Arriving in Tunisia Single-Handed and Detained for 10 Weeks

Published 9 years ago, updated 6 years ago

Malta to Tunisia – the passage

On the evening of Saturday 14th March 2015,  I left the anchorage at Birzebbugia in Malta on the route for Lampedusa island. Being singlehanded I had intended to stop and rest there before continuing onwards to Tunisia.

It was dark when I arrived at Lampedusa Island and the wind was much stronger than the forecast I had previously seen (almost double). This was making the conditions in the harbour entrance look dangerous and so I decided it was safer to continue on my way. The weather was still deteriorating and the wave height was around 7m.  Then the furling line on the foresail broke and the whole sail started to flog violently making it necessary for me to go on deck immediately. So with no waterproof clothing and alone in the dark I went outside and solved the problem. By the time I got back inside, I was very cold and wet but couldn’t possibly cook any hot food.

By now my physical condition was not good, and the strong winds were driving me towards the Tunisian coast.  So as not to arrive in the dark I took what steps I could to slow the boat down and then had to make a decision whether to head more northwards and shelter behind Sicily or try and find shelter in a Tunisian port. The wind started to calm slightly and I decided Mahdia was the best option.

Tunisia – Mahdia

I arrived in Mahdia with a courtesy flag and yellow Q flag late in the morning of March 16th in a complete state of physical and mental exhaustion. As soon as the boat was tied up safely I felt myself shutting down, voices sounded very distant and my eyes were all but closed.

I was asked to come to the office with my papers.

There were two men, one in police uniform and one in civilian clothes. I was asked to complete a form, but we were having trouble with the language barrier and my blurry eyesight.

The plain clothed man then filled in the form on my behalf. I remember him asking some questions about stamps and rice and cameras, all very confusing in my present state. He asked me to sign and I did so.  There was no one present with a customs uniform and I believed this was the port police form.

Then the men in customs uniform arrived and we went back onboard to clear customs. The boat was well provisioned with everything as it always is in the Spring, in preparation for the sailing season. Tinned and dried food/bathroom and cleaning products / long life milk/fruit juice and alcoholic drinks.

I think there were three officers on board at first and all were asking me questions about my permanently installed navigation electronics and about my ships stores and alcohol, why so much alcohol. I explained I was carrying lots of everything in preparation for the start of the summer season.

It’s now 41 hours without food and sleeps and my clothes have dried somewhat but are still damp with salt, however, I’m still doing my best to answer the questions and co-operate in every way.

Then one of them thrust an old camera in front of me that hadn’t been used for years that I forget to mention. I’m now desperately trying to focus on electrical items and questions from the other guy about why I was alone when another officer at the rear of the boat shouted: “what’s this?”. I went to him and he was referring to the firearms locker. I unlocked it and produced my certificate. I was then informed that the document that I had signed in the office was a customs declaration form and I had not declared firearms.

More people were then called to the boat -I think in the later stage there were 7 on board and all were very aggressive.

This ordeal continued until around 10 pm.

During that time they were very disrespectful of my boat and were smoking inside and out. One of them opened a sealed packet of biscuits and ate half the packet. When I asked they said, “we were hungry”. This whole situation was absolutely ridiculous, at no time did I lie or try to hide anything, I had apologised profusely and tried to explain repeatedly.

Chris Eley

Further Updates

They have returned my passport but are holding my boat registration documents and I’m not allowed to leave, so basically the boat is impounded. My court hearing was on the 31st but I don’t know the outcome until the 14th April.

(Editor’s Note: One of the charges was for carrying an illegal firearm. There were 2 guns on board, one of which was a shotgun (licensed) and an air rifle that needed no licence either in Tunisia or in the UK. The firearms were not declared on the first form due to fatigue and the skipper, not understanding.)

Judgment has now been postponed until the 28th April. I’ve been hearing bad reports from other boats about the customs here, it’s not a pleasant place to sail into. Things like toddlers being dragged out of bed at 3 am and whimpering with fright while her bed was being searched. Other reports of broken crockery because of heavy-handedness.

8 June: The boat and I are safely out of Tunisian waters. My total costs including legal fees, fines and berthing costs during the ten weeks of detainment amount to over 9000 Tunisian Dinars. I paid the customs fine to get my documents back and left before appearing in court again on the 2nd of June, so who knows what the outcome of that would have been. The charges were all fabrication and false. I hope you can prevent others from suffering the same fate as I did.

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  1. November 14, 2018 at 7:56 AM
    Data Entry2 says:

    I had an almost identical experience some years back. Intended to head into Lampedusa, but could not feel comfortable at the entrance which is very poorly lit, so carried on, arriving in Monastir with only part of my brain intact after 48 hours single-handed against the strong wind and high seas. Fortunately, I knew some of the marina staff who allowed me to sleep for 48 hours before demanding formalities.

    Re the second part of the story: I had a similar experience in Morocco, with customs involved. I had an Arabic Bible onboard – far more dangerous than guns, although there is no law to prohibit books. So they changed the charges to one of trying to overthrow the government! Took me 5 months to get out, and a lot of money. I wrote a book about the experience: A MINOR INDISCRETION