First time and unemployed South African seafarers are in a state of visa confusion. With more South Africans set to enter the industry, and visas becoming more difficult to get, you have to ask: Where is this boat headed?
The visa debate is filled with fear and misinformation, especially in an industry that tends to share advice by word of mouth.
Over time, the South African visa story has become a confused mix of hearsay, circulated online conversation and part-fact.
Let me start out by stating two truths:
1) There are currently no legitimate ways for new or unemployed South African passport holders to apply for the correct Schengen visas to work on yachts in Europe. That’s a huge deal.
2) On the positive side, once a crew member is employed and on a crew list, their visa issues can be very easily resolved and the crew member can be put to work legally in the Med.
The season past has been an unsettling time for the South African yachting community, who are at slow risk of being ‘all trained up with nowhere to go’. It is also a concerning time for the South African yachting schools, who have in the past tended to smooth over the visa process to first time yachting candidates.
This article is an attempt to scratch the surface of this complicated issue. It is a culmination of knowledge gained from personal experience, interviews and countless emails with shipping agents and Consulates, conversations with crew members and captains, and hundreds of hours of reading.
With the support of the Professional Yachting Association (PYA), I have also made it my mission to dampen passport discrimination and visa stigma where it exists in the industry and allow every nationality a fair opportunity to work onboard.
An Overview: 2012 - 2015
When I joined the industry in 2012, it was a relatively simple procedure to get a Schengen visa if you were headed over for your first season in the Med. You applied as a tourist using ‘white-lie’ paperwork and arrived in Europe to find work on a yacht.
Around the same time and without much noise, the Visa Information System (VIS) was introduced by the European Union (EU). VIS allowed Consulates the opportunity to share information on visa applicants and avoid ‘visa shopping’, a term that describes the practice of making further visa applications to other EU States when the first application was rejected.
For example, if a South African was denied a visa at the French Consulate with the intention to fly into Nice, they could no longer easily re-apply at the Spanish Consulate with the intention to fly into Palma.
From January to May 2015, peak Schengen visa season, the French Consulate in South Africa, fronted by paperwork-processing company Capago, began to take a firm stand on visa applications that were suspicious or weak. Over the months, I fielded many calls and emails from crew who had their visas denied without reason or their visas cut shorter than 90-days.
The French Consulate has not answered my direct emails on the topic and I have had the phone put down on me more than once but my wild guess would be that this stance is a result of: tougher state immigration controls, the flood of South African yacht crew who applied fraudulently as ‘tourists’ (in truth, South Africans have no other existent visa solution available to them if they are new to the industry or unemployed) and an overall disregard of employed South African crew to stick to their strict visa conditions while in the Med (90-day stay on land, depart before expiry etc.).
I would also suggest that there is a confused and inconsistent approach applied by the numerous players in the Schengen visa cycle, including issuing-agencies like Consulates, immigration authorities at external borders, shipping agents and Schengen policy-makers; a wide-cast net of players from around the world, who apply the rules differently and have yet to adapt their gigantic, slow-moving legal systems to yachting’s erratic cruising itineraries and ever-changing multinational crew lists.
Whatever the reason and until drastic solutions are found, there is currently no visa solution available to new or unemployed South African yacht crew seeking work in the Med.
The Trouble for Entry Level Crew
South Africans who applied for their first visas have been the hardest hit by the new system. Almost overnight, newly trained and eager crew members were denied visas. Many still slipped through using the ‘tourist visa method’, but were granted visas of less than 90-days.
It became a fruitless race for the South Africans who had only 30-days to be in the Schengen Area and find a job before they had to fly home.
“The French Embassy in Cape Town is very strict and uncooperative,” writes Robyn* who was issued a 30-day tourist visa despite applying for a 90-day stay. She found permanent day work in Antibes after her first few days but was not offered boat papers and ended up flying home.
Others were strung along by the attractive song of Beneficio Crew, a Netherlands-based recruitment company and service provider that offered visa solutions to green and unemployed crew.
After ‘hundreds’ of successful visa applications at the start of the season, the company hit a speed-bump when, according to owner Satish Pultoo, ‘the Dutch Government changed some regulations’.
A number of visas were rejected, particularly at VFS in Durban and Cape Town, which cost applicants anything between R8,500 - R16,000 (€550 - €1,050) in visa and Beneficio Crew application fees.
In confidential interviews with denied applicants, I have been told that Beneficio Crew is an ‘inefficient and money-making enterprise luring South African passport holders’.
Brandon* spent over R35,000 (€2,260) on entry-level deckhand courses and was hopeful Beneficio Crew would get him the correct visas, which were denied twice. “Beneficio has destroyed all my hopes and dreams of making yachting my career,” he says.
Beneficio Crew is struggling to hold onto its reputation as a visa-solutions provider; a pity for a company that got off to a promising start by offering the only solution of its kind to South African passport-holders.
The company has since reigned-back its visa-offering and like many others in the market, offers transit visas and visa applications or extensions to crew with contracts.
