Customs Sum It Up Sunday

Checking in with Customs

Sunday, May 22, 2016S.V. CAMBRIA

Taking a walk out to Turn Point Light on Stuart Island is one of the many ways I've been keeping busy this week.
When the week started, we were in the U.S. and now we’re not. We’re in an entirely differently country. For most cruisers, that would mark the end an epic journey. For us, it was a simple matter of five miles.

Checking into a new country can be an officious process and, over the years, we’ve had our fair share of run-ins with customs – all from the U.S. side. From the benign encounters with bored officers who seem to take great pleasure in pointing out a perceived mistake to the constant badgering in attempt to get us to import the boat, something that’s never going to happen.

The most serious incident occurred in 2014 when we were checking out and had the misfortune of drawing the duty of Officer Holmes (whom I believe has since transferred out of Friday Harbor). For whatever reason, he was confrontational from the minute we walked through the door and did his best to make the process painful to the point that I was embarrassed to call myself an American. The big issue, of course, was the boat’s British registration. He wanted us to import it and wasn’t interested in our reasons for not doing so (of which there are many). Honestly, I don’t really know what happened because I had to excuse myself and leave the room before I said something to worsen the situation – the guy was being that big of a jerk. After 30 minutes of asking the same questions over and over, he finally decided he wasn’t getting anywhere so he consulted with a colleague behind closed doors. We have no idea what was said, but he returned with a different attitude and happily checked us out of the country (I’m guessing it was something like, “quit acting like a complete jerk and let these people be on their way”).

At this point you’re probably asking yourself why we had to check out of the country when everybody else is just free to leave. Here’s where things get a little confusing. When we brought Cambria into the country in 2007, she was issued a cruising permit which allowed her to remain in US waters for one year. Under the permit, we could leave without checking out. That changed in 2009 when we forfeited our permit and were issued a Standard Entrance which required us to check in and out of the country, but without the one year limitation. When we arrived in Ketchikan last May, the officer issued us another cruising permit (while complaining that the people in Friday Harbor didn’t know what they were doing). The point being, this year we didn’t have to check out and it made our lives so much easier . . . and more enjoyable.

Welcome to Canada.

I read a lot of cruising blogs and am always interested to learn how much people have to pay when checking into a foreign country – $200 here, $300 there, perhaps  a small gratuity on top of that for the officer’s time – all while running paper work from customs, to the bank, to immigration and back to customs in some countries. And I thought it might be interesting to know what’s involved in checking into Canada:

  1. Go to a designated Canadian customs dock (there are 14 to choose from in British Columbia).
  2. Pick up the phone at the dock.
  3. Someone in Ottawa will answer and ask you questions (how long would you like to stay? do you have any firearms aboard? any alcohol or tobacco? any fruits or vegetables? etc.).
  4. The agent issues you a permit number.
And that’s basically it in a nutshell. This year, however, there was a little more involved. David was told that someone would actually be coming down to board the boat but one of the officers recognized him from previous years and said, “I don’t need to see your boat. I know who you are. Come up to the office and we’ll get your entry number.” The whole process took a total of 20 minutes (10 of which David spent chatting with the custom’s officer). And how much does it cost? Absolutely nothing.

Coming back into the US is a little different. Boats 30 feet in length or more have to pay an annual processing fee of $27.50 to enter the country, something that really irks one of our friends who cites the fact that you can drive across the border for free so there shouldn’t be any charge for boats. He has a good point but, compared to other countries, $27.50 is a bargain. According to Waggoner Cruising Guide (which is likened to the bible around here), all US and non-US boats are required to pay the fee, but that’s never been our experience. For us, it’s always been $19 for a cruising permit or $19 for a Standard Entrance, full stop.

Of course, checking into a foreign country, whether it be the U.S., Canada or some exotic port, requires knowledge of custom’s restrictions and any overages or non-permitted items need to be declared and/or left behind. We spend six months in Canadian waters, so we bring in extra beer and wine (which are very expensive here) along with massive amounts of pipe tobacco and cigarettes (I know, I know but you really don’t want to be around David when he’s out of tobacco, which runs about CA$40 for a 50 gram pouch – ouch, and I find that one cigarette after dinner is something I really don’t want to give up even though I know I should. We’ve been doing this for several years, declaring the overages every time, and customs has yet to require us to pay duty. As long as we keep the items on the boat and they’re for our own personal use, it’s a non-issue. They’re just happy that we’re being honest and upfront.

So, now that we’re in Canada, what have we been up to? 

As I said, after an epic 5-mile journey, we’re now in Canada where we’ve been for the last five days and have found ourselves at a bit of a loss without a real cruising plan in place. We left Kingston three weeks ago and have only made 140 miles to the city of Nanaimo since then – by this time last year we were in Alaska (though we did leave a month earlier). We’re hoping that some friends on another boat will catch up to us in a couple of days and we’ll all make a trip to Princess Louisa Inlet together, one of British Columbia’s most beautiful fjords. But until that happy day arrives, we’ll just have to content ourselves at lower latitudes and in busy anchorages. Somehow, I think we’ll survive.

Fireworks in Nanaimo to celebrate Victoria Day weekend.
 How about you? Have you had any memorable experiences with customs on or off the water? Join the conversation below in the comments section or on our Facebook page – we love to hear from you!

