We arrived in Parry Sound on the eastern side of Georgian Bay last summer late on a Friday in July. We pulled into a slip at Big Sound Marina. Another all-green sailboat was already in the slip, tied to the next finger pier. It was smaller, a little weather beaten and its deck and cockpit were strewn with untidy lines and other debris. A dinghy half full of water hung at an awkward angle from the boat’s davits adding to the general air of neglect exuded by the sailboat.
As I puttered around below deck the next morning, I noticed a pair of very shiny black boots through a forward dockside port. They were walking down our finger pier. We are accustomed to seeing people walking alongside our boat to get a better look at our Gozzard 41 and otherwise admire her elegant lines and appointments. However, boots aren’t the usual footwear seen in a marina! Then I heard a man say, “It’s this one.” And the sound of another pair of hard sole boots walking on the wooden dock quickly followed. At that point I knew exactly what was happening. We were being visited by Canadian Border Services and a couple of CBSA officers were now glaring at our boat.
How did someone know we were a US boat? Was it because we were not flying a Canadian flag? Or was it because we didn’t have Ontario boat license numbers on the bow of our boat? Was it because our AIS (Automatic Identification System) was loudly displaying that we were a US boat? Perhaps it because our hailing port is displayed as Duluth MN on the stern of our boat? Correct answer: Any or all of the above! Since the customs agents had apparently already stopped to look at the other green boat, I surmised that someone had reported us to the authorities.
We had left Gaviidae at the Gozzard yachtspa in Goderich, Ontario over the winter to have some work done. This was the third year in a row that Gaviidae wintered there and she was legally in Canada until mid-July. As we prepared for a season of sailing on Georgian Bay and the North Channel on the Canadian side of Lake Huron, we were hearing stories, rumors and news reports of US boats crossing the border into Canadian waters. In normal years, this would be no issue. But 2020 is a new normal. The border was closed to all nonessential travel from the U.S., including recreational boat and boaters. American scofflaws were irritating Canadian authorities and citizens alike all along the border. Illegal crossings were creating headlines. The coronavirus was running rampant in the States and Canadians didn’t want US Citizens bringing the virus with them.
I was born in Quebec and carry U.S. and Canadian passports. Dan is a U.S. citizen. In mid-March we were in Arizona when we heard the Canadian border was about to close. We raced across 11 states—2,500 miles—to get to Goderich by way of Minneapolis and crossed the border 12 hours before it closed. Even then, my passport and proof that we had a place to stay and self-isolate were the only reason we were allowed into Canada!
E29B to the rescue
We expected our boat to draw attention for the reasons already mentioned, we were obviously a U.S. boat in Canadian waters. We knew we would likely get stopped. It was not just a matter of when, but how many times. Not wanting to risk having our boat confiscated or paying a huge fine, I researched our options and made a few phone calls to Canadian government agencies to get some guidance. CBSA advised we visit their office in Kitchener, Ontario with our boat papers and passports, complete some paperwork and pay any fees for an E29B designation that would allow our boat to stay in Canada beyond the normal one-year cruising permit.
We were instructed to post the numbers in a window where officials could see them and check on them. We were also told to get the permit renewed by the end of the year—which could be done by phone. In a normal year, we would have simply sailed across to Michigan as soon as we departed Goderich, checked in with U.S. customs, and re-crossed back into Canada and checked in with Canadian customs. Easy peasy.
So that Saturday morning in July I put on my sweetest smile and popped up into the cockpit, greeting both officers with a cheerful, “Good morning!”
By this point one of the officers noticed the official E29B cruising permit numbers posted in our dockside windows. A couple calls to verify and they gave us the thumbs up. We chatted with them and learned they had driven to Parry Sound from Toronto that morning after receiving word about an American boat in the marina. We weren’t their only stop, they also had to check on a boat in Midland, at the east end of Georgian Bay. Before they departed, the officers told us to enjoy our time in Canada and to not rush back to the States.
