This morning I have packed my bag and tidied up the cottage (as much as I can with boxes of kit, technology and expedition rations piled everywhere) - for today I leave for Ottawa and my visa interview. I keep having nightmarish flashes of "Terminal"-type images, me lost in a bureacratic no-man's-land and doomed to live forever in Macdonald-Cartier International Airport, while my beautiful boat slowly deteriorates in San Francisco...
But I'm sure I'll be fine. As I've already been approved for a US 12-month visa in London, and it was only time constraints and logistics that prevented me getting it physically placed in my passport, it would seem quite contrary if the Ottawa embassy refused me a visa.
It will definitely be a relief when this is out of the way.
Meanwhile, many good things happening. Yesterday I spent the afternoon with my favourite photographer, Jason Madara. Last time we had met was when he shot me (so to speak) for the New York Times, on a gusty, rain-soaked, pitch-dark Saturday night. This time we were basking in sunshine on a glorious summer's day by the Golden Gate Bridge, while he took portraits of me and Sedna for German MAX Magazine.
Then I dashed over to the KRON4 TV studios for a quick guest appearance on the Gary Radnich show.
While I was out and about, my new rowing seat and runners arrived from Seattle, and although we didn't get the boat in the water yesterday, I had a chance to do a dry test of the new outriggers that Rich Crow built for me - and they seem to have solved the problems with the oars. The balance (between inboard and outboard) is now much improved, and it appears likely that the oars will now reach the water - always a bonus.
[photo: a picture from Jason Madara's previous shoot with me and Sedna]
Today a friend gave me a copy of a book written for children, but I think a lot of adults should read it. Called Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion, it has lots of beautiful photographs and informative charts, and showcases the work of renowned oceanographer Dr Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who will be one of my guest bloggers during my Pacific row. Curt is doing me the honour of providing his expert view on my eyewitness account of Pacific garbage.
The blurb on the book says this:
Aided by an army of beachcombers, oceanographer Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer tracks trash in the name of science. From sneakers to hockey gloves, Curt monitors the watery fate of human-made cargo that has spilled into the ocean. The information he collects is much more than casual news; it is important scientific data. And with careful analysis, Curt, along with a community of scientists, friends, and beachcombers alike, is using his data to understand and protect our ocean.
In engaging text and unforgettable images, readers meet the woman who started it all (Curt's mother!), the computer program that makes sense of his data (nicknamed OSCURS), and several scientists, both on land and on the sea, who are using Curt's discoveries to preserve delicate marine habitats and protect the creatures who live in them.
What I say on the book is: BUY IT! Click here to find it on Amazon.
Phew - what a relief. I was waiting for a package of documents from my mother - bank statements, tax statements, mobile phone bills, etc - to prove that I live in England. It was starting to look as if it wasn't going to arrive in time, or was lost in the post, but has now been discovered in my neighbour's mailbox.
Meanwhile, brief panic when it looked as if I had to pay US$100 processing fee into a Scotiabank account - and the only branch in the US is in New York. Paying it once I got to Canada would be equally impossible as I arrive at 10.30pm Tuesday night and my interview is at 8am on Wednesday morning.
But on closer inspection it turns out that this requirement only comes into force on July 1. For now, I can pay at the embassy.
This process is going to be the death of me...
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]