. As well as I can remember Walter's answer was they had done nothing to try and check in and that they were just going to stop. If they were having difficulties with engine overheating they certainly could have sailed. The pass to Tarawa would be much more suited to sailing into if you were unsure about your engine. If Gisela was so ill I would have been asking for medical information on the morning net. Medical facilities would undoubtably be better in Tarawa than Butaritari. Attitude's like Walter's that we as cruiser's can just go where we please and use the excuse of engine trouble or some one is sick if there is a problem with athorities is wrong and affects all of us out here enjoying this lifestyle. The information is out there about the requirements to visit these island nations, if we abuse their check in requirements they will establish more stringent requirements or perhaps we will not be welcome to stop at all.

The Kiribati Government is seeking their whereabouts and has issued an arrest warrant for them. Contact the "Rag of the air" @ 0645 Zulu 8173.00 S/V Amulet for full true details."

Noonsite contacted Walter and Gisela Mittasch for their comments on the above but no reply has yet been received.

Their account of what happened is as follows:

"We had checked out in Majuro/Marshall Islands for Vanuatu. Under way we realized a overheating problem with our engine. On Rag Net(a daily net for cruisers in the pacific) we announced that we will sail to Butaritari without permission. We did not mention that we have an engine problem. The Kiribati Intelligence service was listening to the net and informed the Commissioner of Police. The commissioner organized our arrest one day before we reached Butaritari. We had just anchored when a boat with about 8 policemen came alongside. The officer explained that we are illegally in the country and I had to follow him on land. The passports were confiscated. Our plea for distress, Gisela additionally sick in the night of our arrival, was refused. The answer was: we have our order from Tarawa. We had been arrested for 30 hours, than a investigation team from Tarawa showed up. After a engine test and a couple of questions the team announced that we had entered in a case of distress. The team signed a paper that stated we entered Kiribati legal under distress conditions and we had been arrested illegally. Immigration gave us 3 days for the engine repair after that we had to leave Kiribati. After 48 hours we got the possibility to talk with a lawyer and he proposed we should open a court case against the commissioner of Police. Giselas health situation deteriorated permanently. She had constantly 38,5 fiver in spite of antibiotics and Parazetamol. The immigration officer explained that he is not interested and we have to leave on Thursday otherwise we will get arrested again. This forced us to open the court case against the commissioner of Police and we got an order from the judge that we can stay in Kiribati until our case will be decided. When Giselas fever went down under 38 we sailed to Tarawa. After three days in Tarawa we decided to stop the court case if we will get a letter of apology. In our mind we are still guests in Kiribati even they did not treat us like guests. Additionally we did not like to stay for another 4 weeks in Tarawa and killing time. On Tuesday, 15 April 2008, we got the apology-letter from the attorney general and we left Kiribati for Vanuatu."

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