If there is any doubt about the origin, fruits and vegetables are prohibited. We made up our shopping list
with these guidelines in mind. We also restricted alcoholic beverages to one bottle per person to avoid paying
Don’t even think about not declaring an agricultural
product. A smuggled orange or potato might carry
microscopic pests that could devastate the agricultural
industry, causing millions of dollars in losses. That’s why
the penalties are so severe for smuggling – up to $50,000
in fines. The boater is responsible for knowing the prohibited foods. Even if Customs doesn’t ask, “failure to
declare” your fruits and vegetables may result in a fine of
$100 or more.
During our boat orientation at Bosun’s, Peter (a staff
member) explained that each charter boat has a User Fee
Decal attached to its side which costs $25 US annually
and allows the boat to enter U.S. waters. He emphasized
the importance of going to a port-of-entry and clearing
Customs before we anchored or docked anywhere else –
fines for this infraction can be up to $5,000! Peter also
told us that the Customs office at Roche Harbor, our
closest port-of-entry, had just closed on Sept. 15 for the
off-season; however, we could dock there and call Customs
at nearby Friday Harbor, Washington to clear by phone
– maybe. Or they might ask us to wait aboard while an
officer drove over to conduct a further inquiry.
On a typical day, the entire U.S. Customs Service
makes over 400 seizures of illegal goods, about 100 of
which are food items.
Entering the United States
As suggested, we tied off at the dock in Roche Harbor
and I called Customs. The friendly but officious-sound-ing officer first asked for my PIN number (Personal
Identification Number). When I said “huh?” she asked
for my home phone number and my address. She then
asked a series of questions: the name, type, and size of
our boat, its licence number and User Fee Decal number, the nature of our visit (recreational boating), and
how long we were staying. She also asked for the name,
date of birth, and citizenship of each person on board.
Finally she asked what we were bringing into the U.S.
My answer of “just some edibles and a bottle of alcoholic
beverage per person” seemed to suffice.
She then provided me with a PIN number, which was
actually my home phone number, for future border
crossings. She also issued a “clearance number” for the
boat to be made available to any official who requested
it. Until clearance is provided, no one (except the skipper to speak with Customs) is allowed to leave the boat.
Violation of this rule may result in substantial penalties
and forfeiture of the boat.
A day later I visited the Customs office at Friday
Harbor and requested a handout outlining allowable and
prohibited food items. Surprisingly, the officer said they
didn’t have one because the regulations change from day
to day. When I asked more specific questions, however,
he agreed they enforce the USDA guidelines, but he
didn’t have a handout of those guidelines.
After two more days of exploring these beautiful
islands, we docked in Anacortes, Washington, another
U.S. port-of-entry. Again I visited the Customs office
and this time the officer provided me with a handout of
the USDA guidelines. When I asked if he would confiscate oranges, he said, “yes, except those in an unopened
Returning to Canada
While in Anacortes, I called Canada Customs to see if we
could receive our clearance by phoning their office in
Sidney from another port-of-entry, Bedwell Harbour,
which had also closed for the season. The officer
informed me that we would have to clear in Sidney by
placing a call to their office at the nearby Victoria
International Airport from the Customs dock. I asked
how long this clearance would take and she said, “it
depends on whether the officer wants to ask more than
routine questions or come over to inspect the boat.” She
suggested we allow time for this possibility. As it turned
out, we were able to clear in Sidney with a brief phone
call, giving much the same information requested by U.S.
Customs. Within 15 minutes, we were back at Bosun’s.
Before taking a boat across the border, I recommend
you contact the USDA for a copy of their latest food
guidelines. Also, be sure to have the U.S. and Canada
Customs’ phone numbers in case the port-of-entry
offices are closed. Have available your boat’s licence
number, User Fee Decal number, and passports for all
crew, and answer all questions truthfully – you’ll likely
be on your way in short order. Although not much has
changed since my pre-9/11 visit, the level of vigilance at
the border will vary depending on the existing level of
threat to national security. When you visit Customs, just
remember that they are very busy keeping our borders
safe and secure, and would much rather clear you efficiently than to have to search your boat for a couple of