Cruising After 9/11



Those who have gone boating since the events of 9/11 have undoubtedly discovered that the waters and naval bases of the Puget Sound and surrounding areas are now much more heavily guarded than in the past, with pleasure craft coming under substantial scrutiny. If you haven't been out since then, you will find that we are now sharing our waters with a large number of navy and Coast Guard vessels. Throughout our annual cruise to Canada this Christmas, we encountered heightened levels security in both countries, in addition to more stringent inspections crossing the border.


One of the many changes since 9/11 is a greatly increased Coast Guard presence, along with a new Coast Guard regulation making it a felony offense to approach within 100 yards of a U.S. naval vessel or to operate beyond a minimal safe speed within 500 yards. All naval bases, such as those at Everett and Bremerton, are protected by Coast Guard vessels that carefully watch and herd away any others that come too close. "If it's grey, stay away" is the Coast Guard's best advice to pleasure craft operators, but if you have any concerns while out on the water, you are welcome to hail either an individual ship or a land-based station on channel 16. The Coast Guard is monitoring boat traffic throughout the Sound—it is very unusual to go cruising these days and not see at least one of their ships—and they are apparently boarding and inspecting all vessels that enter the Juan de Fuca Strait from offshore.


The very first morning of our trip, while on hook off Port Townsend, we saw the 87-foot Coast Guard Cutter Osprey leave its base there to rendezvous with the huge Coast Guard Cutter Healy, at 420' the nation's largest icebreaker, returning to its home port of Seattle from its much-publicized maiden voyage. The Osprey later came back and held a position just off the city, guarding the entrance to Admiralty Inlet.  


Later that same day, in the Juan de Fuca Strait, an immense 560' Ohio class nuclear submarine passed by, traveling home to Bangor accompanied by a Coast Guard cutter. This is another change since 9/11—when we have previously seen these subs in the Sound, where they operate at the surface due to the relatively shallow depth, they had no escort.


The U.S. Navy is also paying much closer attention to pleasure boat traffic, which we experienced crossing the Juan de Fuca Strait. As we left Port Angeles, the U.S.S. Monsoon, a 170' Patrol Coastal ship based in San Diego, turned and approached closely to observe us. Designed for coastal patrols and to deliver Navy SEALs, the vessel is very intimidating, being clearly well-armed and capable of traveling at 35 knots. It certainly gets your attention when it heads towards you! Another similar-looking navy ship could be seen guarding the entrance to the Juan de Fuca Strait in the distance.  


We were lucky to escape with only a brief inspection from afar. A ship identifying itself on the radio as "Naval Warship 8", likely the U.S.S. Zehpyr Patrol Coastal ship, has recently been guarding the Hood Canal, the home of the Bangor submarine base, boarding and inspecting vessels underway in the vicinity, including pleasure craft. If you travel in the Hood Canal, be prepared to hear "Yourboatname, Yourboatname. This is Naval Warship 8." on channel 16, which pretty much guarantees that you are about to get up close and personal with the U.S. military. One skipper was able to avoid further scrutiny however, by pointing out that they had boarded him only three weeks earlier.


Continuing on towards Sooke, on the southwest side of Vancouver Island, we called on the cell phone as usual to clear Canadian customs just south of Race Rocks. We were told that the CANPASS program had been suspended and that we must land at an official port of entry to formally clear customs and immigration. This was unfortunately something that I had forgotten to check on, and it took us a fair distance out of our way. Canada Customs is inspecting all vessels that cross the border, which means pleasure craft operators must take their boat to a designated port of entry and submit it for inspection in order to enter the country. This time of year our options were Victoria at the Inner Harbour or the Oak Bay Marina and Sydney at the Canoe Cove or Van Isle Marinas or the Port of Sydney. There is also a port of entry at the Royal Victoria Yacht Club outstation in either city, in addition to ones further away in Nanaimo and Vancouver. In the summer months, pleasure craft could also enter Canada in Bedwell Harbour on South Pender Island. At the time of writing, Canada Customs is tentatively planning to open Bedwell in May, but there is some question as to when, and even if, it will open this year.


The Inner Harbour being closest to our location, we made a ninety degree course change and set off for Victoria. When we arrived, there were no vessels at the customs dock, which is just left of the floatplane dock. As when entering the U.S., no-one but the captain is allowed to leave the vessel until entry has been approved, so once we had tied off, I waited on board while James contacted Canada Customs using a phone mounted at the dock, as there was nobody in sight. He returned after several minutes, saying that someone had been dispatched from their office up the road to handle the entry in person. So we sat and waited, not really knowing what to expect or how long they would take, and hoping they would not want to tear the boat apart or anything similarly painful.


