WHICH WAY HOME? Tentacles of the federal shutdown reach all the way to Grand Cayman Island.
WHICH WAY HOME? Tentacles of the federal shutdown reach all the way to Grand Cayman Island.

By Tori Richards | Watchdog.org

The U.S. Customs Service was established by the first Congress shortly after the Revolution, yet when their modern-day counterparts meet to hash over the budget impasse, they worry about emergency funding to national parks and Head Start – ignoring what men and women of George Washington’s era regarded as an essential government service: the plight of Americans stranded in foreign countries.

Just ask Florida businessman Michael McGhee.

McGhee was ferrying a yacht back to the United States from the Dominican Republic and pulled into the Cayman Islands Tuesday night with engine trouble. He found himself persona non grata and told by Cayman officials to “go back to the boat and wait” until the budget impasse is over and U.S. Customs computers come back online. This would allow the Cayman officials to check the U.S. passports of McGhee and his four-person crew.

“They said the U.S. does not have service at this time,” McGhee said. “I said, ‘Well, what does that limit me to?’ They said, ‘You have to restrict your crew to the vessel until you’re notified.’”

McGhee owns Black Pearl Marine Specialties, a boat retrieval and repossession service. He has traveled throughout the Caribbean for 35 years.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” he said, “and I’ve lived a long time. This is absolute insanity.”

PARADISE LOST: A look toward Seven Mile Marina, where Capt. Michael McGhee is docked, confined to his yacht.

PARADISE LOST: A look toward Seven Mile Marina, where Capt. Michael McGhee is docked, confined to his yacht.

Back here at home, meanwhile, the Customs operation remains open at Washington Dulles International Airport and presumably other national airports.

“They may be considered nonessential out there,” said Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.

And that’s exactly what it is.

“This area of the Caribbean is called the outpost,” McGhee said, conjuring up images of an America beyond the frontier, where citizens received sketchy services at best.

The federal government screeched to a halt Monday night, leaving only a few “essential” operations functioning. The House of Representatives met to push through emergency funding to keep national parks open and provide benefits for Head Start children, though the U.S. Senate has yet to act.

McGhee, however, said he wishes people like him would get a little love. He encountered engine trouble after leaving the Dominican Republic Monday night and found himself without electricity for nine hours in the Mona Passage, a major shipping channel headed toward Florida.

McGhee’s 128-foot yacht was invisible in the inky darkness while cargo ships the size of aircraft carriers bore down on him in a parade, jockeying for position like cars on a Los Angeles freeway during rush hour.

He managed to restore power in the morning and arrived in the Cayman Islands late Tuesday, out of food and in need of engine parts. Normally, an American is stationed at the island’s customs area to greet travelers. Instead, McGhee was greeted by local workers. They took mercy on the stranded Yanks, looking the other way when the crew left the boat briefly to eat at a nearby restaurant.

The next day was a different story when it became clear to Cayman officials the shutdown wasn’t some minor glitch.

PASSPORT FROM ANYWHERE BUT U.S.? Come on in!

PASSPORT FROM ANYWHERE BUT U.S.? Come on in!

“I said to one of the guys, ‘We are out of food,’” McGhee recalled. “He said, ‘I know you, go to grocery store — everyone else stay on the boat.’”

But they still aren’t home free.

“I’m under scrutiny when I’m here,” McGhee said.

Watchdog.org wanted a comment from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and called Media Director Mike Friel for comment.

His response?

“Due to the lapse in appropriations and the emergency furlough I’m currently out of the office. Please leave a message and I will return your call on my return to the office.”

Contact Tori Richards at tori@watchdog.org or on twitter @newswriter2

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