DHL – The Shetland Pony Express of the South Seas

What’s a pony doing on the ocean?!?!?  Well, not much, as it turns out. I ordered a replacement motor for the autopilot drive through eBay (another nightmare, worthy of its own post if I ever get round to it) just before we left Tahiti. I contacted the seller in England to confirm that he could ship to French Polynesia and the shipping cost. He said it would take a week for him to order the part, then the DHL “Express” shipment (GBP 50, about US$80) would take 2-5 days.

Great! We departed Tahiti on a 6 day sail, so the motor would just about be on its way by the time we arrive in the Marquesas at Nuku Hiva. Then wait a few days, maybe a week, install the motor and head to Hawaii!

Two weeks on Nuku Hiva, the motor arrived yesterday afternoon. I installed and tested it last night. Today I’m planning to check out and depart on Saturday, two and a half weeks after arriving at this rolly anchorage. It is so rough here, it feels like I’ve been on a passage for the whole time here – not a relaxing holiday in the tropics.

Rainy, rolly day – anchorage in Taiohae Bay, Nuku Hiva


What happened to my “Express” package? Tracking the shipment number that Paul in England gave me, there was a bank holiday in England, so two days delay before it even shows up on the DHL tracking site and it’s slow to leave England. It goes through LA and eventually on a flight to Tahiti. This is when the pony decides to start grazing those island’s verdure groves! It “arrives” and completely drops off the tracking screen. Eventually, I receive an email from a customs broker: they have the package and they will happily process it for US$120. I write back that it’s for a “Yacht in Transit” and thus not subject to import duty (since it will be leaving their country shortly; this is the typical process in every country I’ve visited or read about from other cruiser accounts). That was Friday a week ago. Monday, no reply, so I repeat, in my broken French and ask when I can expect a reply.

Tuesday I get an email from someone else! This person, Marguerite, works for DHL and she’s sent me the customs duty invoice. I reply back (in French and English, apologizing for my poor, dictionary-led, French) and she writes back (in English!) within a few hours, that, as of July 1st, there is no more duty-free option for boats in French Polynesia – they’ve changed the rules, and the only way I can retrieve my package is to pay the US$160 charges. I reply back with my credit card details (so far, there’s been no indication of how they expect payment of all these charges) and ask again if the motor could be reclassified, since it’s not “between 750 Watt and 50 kilowatt” – it’s only 85 Watt – a smaller motor, probably a different, hopefully smaller duty rate (that request, repeated a couple times, was completely ignored).

My 2pm email to Marguerite is too late in the day, so on Wednesday morning, she writes back that they do not process credit cards, only a wire transfer to the DHL account will suffice.

Wire Transfer!?! Even if they believe it’s me ordering a wire transfer, I cannot expect my bank to achieve a transfer into a French Polynesian account before the end of the week – this is becoming absurd now. Time to bring in assistance – Kevin at Nuku Hiva Yacht Services (a friendly, laid back, ex-Californian, who’s been here for 5 years, and runs a shop/workshop on the quay, offering any kind of services those arriving on boats might need: internet, book exchange, laundry, taxi rides, etc etc.) had been amazingly helpful, even though I had not bought anything from him, except for a new main halyard shackle – he actually had a suitable shackle. Maybe he can wire money more quickly from his local account.

So, for 10% he scans all my paperwork (which I’ve already sent, but we want to be thorough), sends the wire transfer immediately (within the hour) and sends an email off with all the paperwork. Meanwhile, I also email to let Marguerite know what’s happening and that the money should be in their account by morning. I ask if it’s possible the package could be released for the flight tomorrow (Thursday).

Thursday morning comes and I get an email (in French) from Marguerite. It’s a little confusing to me, it looks like she’s sent a flight tracking number and something about it being on today’s flight, but also references the 15th of Sept (Sunday) at the end of the email. I’m on shore and don’t have my dictionary, so I ask Kevin, because it went to him, too. He says it should be here today – but when I ask about the Sunday date reference, that’s when the nightmarish quality of this experience returns.

“Ah, yes, well if it’s not on today’s flight, it’ll be on Sunday’s flight”…  really? Oh, and picking up the package, since the airport is 50 km away on the other side of the island: the package is transported by Nuku Hiva Freight to their office here in Taiohae, that will cost you 400 Francs (about US$5) and you can only pick it up when they are open, between 3pm and 4pm. And if the package is on the Sunday flight, it’ll be available at their office between 3 and 4pm on Tuesday.  Hmm, what about Monday? The office isn’t open on Monday afternoons.


I’ve ruined the suspense, I was very relieved to see a small, yellow DHL package sitting on the floor of the Freight office – hoping that it’s for me. It was, so I didn’t have to add another 5 days to my two week wait that was only supposed to be 2-5 days. Perhaps DHL could find a way to improve their delivery mechanisms in this part of the world, or at least not disillusion us with the term “Express”, promising 2-5 days; and be upfront about the pack mules mixed into their service.

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