Many of us might be dreaming about cruising in Southeast Alaska this summer, but how many of us have thought through all of the logistics and challenges of legally passing through Canadian waters during an on-going Covid pandemic?
Currently, foreign-flagged vessels may not enter Canadian waters for the purpose of touring, sightseeing, or pleasure fishing. CBSA (Canada Border Services Agency) does say that foreign vessels “may still navigate through international or Canadian waters while in transit directly from one place outside Canada to another place outside Canada if the transit is direct, continuous/uninterrupted, and by the most reasonable route.”
There are two documented procedures for traveling between U.S. locations on either side of British Columbia waters – Pass-Thru allows boats to navigate through Canadian waters non-stop; no anchoring or stopping for fuel or provisions. Pass-Thru is normally used by commercial vessels such as tugboats and commercial fish boats that routinely travel between Washington State and Alaska. Pass-Thru requires traveling at night, which brings a number of additional challenges beyond the scope of most pleasure vessels. Transit-Through passage allows boats to navigate through Canadian waters with certain restrictions and conditions. Boats traveling through B.C. waters on Transit-Through are required to clear CBSA customs at one of the designated ports of entry. Clearance permits the vessel to travel through B.C. waters by the most reasonable direct route in an expeditious manner. This article discusses the Transit-Through procedures.
While the Transit-Through procedure is documented by Canadian Border Services for transiting between U.S. locations on either side of British Columbia, doing so has pitfalls; and for many boaters, it may not be practical. The need to cruise long distances for long hours requires an experienced crew. Trawler speed vessels will need a week of motoring or sailing, and won’t have the option to stop and relax for consecutive days. It is 600 nautical miles from Victoria to Ketchikan. Traveling 10 hours a day at 8 knots (80 miles per day), it will take a minimum of 8 days to Transit-Through B.C. waters, the area limited to no unnecessary stops. Factoring in time for rapids, current, or unfavorable weather conditions will also increase the trip’s duration. Piloting for long extended hours means each crew member will need to spell their mate(s) for needed rest while underway, and each member must have good piloting skills and navigation skills.
The boat, too, needs to be capable of running for long hours. If the vessel has not been well maintained, or important systems have been neglected, a mechanical breakdown is likely and will cause further complications. It is imperative to have basic mechanical skills to make repairs on your vessel if needed. Carrying spare parts and knowing how to install or changeout parts becomes even more important during Covid restrictions. Finding and gaining access to emergency services and boatyards for repairs at communities where you may not be welcome will only cause additional grief and challenges.
The harsh reality is that a Transit-Through Canadian waters needs to be done expeditiously, with no unnecessary stops along the way. Weather may be a constant challenge; you won’t always be able to wait for those perfect flat, calm seas. You and your boat will need to be comfortable handling seas that are less than perfect, or even rough at times. Anchoring for the night due to dangerous conditions or to rest is allowed. Anchoring can add an hour at the beginning and end of each day, possibly stretching your 10-hour day into a 12-hour day. When anchoring, stay aboard your vessel, no going ashore; that includes not going ashore with your pet. If your dog needs regular trips ashore, a Transit-Through is not for you.
What about fuel and groceries? It is best to pack enough supplies and groceries to cover the time it will take to reach Southeast Alaska. If you must stop for groceries, place an order with a grocery store that can make deliveries to a marina dock (call the marina as a courtesy and for temporary space), you must stay on your boat and should move along after you have received your grocery order, don’t forget to wear your mask. Likewise, if you need to stop for fuel, you should make prior arrangements with the fuel dock; you must stay with your vessel, wear your mask, and do not go ashore.
Remember that your movements are being monitored by local authorities, so following procedures is important to avoid fines or confrontations. We have received reports that locals have voiced less than pleasant words with foreign boaters that were thought to be stopping rather than moving along. We need to remember it is their country, not ours.
Boaters making a Transit-Through Canadian waters must report to CBSA (Canadian Border Services Agency) and clear customs when entering Canadian waters. Boaters should report to the nearest CBSA checkpoint from the point of entry into Canadian waters. Not all CBSA reporting sites are open during the Covid pandemic, see the CBSA website. Your clearance number should be posted on each side of your vessel. All custom rules apply for food, alcohol, and firearm restrictions aboard your vessel. Providing CBSA with your personal information and float plan for direct-transit is mandatory – this may be verbal (833-641-0343), on a form provided, or through the ArriveCAN app. The ArriveCAN app is preferred; spreadsheets work well for your written travel plan and should show likely anchorages and fuel stops. Don’t forget to prepare a “crew manifest.” When indicating your place of quarantine on the ArriveCAN app, fill-in the address of the marina (and your boat name) where you will be checking into British Columbia. Any delays or deviations from your denoted route through B.C. should be reported to CBSA. A Transit-Through boater reported that they were asked by CBSA to fly the Quarantine Flag (solid yellow colored flag) during Transit-Through and to expect that Health Canada may contact them by phone or email. We have received reports that submitting a negative Covid test is not required for the Transit-Through process. Another Transit-Through boater reported that a CBSA agent at the customs dock at Van Isle Marina in Sidney was interested to know if those aboard had vaccination cards; but at this time, there is no special clearance for those who have received Covid vaccinations.
If you make an emergency stop in Canadian waters prior to reaching a Canada Border Services Agency designated marine site, then you must report immediately to the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police office. You must also contact CBSA when exiting Canadian waters; confirm the phone number at the time you clear customs. The key to a successful Transit-Through is to plan ahead, adhere to the rules, communicate with CBSA and complete the requested information. It is important to keep in mind that your request for Transit-Through is at the discretion of the CBSA Officer, so there is no guarantee you will be allowed through. Expect that customs experiences can be highly variable. For the latest update from CBSA, go to www.cbsa-asfc.gc.ca/travel-voyage/pb-pp-eng.html. It appears that a Transit-Through B.C. waters in order to recreate in Alaska is allowed but is at the discretion of the CBSA Officer; be sure you have a well-documented plan for an expeditious direct route.
The decision to Transit-Through Canadian waters should not be taken lightly and should be approached with the correct mindset – Am I ready to make such a commitment? Do I have a capable crew? Do I have a seaworthy boat, with well-maintained systems? Do I have the resources for communication? Am I prepared to be disappointed if turned around at the border? Am I comfortable in most weather conditions? Do I have a backup plan?
It is incumbent upon those that use the Transit-Through to adhere to the spirit of the guidelines, not only for other fellow boaters who want to use the Transit-Through, but also for yourself to ensure that the Transit-Through option is still available when you want to return home.