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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Preparing and Planning for Canada Cruise

Turns out it is a big deal to cross the Canadian border in a boat. When we drive the 20 minutes north from Bellingham to the Canadian border, its a pretty easy process to cross. Not as easy as it was pre-9-11, but pretty easy. Sit in a long line of cars, hand the border guard your passport and answer a few predictable questions. Voila, your in.

In a boat, well, its more complicated.  Not insurmountably complicated, just complicated and nobody tells you half off what you need to know or the documents you need. Enter the experienced members of the Bellingham Sail and Power Squadron. 

For the past few months a group of about 25 of us has met regularly to prepare for a cruise of over a month into Canadian waters. The idea came about in a conversation that a few of us had while on our squadron's annual Camp Sucia Rendezvous last August out to Sucia Island in the San Juan Islands. Our friends Mike and Sarah McEvoy casually mentioned the idea of such a cruise and we latched onto it right away but figured nothing would come of it. 
Map of Princess Louisa Inlet

We held an interest meeting at Mike and Sarah's home last fall and were amazed at the level of interest. The group has met about once every other month since then discussing an itinerary and all that is needed to prepare for such a trip. 

Crossing That Border

As I said, a boat crossing the border into Canadian waters is much more complicated than just driving a car across. With only a U.S. Passport, you can cross by boat but you are required to make a stop at a designated Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) site. 

For a boater, that means reporting directly to one of CBSA's 439 designated Marine Reporting sites across Canada. www.cbsa.gc.ca/travel-voyage/gbi-rgf-eng.html. Many of them are located at yacht clubs and marinas and consist of no more than a special telephone, a sort of border-services hotline that will connect you to an agent. Unfortunately, making your way to one of these locations often requires the boater to travel out of their intended course wasting precious time and fuel. Once there the boater waits until an agent appears to do the inspection, checks documents, etc. Assuming that goes well, that's it. Welcome to Canada. The documents are the issue. There are quite a few you need to
The view at the end of Princess Louisa Inlet
make sure you have.

First, the Nexus card. We have so many opportunities to go into Canada, to visit friends, go to concerts or just hang out in Vancouver (its only 40 minutes away) that we decided a few years ago to apply for NEXUS cards. These great little cards allow you to get into a special express lane at the border. They also expedite your entry into and out of many countries when traveling by air. Obtaining one does take some effort. An interview, a background check by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a little less than $100 in fees per card and, provided you have no sordid past, you'll receive your cards and all their priviledges. 
When entering Canada by boat with a NEXUS card, just call when you are crossing the border and let the CBSA know where your first port of call will be. When you arrive they will either come down to the dock and meet you or, if after a few minutes no one has shown up, you are
Ariel view of Desolation Sound
free to go about your business. Easy, huh? Not quite.

You also must have in your possession, BR numbers and a DTOPS decal on your boat. Oh and don't forget to have a radio license (not required in the U.S.) and proof of insurance . . .well, you get the picture. Its a little more complicated. And what's more, nobody tells you any of this. If I hadn't found all this out through our Power Squadron cruise planning meetings, I might well have wound up languishing in some jail cell or god knows what. Okay, it isn't bad but fines could be leveled, the boat confiscated or, at the very least, you could be escorted back across the border.  

The BR Number

The Boater Registration Number is unique to your vessel and each passenger aboard including the master. You keep it for use on subsequent visits into Canadian waters. In the case of the master the number is attached to both the vessel and the person. Passengers must also get BR numbers that will only be attached to their name. If the number is lost, it can be retrieved by a Border officer.

You can receive a BR number when you are issued a NEXUS card. In our case we didn't get one. We didn't know to even ask for one and no one in the NEXUS office suggested it. Don't have a BR number when you arrive at the border? No worries. You can be issued a BR number upon your first call into the CBSA 888 number. In our case we elected to call the NEXUS office ahead of time and get our numbers. Already having them does expedite the crossing process.

DTOPS Decal

But wait! There's more! There is a "user fee" to cross the border. Your proof that you've paid this fee is a decal issued by the Decal/Transponder Online Procurement System or DTOPS. I haven't found anything to explain this fee except that any boat over over 30' must display the decal when in Canada. I guess you can't complain too much. It's current cost is only $27.50 and, again, it beats languishing in a dank, wet Canadian gulag! 

So, you have your NEXUS cards (one for each person aboard or you can't use them at all for your I.D. You'll need your passports instead). You have obtained your BR numbers and DTOPS decal. Now what? There's more?

FCC Radio Licenses

Interestingly, these two licenses are not required in the U.S. to use your VHF radio. But cross the border and Canada does require them. Hmmmm. You don't have to take any tests to get them just go online to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), fill out the forms, pay the fees and your legal. For a little less than $200 you can obtain the two licenses. One is good for life and the other for 10 years. The online process was easy. They even have a help line real people answer and really help you with your questions. It is a ridiculous must but somehow I feel bettter having done it. 

Organize Your Documents

Okay, you have all the documents. Now get a three-ring binder and organize all the documents. I got one of those binders that has a clear plastic cover and spine. I created a nice identifying color cover complete with a photo of our boat and our names and slipped it into the cover sleeve. I did the same with the spine. It looks nice. But what is inside is far more important.

This binder contains all of the documents mentioned above for ease of access by yourself and border agents. Ours includes:

--boat registration
--dinghy registration
--Proof of insurance (copy your policy and include it)
--BR numbers and phone numbers to call at the borders
--DTOPS decal receipt (https://dtops.cbp.dhs.gov/)
--FCC Radio Station License (http://www.fcc.gov/)
--FCC Individual Radio Operator's License (http://www.fcc.gov/)

Having your documents all neatly organized and ready for inspection also makes the entry and re-entry process much easier.

Happy boating!