When Bureaucracy Runs Amok

Angry Boss

A while ago, we got an email from an American reader who wanted to know where he could clear Canada Customs in Nova Scotia. He had searched Canada Customs’ (Canada Border Services Agency—CBSA) website and couldn’t find an answer.

So, thinking he must have just missed the relevant page, I spent a long time searching through the CBSA site, only to find that he was right—there was no place where the Customs clearance ports are listed.

So, as would any civic-minded citizen of a democratic country, I wrote the CBSA:

I was asked by an American acquaintance where he could clear Canada Customs on arrival in Nova Scotia by recreational boat. I gave him the link to your site but there is no place that I could find where Customs Clearance Ports are listed.

I would suggest that a link from this page to a page containing a list of Customs Clearance Ports (with waypoints – latitudes and longitudes) would make it much easier for a visitor to figure out where to make their landfall.

We need to encourage visitors to our province and country and make it as easy for them as possible!

And what did they come back with?

All recreational boaters are required to present themselves upon their arrival in Canada as per the Customs Act and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. This includes all foreign boaters entering Canada, as well as private boaters who depart Canada, enter foreign waters, and subsequently return to Canada. This obligation exists regardless of their activities while outside of Canada or their planned activities while in Canada. Arrival in Canada occurs when the pleasure craft crosses the international boundary into Canadian waters.

Yup, that’s right! They came back with a boiler plate spanking! Here I wrote in saying someone wanted to clear in and do the right thing and they came back wagging their finger and telling me the rules, which I clearly indicated I already knew. Get a grip, you guys! We’re Canadians—we’re supposed to be nice!

[Edit 10:45 ADT: Thanks to Viv who pointed out that there is in fact a list of clearance ports. Not sure how we missed it, but the real point is that two people were not able to find it easily and when queried the head office of CBSA were singularly unhelpful.]

John will soon be writing on the disasters the law, through CBSA, is inflicting on both foreign sailors and local boatyards here in Nova Scotia.

By the way, the CBSA officers on the front lines who have cleared us into Canada scores of times when we were arriving by boat, car and plane, have, with one exception, always been polite, professional and nice.

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Meet the Author


Phyllis has sailed over 40,000 offshore miles with John on their McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, most of it in the high latitudes, and has crossed the Atlantic three times. As a woman who came to sailing as an adult, she brings a fresh perspective to cruising, which has helped her communicate what they do in an approachable way, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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  • Chris Oct 30, 2013, 9:32 am

    “Bureaucracy” and “amok” are redundant.
    “Bureaucracy” and “runs” are antithetical.

  • richard e. stanard (s/v lakota) Oct 30, 2013, 9:37 am

    interesting…these same attitudes and difficulties also exist here in the caribbean islands…must be indemic to the process…recently at cruz bay in st john after dutifully standing on the “wait here until called” spot taped to the floor, i learned from the official (customs ? immigration ? other ?) who called me (“next”) that all passengers and crew must be present to clear in (just the captain in the neighboring bvi’s), whereupon i explained that my crew was helming the boat outside the entrance, whereupon he invited me to bring the boat right on in to our dock as long as it is empty of ferries which apparently have priority…so i dinghyed back out to circling lakota and we all headed into the harbor to the aforementioned dock…eventually everybody was happy until i was directed to another (non-uniformed) individual there in the office who demanded the length of the boat, then used his pocket calculator to inform me i owed him $27.50…upon inquiring as to the nature of this charge he bristled up with the statement he had been doing this for a long time and nobody had ever questioned his accuracy on figuring the docking fee…docking fee ? what docking fee ? accuracy ? i only asked the nature of the fee…fortunately standing nearby was a sensible-looking uniformed lady with the agriculture dept who intervened nicely and apologized for the apparent mixup in communication, but the docking fee is standard depending on the length of the boat…somebody just didn’t make that clear in the first place…then she complemented my boat and my wrap-around sunglasses i had aquired not too long ago from pep boys in ocala…not wanting to endure all this any longer i paid the man his blood money asking if this meant i could stay for the usual 24 hours to which he gave me the expected negative reply…”only until the next ferry arrives in another 30 mins”…all this at a u.s. agency with a u.s. citizen…may the saints preserve us all please

    • Scott Oct 30, 2013, 9:44 am

      The guys who collect the docking fee are from the local government, not the Feds, but you’re right….It’s a racket!

      Next time secure the boat to one of the park service moorings outside Cruz Bay and dinghy in from there.

  • Scott Oct 30, 2013, 10:16 am

    This summer I had the pleasure of stopping in St. John’s, NFL on the way to the UK. The afternoon before our arrival in St J I called the harbor authority there to ask where we could tie up. I was told to come to Queen’s Dock and given landmarks to help me find it. We arrived at 3 am, Q flag flying, and found the dock without much trouble. With lines secure, I called Customs on the toll free number to report our arrival. The nice lady on duty on the other end of the phone took all our details, but couldn’t complete our clearance because I couldn’t give her the street address of where we were docked.

