Marine Traffic

Should our waters have all these American yachts in them?

At any one time, there’s usually a boat or two in the Inside Passage flying the stars and stripes

By Anna J. James
August 18, 2020
Marine Traffic

Should our waters have all these American yachts in them?

At any one time, there’s usually a boat or two in the Inside Passage flying the stars and stripes

By Anna J. James
Aug 18, 2020
The Bravo Eugenia, a "gigayacht" owned by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, pictured in 2018. The vessel was recently spotted in the Inside Passage (Wikimedia Commons)
Marine Traffic

Should our waters have all these American yachts in them?

At any one time, there’s usually a boat or two in the Inside Passage flying the stars and stripes

By Anna J. James
August 18, 2020
Should our waters have all these American yachts in them?
The Bravo Eugenia, a "gigayacht" owned by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, pictured in 2018. The vessel was recently spotted in the Inside Passage (Wikimedia Commons)

A few weeks ago, The Capital covered the phenomenon of Vancouver Island streets being replete with cars bearing US license plates despite the border obviously being closed to foreign car traffic. Thankfully, our verdict was that if you spot a Texas or California license plate, the car is almost certainly here legally and doesn’t pose a threat of infectious disease. In the weeks since, some readers have pointed out another curious phenomenon: US-flagged boats showing up in Canadian waters where they probably shouldn’t be. 

A quick gander at the website Marine Traffic reveals a steady stream of American pleasurecraft buzzing through the Inside Passage, and earlier this month multiple Vancouver Island sources spotted the Bravo Eugenia, the 375-foot long superyacht owned by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, cruising the Johnstone Strait. 

On one point, Canadian authorities have been clear: If you’re a US vessel taking to the sea just for fun, they don’t want you in Canadian waters.  “Unless you are exempt, you cannot currently enter Canadian waters (territorial sea and internal waters) or boundary waters for discretionary (non-essential) reasons. These reasons include: touring, sightseeing, and pleasure fishing,” reads a Government of Canada COVID-19 alert directed at non-residents.  

The Canadian Border Services Agency has been blunter still, releasing a no-nonsense message stating that “now is not the time to be crossing the border for discretionary reasons” — and prescribing steep penalties for violators.  Under CBSA guidelines, all vessels must report to customs immediately upon entering Canada. Under normal conditions, skirting this guideline would at the minimum prompt a $1000 fine, but the ante is upped under pandemic conditions.  “Failure to comply with the current border entry restrictions is an offence under the Quarantine Act and could lead to up to 6 months in prison and/or $750,000 in fines,” states the border authority.

And as has been shown in recent weeks, border-skirting pleasurecraft are not an idle threat when it comes to transmission of COVID-19.  In BC’s official COVID-19 update on August 6, provincial health officer Bonnie Henry specifically addressed the possible risk from foreign boats, giving the example of a US-registered marine vessel that added to BC's case total when many of its 10 crew members tested positive for COVID-19. 

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However, there are a couple of exceptions by which a US vessel can safely be off Vancouver Island. It is legal for a foreign vessel to travel through Canadian waters without permission provided they follow certain guidelines. This is thanks to a marine term known as “Innocent Passage.” As laid out in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a passage is “innocent” so long as it is “not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State.” This means you can’t be fishing, you can’t be a spy and you can’t be on a military mission, among other considerations. For American boats, the most obvious usage of innocent passage is to get to Alaska: So long as the vessels make a beeline for the 50th state without any unnecessary stops or detours, Canada has no quarrel with them. “Their transit must be direct, continuous, uninterrupted and follow the most reasonable route,” transport minister Marc Garneau outlined in a letter last month.

Just as it is with cars, meanwhile, there may also be instances where a US-flagged vessel has been in Canadian waters since long before the onset of COVID-19 lockdowns, meaning that its presence in our waters isn’t the result of a recent (or potentially disease-carrying) border crossing. 

However, there seem to be a lot more American boats than cars prepared to bend the rules around Canada’s COVID-19 quarantine, according to BC boaters. Particularly worrying is an apparent trend of US pleasurecraft shutting off their transponders immediately upon crossing the border so that they cannot be tracked. 

"We see them on the computer, and at a particular point a few minutes later, they're not there anymore,” Nanaimo’s George Creek, president of BC Marine Parks Forever, told NPR. On the other side of the country, meanwhile, it’s the Americans who are dealing with unwanted foreigners, with multiple reports of Canadian tour boats regularly entering the US side of the St. Lawrence River without authorization.

As for the Bravo Eugenia, it appears to have done everything right. Only hours after passing Port Hardy, the village-sized yacht was safely moored in Seattle after a journey through Canadian waters in which it didn’t even seem to slow down. We can all hope it will be a model to other American mariners. 

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