“We believe governments are not taking an interest in this large industry,” says Satish. “If you call local immigration services no one knows what to do with yachties. This is a big concern... We are constantly in contact with several embassies to find a solution to this problem.”
“First our goal is to restore the good reputation we had before the Dutch government changed the visa regulations and we are confident that we can come to a new solution.”
Michael*, a Chief Mate with seven-years experience in the industry, also had his Beneficio Crew visa denied twice. “If any of the training schools had told me how difficult it was to get a visa, I probably would not have spent five years and $30 000 on my qualifications. I feel the training we get should cover some relevant immigration issues.”
At the time of publication, none of the denied applicants had been contacted or refunded by Beneficio Crew.
A ‘denied’ visa stamp makes it difficult to apply for later visas to work onboard, including the B1/B2 for admission into the United States. One can argue that entry-level yacht crew should be encouraged to apply for their visas before they commit to courses.
“Anyone requiring a visa to work should do a thorough investigation into what they need and what they can get before spending money on training, or flights,” asserts Joey Meen of the Professional Yachting Association (PYA), a not-for-profit crew rights organisation that is regularly overwhelmed by South African crew with visa queries.
The Good News for Employed Crew
When South African yacht crew are employed, either seasonally or permanently, the chances of a successful visa application or renewal are much higher. It is almost guaranteed and easier to get if an applicants dossier is sound and well-prepared with legitimate boat paperwork.
The introduction of VIS has also made it possible for employed yacht crew to extend or renew their Schengen visas by proxy. This allows a third party to submit the visa application on the crew member’s behalf, while the crew member stays working onboard in Europe.
South African Yachties offers proxy renewals to employed crew members in France and Spain, without the crew member having to return to South Africa. “I hope to change [industry] minds now that [there] is a solution,” says Samantha from South African Yachties. “It can be business as usual on the boat while [the crew member’s] visa is sorted in around 10-14 days.”
South African Yachties has worked on visa-solutions with the Consulates in South Africa, where they have made inroads and helped Consulates better understand the visa requirements for South African crew in the luxury yachting industry. They also stay up-to-date on regular adjustments made to the visa renewal process.
“The rules are forever changing,” says Samantha. “What happened to that 'friend of a friend' last year may not apply to your situation this year.”
All visas that are VIS-issued hold an applicant’s biometrics, including their finger prints and photographs, and are kept on record for 59-months (around five years) after which the biometrics have to be redone.
The time has come for crew members to maintain their visas correctly, before, during and after the season. It is completely careless of a crew member to overstay a visa, either past the 90-days granted out of every 180-days or past the expiry date, especially if the crew member is unemployed and has no reason to back-up their stay in Europe
Crew may get away with it on the European-side where immigration tends to be more lenient but when they re-apply outside of the EU, everything needs to be done by the book.
Movement through the Schengen Area is monitored by border guards who are required to stamp the travel documents of third-party nationals, however certain exemptions are applied to ship and aircraft crew. This includes but is not limited to ‘stamping in’ and ‘stamping out’, an issue which has divided the South African yachting community.
Every country in the Schengen Area handles seafarer immigration differently, which makes it difficult to find a one-size-fits-all solution to stamping out. “Customs is not really interested in a crew member’s visa situation in France,” I am told by a shipping agent in Nice. “But in Italy they want to check everything. Monaco is also stricter.”
“If their visa is expired or past 90-days and if they are not working on board, they are illegally here,” says Mathieu Desnoues from Catalano Shipping in Cannes, a large agency that advises crew on visa regulations from the Mediterranean-side. “And when they are working onboard, they have to be stamped out.”
Catalano works directly with customs in France and took part in the discussion for the reintroduction of transit visas at Nice Airport in 2014, an important move for South African crew who are only granted a three-month stay out of a season that can span seven-months or longer.
“When crew leave they have to do it legally,” says Mathieu. “If they overstay 90-days or expiry, they need a transit visa to leave.”
Catalano Shipping takes the visa-burden off yacht management and captains who do not want to handle crew visa issues over a busy season. The company also assists with Carte de Sejour (French Resident Permit) applications and renewal
South Africans, and other Annex I countrymen like Filipinos, are merely casualties to a really large, lazy-to-move system of policies and laws that have not adapted to the rapid growth of the super yachting sector and its thirst for international crew.
My only advice to South African yacht crew is: do your homework. Pick up the phone and ask. Do not be afraid to challenge agents on their products and prices or phone Consulates with difficult questions. Don’t make it the captain’s problem. Expect more from your training school when it comes to visa advice but also take responsibility for your visa issues: it is your job to follow the rules.
And although the hardened rules are slow to change, visa advice will change as we learn more from our experiences at visa-issuing agencies. By the time you read this article, the entire landscape may have changed but collectively we can and should do more to learn more about the system and what solutions are available.
For more debate and discussion, follow Yacht Crew Visas on Facebook.
* Names changed
For more on the issue of ‘stamping out’ and the validity of Seaman Discharge Books while a crew member is ashore, the most valuable reading I have found in my research is “A Practical Handbook for [Schengen] Border Guards”.