    I told her that we were, to the best of our knowledge, exactly where we were told to be by the harbor authority and that there were several other foreign yachts at the same place. Here’s an approximation for what followed:

    Me: “We’re at Queens Dock in St. John’s, Newfoundland.”
    Customs: What street is it on…can you give me the address?”
    Me: “Sorry, but I’m new in town and don’t know the streets or have a street map. I can give you our lat/long.”
    Customs: “No, I need the street the dock is on. Can you go ask someone or have a look ashore?”
    Me:”It’s three am. There’s nobody here awake but us, and no, the rules say no one can go ashore until we’ve cleared in with you.”
    Customs: “OK, wait until morning and then call me back. I’ll keep your file open.”

    Next morning at 0800 we were boarded by three very stern looking customs officers demanding to know where we’d come from and why we hadn’t cleared over the phone the way we were supposed to. We related the above and they checked with Thrush Central, who promptly told then that the sv Billy Ruff’n and crew were docked in St. John, New Brunswick.

    I told the customs officers that whoever it was in New Brunswick was an impostor and that we were in Newfoundland, as they could plainly see.

    The rest of the clearance process proceeded smoothly. They were very thorough, professional and polite. I did suggest that they get Queens Dock into the computer systems list of arrival “addresses”.

    • John Oct 30, 2013, 10:58 am

      Hi Scott,

      This is another example of the bureaucrats in the office letting the very fine agents on the ground down.

      I had a similar experience when I called in 2011 to set up clearance back into Canada, from Greenland, in Baffin Island. The person at the call center kept asking me which marina I would clear in at. When I respectfully explained that marinas were a little thin in the ground in Baffin Island he got angry, raised his voice, and told be that if there was no marina I could not clear.

      I then called the CBSA office in Iqaluit, who could not have been more helpful. During that process I communicated with several line CBSA agents in Baffin, Labrador and Newfoundland, and they were all great.

      The problem seems to be with the people in the central offices.

  • Viv and Mireille Oct 30, 2013, 10:26 am

    Hi: If you click on the link below, it will bring you to the list of CBSA service locations in The Nova Scotia or any part of Canada. If you drill down further under a location you are aiming for, it will give you detailed information on what services are available and numbers for contacting CBSA by clicking on the name of the listed entry point.

    This site also gives useful information on entry.Excerpt:
    Recreational boats
    The master of a recreational boat is the person in charge. As master of the recreational boat, he or she is required to go to a designated telephone reporting marine site and call the telephone reporting centre at 1-888-226-7277. No one except the master may leave the boat until the CBSA gives authorization.

    To find designated telephone reporting marine sites in your area, call

    The information is there on the site, any questions on Customs and Immigration in Canada, I will happily find the answer for.


    • John Oct 30, 2013, 10:44 am

      Hi Viv,

      Thanks very much, not sure how we missed it. Anyway, the real point is that the bureaucrats in the office need to be more helpful and not just send out canned answers, like they did to Phyllis. If nothing else, this does the very fine CBSA agents on the ground no favours.

  • Bill Attwood Oct 30, 2013, 12:29 pm

    Hi John.
    Things in the UK are evn more chaotic. The Border Agency is responsible for monitoring th UK borders and amongst other things is supposed to be implementing a clearing in and out system for all vessels, including recreational ones – and this includes recreational vessels moving within the European Union. Their website states that the system for recreational vessels will be implemented in 2011, and gives an email address if you have any questions. I live in Germany and intend to sail to the UK next year, so have emailed them twice, with no reply, and a third time, with the automatic reply that this email address doesn´t exist on their system. A friend who´s son works for the Agency replied unofficially “the problem is the agency has not worked out how to handle recreational vessels. We acknowledge that there is a problem, and do not know what to do about it. We accept the protests of the RYA, however we are going ahead with the scheme and including recreational vessels”.
    There are a whole host of coarse expressions to describe this sort of incompetence, eg not being able to organise a piss-up in a brewery.
    Yours aye,

  • Viv Oct 30, 2013, 1:22 pm

    John and Phyllis:
    Glad to be of help and I fully agree that the answer you received from CBSA was not useful and well below it’s service level, worth chasing up.

    I am a great believer in taking poor service from civil servants to task. John, your Baffin Island experience is a prime example of centralized inadequate service and needs to be reported. CBSA do take complaints seriously.

    There were quite a number of problems with the reporting system (TRS) initially and sounds like there still is (Scott’s NL story). But as Bill states, things are a lot worse in the UK as the Border Agency (now the Border Force) is in such a state of disarray with a decision making process that is poor to chronically comical. We personally suffered greatly and expensively at the hands of the immigration department trying to get Mireille (Canadian) settled here, I had to go to the top on that one to get her settled with some very vitriolic letters to Ministers and MPs. But that is another story.