Our next encounter with Canadian authorities was a month later in Blind River, Ontario, in the western reaches of the North Channel. We had not planned to got to Blind River but after being at anchor for 14 days, our holding tank was about to explode. We arrived at the Blind River Marina and took care of the urgent issues – holding tank and water. It was late in the day when we were finished at the service dock and we needed to do some laundry and restock some deleted provisions. We tied up at the end of a long t-dock, ordered pizza, and called it a night.
The next morning, we left the boat to do the provisioning. The only grocery store in town required a healthy walk from the marina. As we returned to the marina, lugging our overly packed grocery bags, a black SUV with RCMP emblazoned on the driver’s door drove past us. My little “Spidey sense” began tingling and I looked back to see the SUV do an abrupt U-turn in the street. It then pulled up alongside us. The passenger window went down revealing a glaring face looking us over. The driver demanded to know if we knew anything about a large green sailboat in the marina. Of course, we said yes. The driver, still glaring, sternly ordered us back to the boat where he would meet us. We were still a block from the marina. One would think he could’ve offered to give us a ride.
Walking the plank
As we walked down to the marina, we could see one uniformed person down by our boat, another at the beginning of the dock, and the grumpy one getting out of his vehicle. By the time we made it down the veerrry long dock to our boat, there were more than a few looky-loo’s watching to see what the excitement was about. Talk about walking the gangplank!
With the grumpy Mountie behind us—ostensibly to cut off any attempt to run for it, with or without our bags of groceries—a much more cheerful Mountie walked towards us from the end of the dock. He informed us that he had spotted the numbers in the window, made a few calls and learned that we were completely legit. Then the three RCMPs spent the next twenty minutes chatting us up about boating, kayaking, maple syrup, and a few other casual topics. We also learned that the region between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie—nearly 500 kilometers (300-plus miles)–three RCMP officers cover the territory. We were honored with the presence of all three!
In this case, the Mounties had been on another dock investigating another boat when one of them happened to see our Duluth, MN port of call designation on the stern of Gaviidae. As with the customs agents, the Mounties bid us a good day and to enjoy our time in Canada.
As we headed back to Goderich in September, we thought we were done with these official encounters. Nope. As we sailed south on our very last day, a vessel popped up on AIS heading north. It was not identified and was initially too far away to see what it was. As we drew nearer to one another, the unidentified boat appeared to be a large commercial fishing boat. As it looked like we were on a collision course, I veered off a bit to make our intentions clear. The other boat steered towards us. I adjusted our course again. By this point the vessel was closer and with the binoculars I could see that maybe it was actually a Canadian Coast Guard vessel rather than a big fishing boat.
By this point the boat’s details came through on AIS. Yup, a Coastie. Specifically the Caribou Isle, which is a Search and Rescue vessel. We made sure that we had all the appropriate safety gear on display and prepared to get boarded. We weren’t hailed, and the Coast Guard boat did not turn on any flashing lights or sirens, but it continued to adjust its course every time I changed ours. When we were separated by a football field, the Coastie altered course. It proceeded by us and kept on going. Just the water version of playing chicken. Or it needed to get a closer look at us.
One last time for good measure
We arrived back in Goderich and began prepping the boat for winter. We had been in the marina for well over a week when I got an urgent call from the marina office. Apparently, a CBSA officer called inquiring about the U.S. boat in the marina. The office manager was told our boat could not remain in Canada without the appropriate paperwork unless it was being imported. I didn’t have the E29B number with me and told the office manager where to find the number on the port window. She called customs back and got it cleared up. The customs agent did not tell the marina office manager how or why our boat came on their radar. We suspect a complaint was called in by an overly zealous resident in the RV Park next to the marina as not only did our boat claim Duluth as it’s home port, our Minnesota license plates on our SUV also attracted some attention.
A couple weeks later, with the boat buttoned up for winter, we headed south crossing the border at Port Huron, Michigan where the US Customs agent welcomed us home and sent us on our way.