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  1. The worst experience I had was when I was traveling from Calgary to Alaska, via Seattle. I was with my son Seth who was about 8 years old, and it was about 5am. As we went through customs the man demanded to know where Seth's father was and since he wasn't with us where was the letter was that allowed me to be traveling alone with my son?
    His father - my ex-husband was back in NZ, and we didn't know anything about needing a letter?! I have traveled all over the world with my son and without my ex-husband and have never been asked for this! I pleaded ignorance, and said I had never heard of such a thing.
    The customs man was deadly serious, I started to get the feeling that things weren't going to end well. Then he asked Seth "Who's this?" and pointed at me.
    Seth said "Viki"
    I'm like NOOO Seth say I am your mother!!
    Anyway I suggested they might like to get on the phone to NZ and wake up my ex-husband, (who would have been like a bear with a sore head getting woken up at 1am with a phone call from some idiot in the USA - that wouldn't have gone well but it was my last resort!)
    After a lot of sweating on my behalf, the man finally decided I wasn't some child trafficker and we were just a couple of kiwi's on holiday, and let us through.
    I think people like that just get a kick out of scaring people. Absolutely terrible, and also as I was in the travel industry and had never heard of this supposed letter we should have been carrying - and none of my colleagues back in NZ had heard of it either.
    The thing that really bugged me was that how would this man have known if the letter I had was genuine anyway? There are plenty of children out there who don't even have fathers! What are they supposed to do?
    Anyway now if either of us are traveling alone with Seth then we get the other one to sign the itinerary saying we consent to him being away and add a copy of our passports etc. Seems ridiculous but I never want to be in that situation again!

    1. Wow. That's disappointing to read but (sadly) not surprising. we live in the most beautiful part of the country and, still, some people find a reason to be complete and utter jerk. It amazes me!

  2. Wow, that's quite a story from Viki!

    I don't know why things have to be so hard, especially traveling between Canada and the States. That's a good point your friend makes about why we have to pay for the decal for our boats, when cars don't have to pay anything.

    1. I know. I'm sure in the back of this guy's mind he was doing the right thing but what's so hard about asking the question once and moving on. Clearly Seth wasn't in a state of distress. The older I get, the less I seem to understand people.

  3. Many memorable experiences with customs, none of them too terrible. Arriving in French speaking islands have been the most pleasurable. The terrible experiences I have had - plenty of them - have mostly been with immigration and coming into the US as a Belgian. Some of those stories, I plan to share in my book, whenever I write it. :-) Now that I have a greencard (the main reason being not to get hassled again when coming and going), border crossings (or at least the one I just did) are much smoother and non-events!

    1. How sad is that? A country of immigrants making entry into it an unpleasant experience. What ever happened to "welcome to America. Have a nice stay"?

      David has a green card and gets hassled about it because it was issued in the 70s and doesn't have a strip to track information. They want him to update and he refuses (I don't blame him), so we always have to tap dance around that one as well.

  4. I think I recognize Officer Holmes. I think they moved him to Roche Harbor when they closed the Friday Harbor office. He is, in a word, a nasty one. And I absolutely hate checking in at Roche Harbor, where they are the busiest checkpoint in the US when it comes to boats. They are always stressed out. One time this H guy got on our boat and sat in the cockpit questioning us for almost an hour. Everytime Mike tried to answer a question the guy cut him off and said ,'Let her answer', as though we were criminals. Welcome to your home, Americans, where everyone is suspect when they arrive by boat. He questioned me about my college years, what kind of clients I see, oh he ran the gamut. I think he was just taking a little break from being a jerk inside his office and thought he'd come outside and be a jerk. Especially as we check in from Canada literally every year around that time so it's pretty obvious that we are not terrorists or trying to bring in the horrible Cuban Rum that people used to be so worried about. Yes, that rum! It would cause a huge national security scandal. OK, well now I've got started on this tender topic. I could go on. Suffice to say the following year we checked in at Pt.Roberts and they guy was just a sweet man who welcomed us back home without issue. America. Land of the suspicious.

  5. I don't know what the deal is but some of these people act like they're angry because they have to do their job. How hard could life be? I mean, you get to live on San Juan Island for goodness sake. The good news is that (I think) most of the negative officers have transferred out. There's also a lovely officer by the name of Merry Graham there now. She's happy to be there (transferred from working on the border in San Diego where agents receive threats against their lives). Her whole family moved to the island and she couldn't be happier . . . and it shows. I love coming back when she's on duty -- the experience is everything it should be . . . a homecoming.

  6. We crossed back to the US last September. Not being able to take our boat north for several years due to work commitments, we dreaded coming back into Roche late in the afternoon.

    We were pleasantly surprised to find the two officers courteous friendly and professional. I think we met the same two lady officers previously mentioned in the comments. They were not surprised when I mentioned visits in the past were not so pleasant.

    Glad to hear they are still on the island, since we will be back through this fall,

  7. Just curious...why not import the boat? Are either of you from the UK or are EU citizens? Is it to avoid registration and taxes etc? If there is a post somewhere I'd be happy to read it. Thanks!

    1. I think I did right a post about it years ago but can't seem to find the link (rubbish Internet connection). Basically, it boils down to my husband isn't a US citizen and is the primary owner of the boat and captain (the Jones Act). There are several other smaller reasons -- duty and taxes have already been paid (in the UK), Cambria is a 220 volt boat and wouldn't market well up here when we're ready to sell, and we don't plan to stay.


  8. Unfortunately I really don't get to travel, as I just don't have the money for it, but I have watched many episodes of Border Security so I have seen what people have to go through, but I understand why, they are just trying to keep the country peaceful and safe. Your photos are beautiful. You have a lovely blog, thank you so much for sharing. Warm greetings from Montreal, Canada. :)