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Woodside, California

It is now just 19 days until I go on full-time standby to depart from San Francisco (the actual departure date will depend on the weather). There is a HUGE amount still to do – an achievable amount, but definitely challenging – so it is less than ideal that I will have to spend a third of those remaining days in Ottawa, Canada.

This is my problem…

I am a British citizen. In order to make preparations for this major undertaking, I have been coming and going from the US for the last 12 months under the Visa Waiver Scheme between the US and Great Britain, which allows me up to 90 days in the US without a visa.

Throughout that time I have been trying to arrange a visa. The procedure requires that I attend an interview at the US embassy in London. After many attempts to schedule an interview that coincided with my brief visits to Britain, I finally managed to secure an appointment on 11th May 2007.

I passed the rigorous interview process and was granted a visa, but the embassy required 3-5 working days to process my passport. On that date I had only 2 working days before I was due to fly back to the US to give two presentations as fundraisers for nonprofit organizations. I did not feel I could let down the people who had put so much effort into arranging these presentations for their good causes, so I elected to hold onto my passport so that I could return to the US and fulfill my obligations.

At the time this seemed a reasonable course of action, as I thought that:
a) By entering international waters as I rowed between San Francisco and Hawaii I would be officially departing the US, and
b) On entering Hawaii I could therefore recommence the 90-day visa waiver period…
and would therefore not be in breach of the U.S Immigration Visa Waiver Scheme.

However, upon further investigation since my return I have now found that:
a) there is no official procedure for departing the US by boat, so being in international waters does not count as having departed the US, and
b) the Visa Waiver Scheme only applies to those arriving by “approved carrier” and I suspect that my little ocean rowboat does not qualify.

So after extensive research and countless hours on the phone and website of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and many other information sources, I have found that my options are as follows:
a) I return to Great Britain for a month – the period now required by the US Embassy to process my passport (it takes much longer if the visa is not stamped into the passport immediately after the interview) – but this would mean that I would have to postpone my departure date and this could take me into dangerous weather conditions, or;
b) I attend an interview in Canada to try and obtain a visa – this will be an entirely fresh interview, the fact that I have already been approved for a visa in Great Britain counts for nothing. After frequently logging into the embassy interview booking system I have managed to obtain an appointment for 27th June, but this will mean that I have to spend at least a week in Canada while my passport is processed, and this is precious time in the run-up to an expedition, or;
c) I launch on my intended departure date and run the risk of deportation when I arrive in Hawaii, plus potentially being barred from re-entry to the US for 5 years – which would thwart the second stage of my Pacific row which runs from Hawaii to Tuvalu.

I do not want to run this risk. I would prefer to abide by the regulations, and ensure that my paperwork is in order before I depart from San Francisco.

So on Tuesday I fly to Ottawa, and I hope and pray that the US Embassy there will agree with their counterparts in London and will grant me a visa.

Or I might have to bypass Hawaii altogether, which would be a big shame…

[photo: first sea trial last week, under the Golden Gate Bridge where – paperwork and weather permitting – it will all start in less than 3 weeks]

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