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Voyaging with Velella- Sailing boats and Customs officials

by Meghan Cleary, American Sailing Association on 13 May 2011
Meghan in cold weather mode Meghan Cleary
>What is it about sailing boats and Customs officials? No matter which country you are in there is always one who seems to hate us. Here, continuing the Voyaging with Velella series, www.american-sailing.com!ASA writer-at-large Meghan Cleary. and her fiance Prescott have just finished a 6-month cruise in Mexico and it's time to face the US Customs.

I love living like a snail, carrying our house on our backs. No matter how far we travel, we still get to come home at the end of the day. After parting with Velella for over a week while she was shipped home via Yachtpath carrier, it was awesome to welcome our little home back to her home waters in the Pacific Northwest.

Luckily for us, the weather was spectacular for the first of May—light breeze, clear skies, spring snow blanketing the mountain peaks in all directions. I was anxious to see that Velella had survived the trip okay, and felt like a proud mom when I spotted her little mast amongst the clutter of boats on the ship’s deck. We waited on shore for the water taxi to deliver us to the ship’s side, and all of a sudden we were home. I imagined warm Baja air trapped inside the cabin, but that was wishful thinking.

We were soon underway with the Canadian flag flying, headed back into US waters in the San Juan Islands. A cold front was forecasted for the following day, and we wanted to be in a protected anchorage that also had a small town so we could restock our galley. At 3:30pm, we set off for Friday Harbor, some 18 nautical miles distant. We planned squeeze in just after dark.

The notorious Strait of Juan de Fuca currents were, thankfully, flowing with us, so we made 6 knots under power along the glassy calm channel. Given my past experiences with the Strait of Juan de Fuca (sailors have dubbed it 'Puke-a'), we felt very lucky indeed to have a favorable current and very little wind. Compared to the stark, barren beauty of Baja, the Pacific Northwest is extremely lush. Enormous snowcapped volcanoes stand dark and handsome along the shorelines and mossy green islands punctuated by red-and-white lighthouses jut out into the passage.

As the sun fell low behind our stern, it washed the mountaintops with color, so that each glacier and snow-crested ridge stood up rose-pink out of the purple shadows. It was like a homecoming gift from the sky, the kind of evening you wish time would hang still–but we gave Velella a little more gas, knowing we had a slim shot at arriving before all light was gone.

Around sunset at 8:30, we turned north into San Juan channel, and the grey curtain of twilight reached across the glowing sky, turning islands into indefinite black shapes to port and starboard. Thankfully, our US charts are quite reliable, as is our depth sounder and radar, so we felt rather confident in our course despite the decreasing visibility. We had the phone number to the US customs office in Friday Harbor, so I called ahead to let them know we were about an hour out.

When I was in Mexico, apprehensive about coming home to the cold, I had no inkling that the chill would come not in the form of spring rain but rather as the ice-cold attitude of US Customs.

Officer Barnes was clearly annoyed that I was calling after-hours.
'UH. You don’t know what time we close, do you?'

'Well, I figure you might close the office at 5pm, so we’re happy to wait to clear in until the morning when you open.'

'Yeah, right, and you’ll get a fine for $5,000 if you do that.'

'Are you serious?'

'UM, are YOU serious, lady? If you so much as touch your anchor to the bottom anywhere in US territory, or get off your boat at any point before getting cleared in officially by a US customs officer, you will be paying us $5,000.'

Swearing under my breath, I started kissing up to him a bit because there was no way I was going to be paying five grand, and there was also no way we were sailing back to Canadian waters.

'Sir, we’re a US flagged and documented vessel, and, having a 50-ton Captain’s license, I’m aware that we need to clear in before coming ashore. We were just discharged in Victoria from a Yachtpath carrier ship, and we wanted to come to the US before restocking our galley so as not to waste a bunch of fresh food when checking back in to the US.' (You never know what they’re going to take from you when you clear in from Canada—oranges, blueberries, tomatoes, meats, etc.).

'Besides, Friday Harbor appears to be the safest place to wait out the cold front that will be sweeping across the area tomorrow.'

He took down my numbers and begrudgingly said he would take care of us when we arrived. It was fully dark when we eased up alongside the customs dock in Friday Harbor, but the night was still lovely calm.

Prescott expertly placed Velella within an inch of the dock, and I stepped off and tied her up. When the customs officer came aboard, he treated us like first-graders.

Of course, he didn’t ask what our experience was before giving us a lecture about sailing in the dark. Because we’d gotten ourselves 'into quite a situation,' he said, we could stay on the customs dock for the night, because he didn’t want us 'moving that boat again in the dark.'

Sweet, I thought, free night of moorage. I looked at him with wide eyes and agreed he was right about everything, and he exited our boat acting like he’d saved our lives. Well, I guess he did save us $30.

Now we’re enjoying the sound of a waterfall pouring down the head of our cove at Friday Harbor. The quiet shore is lined with clumps of pink blossoming trees and tall evergreens. Spotted harbor seals poke their heads up occasionally.

Our big brass lantern and propane stove make the cabin remarkably cozy, and we’re enjoying fresh Dungeness crab that we bought right on the dock from local fishermen.

Despite the many hoops we’ve had to jump to get Velella back up here, I keep thinking it’s already worth it.

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