About 20 minutes later, two Canada Custom's officers arrived at the dock and came onboard. The officers were very polite, friendly and efficient, despite our cat directing a huge, horrible hiss at them when they came inside the cabin. They inspected our passports, vessel registration, and the cat's rabies certificate, and asked some very standard questions, one of which is whether we had anything to declare, which we did. We had several gifts on board for our friends and relatives, most of which were under the $60CA per item limit. However, one was a VHF radio, which was well over this limit. The presents were all wrapped, but we did have the receipt with us, which made determining the value straightforward. Since the radio is classified as navigation equipment, we only had to pay Canadian tax on the item, and not duty. We were able to pay by credit card, which was convenient.


Once the paperwork for the tax payment was complete, we were issued a confirmation number and requested to write it on piece of paper and post it on the window. The officials said that they were walking the docks and checking US vessels to make sure that they had this number visible, and had already encountered at least one skipper who had "forgotten" to clear customs. The whole process took just over an hour, but will certainly be much worse in the busy summer months, so we hope the program is reinstated before then. At the time of writing however, the program was still under indefinite suspension. "Your guess is as good as mine." was the "official" response from Canada Customs when I inquired recently as to when the CANPASS program might be reinstated.


Our next military encounter was in Esquimalt Harbour, just west of Victoria's Inner Harbour. The Canadian Naval base there was established in 1865 as the Pacific headquarters for the British Royal Navy. As we entered the harbor, a fast Canadian Navy inflatable swooped in, circled us, followed closely from astern, and then approached. Three men, one carrying a large assault weapon, asked where we were going, how long we planned to stay, and if we intended to stay the night. They then said, in somewhat of an apologetic manner "We have to ask these questions—it's our job." This is not the Canada I remember! Although we were nowhere near their base, either coming or going, the Navy inflatable again visited us on our way out and warned us to stay 100 meters away from the vessels. 


We spent several days in Victoria and later in the Gulf Islands before returning home. At various points during the days that followed, we heard the Port Angeles-based Coast Guard Cutter Cuttyhunk hailing vessels in U.S. waters over the radio, asking where they were going, and boarding them if they had not been recently inspected. Most were U.S. pleasure craft that were not actually crossing the border, and were just in the area. We expected that we would also be boarded when we ventured out. On the day we left Canada, we called U.S. Customs on the cell phone and had no problems clearing using our PIN, which can be requested from U.S. Customs following the first entry under the User Fee Decal Program. They asked few questions and had no concerns with our entry that day. It is certainly very surprising that Canada won't allow phone entry, but that the U.S. still does.


We headed off to Sucia Island, expecting to see that Coast Guard cutter pop into view at any moment, but it did not appear. Amazingly, there was not a single boat in Echo Bay, where we took a mooring bouy, dinghyed to shore, and walked across to Fossil Bay. There was a houseboat on a bouy there, and two boats at the dock, but other than a small fishing boat pulling up crab traps, there were no other boats at the whole island. This was certainly a little different from the typical summer scene

Just then a Coast Guard inflatable swooped in and boarded the fishing boat, and we saw the 110' cutter Cuttyhunk approach and stand off the island in the distance. We spoke to a couple from the sailboat at the dock who had been boarded earlier that day by the same group and had received a "gold star" for the safety inspection, with which they were very pleased. It would appear that the Coast Guard is just checking out every vessel that they find, and they might as well do a safety check while they are at it.

The events of 9/11 have brought an increase in military presence and vessel inspections in both countries and this is certain to hinder border crossing and near-border travel for pleasure craft in the busy summer cruising season ahead. Those intending to enter Canada this summer, particularly through Bedwell Harbour, should contact the CANPASS office at 888-226-7277 to obtain the most current status, and allow for extra time in crossing the border. Boaters should be more safety conscious, ensuring that their safety gear meets or exceeds the requirements, including checking the dates on their flares, as the Coast Guard currently has fewer resources to handle on-water emergencies, and being boarded by the Coast Guard or the U.S. Navy is now much more likely.



This article originally appeared in Nor'westing April, 2002.



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Copyright 2012 Jennifer and James Hamilton