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Only two ways that a foreign vessel may legally cruise in US waters September 20, 2021

NOTE : These requirements are not new, they have been on the books for decades. We know of at least a dozen Canadian boats who during the Covid border closing have gone anyway and are convinced they have found a way around the rules. We're a little more risk averse considering the extreme penalties if caught. (more on that below).

This information is extremely difficult to find online and many of the CBP pages have not been updated for years (check the date of each page) and there are numerous contradictory statements. Understanding the legal definition of many terms used is critical as there are quite a few that are less obvious than you'd think e.g. Do you know what a "port or place" means ?

The following is based on 30 years cruising our own boat between Canada and Bahamas and somewhere around 200 border crossiings on our own boats and deliveries, pre and during covid restrictions and a conversation with CPB Great Lakes (Sector Buffalo) this week (9/20/21).

if you doubt what I say give them a call at (716) 626-0400 ...They really do answer the phone :)

The possible penalties for ignoring these laws are fines ranging from $10k and up, vessel seizure and banning from the US for either a specified time period or permanently at the discretion of the officer standing in front of you ... Hopefully he's had a good day.

Another thing to consider is vessel insurance. Insurance may not pay out when the vessel is involved in an illegal act. Thats not a battle you want to fight when you are in a country illegally.

A little further down we've add some info on DTOPS decals with a little more on hiring a captain in these covid days to try and circumvent the Cruising License requirement.

So lets take a look at the first and most common method ...
1. Cruising License - issued for one year, No fee charged

During Covid CBP informed us they were not issuing Cruising Licenses to Canadian Vessels.
Remember that the "license" is issued to the boat not the people onboard. Immigration rules for you are beyond my scope.

Below is a copy of one of our old cruising licenses, they have not changed in the 30yrs I've been getting them.

Under a Cruising License a foreign vessel must call customs at "each port or place" they stop while is US waters and "Such report must be made immediately upon arrival".

In the form you will see mentioned "port or place". What does this mean ? We're not sure as we've been told we don't have to check in til' we get to the next CBP sector (3 on the east coast) and we've been told we have to check in every time we stop the boat and it means every harbour or "place" we drop the anchor ??? Read and re-read that section carefully.

After following the rules as told by one inspector we were then threatened by the next inspector with a fine and vessel seizure. His answer was "I don't care what he told you, you'll do it my way". We have on occasion spent 3-4hrs on the phone trying to report as required as often the person
answering the phone has never heard of a "Cruising License". We also once reported we were in Chesapeake Beach and were told "No you're not, there is no such place" !!!!

This is now all accomplished onthe ROAM app which is much better than the phone calls but .... sometimes you get authorization within minutes, sometimes hours and in one case, two weeks.

The upside of this method is that you can go anywhere you want, you just have to tell them where you are.

2. Permit To Proceed - Point to point only, $19 each time.

CBP informs us that they "may" issue a Permit to Proceed to Canadian vessels already in the US.

This permit must be applied for in person every time the boat is stopped and applies only to a specific point to point trip. You must tell CBP where your boat is and where the next stop will be. You are not permitted to stops between these points or get off the boat. You must go through this every time you move the boat at $19 a shot. You must act on your permit within 24hrs. If you don't move within 24hrs you need to do the whole thing over again (another $19) . "In person" can often mean cab rides to a customs office.

We once got caught in bureaucracy and had to use this method to get out of West Palm to Bahamas. Fortunately the CBP office is a short walk from the anchorage. Weather changed dramatically and we could not leave within 24hrs so we went back to CBP and did it again. Weather was so unstable that it took us three permits to get out of West Palm.

This method is totally impractical for Canadian snowbirds. The sharp eyed will notice a couple of errors on this form it's government :)

If you are one of those Canadians who stored the boat in Florida and are now flying in. You may use this method soley to get out of Florida and back to the Bahamas. We've always applied at Lake Worth CBP in West Palm. It's pretty easy.
DTOPS (Decal and Transponder Online Procurement System) pleasurecraft over 30' - $30/yr.

This is simply a decal to place on your boat as proof you paid the customs user fee and although their website clearly states you don't need one if you get a Cruising License you will often run into an officer that feels differently. It's not an argument you are going to win
Getting around the requirements in these Covid days

This is a very messy topic so please bear with me.

Some Canadians are hiring captains to take their boats south then flying to say ... Albany and picking the boat up. They might get away with it. but If caught they are in some very serious trouble. We looked into this ourselves and Sector Buffalo says "We are not issuing Cruising Licenses at this time". The punch line is yes, you can meet your boat in Albany or Oswego but it is illegal for you to move it without a "Cruising License" or "Permit to Proceed". How big a risk do you want to take ?

Some Canadians were given Cruising Licenses in Florida last spring that they could return to Canada and now that they want to head south again they've found the loophole. Cruising Licenses are good for one year and CBP says they will honour them until their expiry date .... that doesn't mean a local guy in Georgia will but what the hey. A dock neighbour with such a license left for Oswego this morning. He hired a captain to take the boat to Oswego and they are flying down to pick it up and head back to Bahamas.

Many are under a misconception about who they must hire to take the boat across the border. Everyone we've talked to believe it must be a US Licenced Captain. This is simply not true. You can hire anyone with the basic boating qualifications American or Canadian to take your boat across the border. This is a "Commercial Transaction" and the boat driver is no different than a truck driver or airline pilot. As long as they have a legitimate written contract to prove its a commercial venture, they should be good. We have not heard of any issues doing this

Now Sharon and I take it a step further (cause' bureacracy scares us). Before we set off we contact Canada Customs and get a "Commercial Transaction Number". This permit is recognized by Canadian and US customs and guarantees we are on a commercial venture. We consider it insurance against running into an officer that doesn't know the rules very well. These numbers are much easier for a Licensed Master to acquire than some guy off the street.

A heap more of Cruising related articles.