    I think that maybe a constructive forum on customs and immigration do’s and don’ts would be worthwhile on your site. Start a resource for voyagers. Would be interesting to find out how Colin fared in Senegal and Brazil for instance.



    • Sverre Oct 30, 2013, 2:42 pm

      Hi Viv,

      There is already a very good source for customs, immigration etc. info for voyagers on Jimmy Cornell’s website. Check http://www.noonsite.com

      Regards, Sverre

  • Gonzalo Rubio Paris Oct 30, 2013, 2:18 pm

    this august we left eastport to clear in new brunswick. we called customs once we crossed into canada, after 10 mins on the phone we were cleared in. we only had to post our clearance number visible on a window and had to pay no fees. by far the easiest and most painless immigrations and customs clearance we have done since leaving europe.

  • Wilson Fitt Oct 30, 2013, 9:10 pm

    Every time that I have arrived back in Canada (Canadian registered boat, Canadian citizen) clearing in was done by phone quickly and easily except for one time when they decided to send a couple of officers over for a look. It turned out that there had been a big drug bust on a yacht a few weeks before. They took a couple of swabs with the magic wands and were on their way within ten minutes.

    I arrived at Rhu Marina, on the Clyde River near Glasgow Scotland direct from Newfoundland one Saturday afternoon in August 2009. I did not have a functioning phone to call ahead. The young man in the marina office had absolutely no idea what to do and couldn’t seem to find a number for Customs in the phone book so he called the Harbour Police to seek instruction. The police provided a phone number for Border Services at Glasgow airport who also seemed puzzled but after a bit of discussion, asked for a faxed copy of my passport. A little while later they faxed back a form saying I was entered and that was that. Showed no real interest in how I got there and asked for no particulars of the boat.

    A couple of years later I blew into Dingle Ireland and received more or less the same treatment from Irish Customs. All done very casually with a quick phone conversation and fax from the marina office.

    EU regulations only allow an 18 month window for boats before VAT or duty is payable. Our boat was over there for three seasons altogether but as far as I knew there was no record of it so I ignored the time limit. I did however pay full VAT on storage and gear purchased (not insignificant) and did not try to claim it back which might have started the bells ringing somewhere. I knew that I was playing a bit fast and loose with the regulations.

    It’s a long time since I entered the USA by boat (before 9/11) but even back then I was always quite intimidated by the stern and officious manner of the fully armed US Customs officials. I am told by Canadian friends who have travelled by boat in the US in recent years that border services officials are very, very strict and demand daily telephone call-ins with location updates, threatening impoundment and other dire consequences if, for some reason, the call fails to come. But I can and have entered the US by land and air and am free to travel wherever I like with no further monitoring (at least that I am aware of, who knows what goes on these days). Doesn’t make much sense. We are just tourists no matter what mode of conveyance we choose.

    My experience in the Caribbean is a bit stale but, for the most part, the customs and immigration folks took themselves and their jobs very seriously and the best course of action seemed to be to respond with equal formality and politeness, do whatever they wanted and then keep your head low and play by the rules while a guest in their country. A good plan, I think, whenever you are abroad. These folks wield great power that can be exercised arbitrarily causing you an immense amount of grief and hardship if you get cross threaded with them.

  • Dick Stevenson Oct 31, 2013, 5:52 am

    Dear John and everyone,
    A couple of thoughts:
    It is my take, after many official encounters, that most officials dealing with recreational boaters are primarily concerned, either with commercial shipping, or with more traditional tourist activities. We are much too small a population for there to be regularized protocol. This leaves us more at the whim of individual understandings (or mis-understandings) and many officials largely do not have a clue what the regs are, what questions to ask, when to be serious and when to be easy going.
    I was checking in on a very hot day in a very small community on an island in Honduras. The official, in uniform, was going over the forms trying to make Alchemy’s statistics fit the commercial shipping forms (how big cargo holds? Any deaths en route?). I was becoming irritated at all the time, language issues, confusion etc and wanted to move on to ice cream when it struck me that this was an impoverished town and that this official likely had one of the best jobs in town and he was not going to jeopardize it by skipping over dotting the “i”s and crossing the “T”s. That thought made sitting back, going with the flow and working with him in good faith much easier.
    All encounters I have with officials are anxious (probably for both parties) even if I am squeaky clean. Many times there is confusion, mostly on our parts about what is expected from us, and also frequently on the officials end. In 12+ years of 10-30 encounters a year (and a couple of inadvertent violations and at least a few known violations), I can remember only one official “out to find a problem”. Most were fine and most cut us some slack when we were in need of it.
    Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy, London

    • Eric Klem Oct 31, 2013, 8:52 am


      I tend to agree that they are used to dealing with commercial vessels most of the time. In fact, my own experience is that they are used to dealing with large cargo carrying vessels. I used to cross between New England and New Brunswick or Nova Scotia with some regularity on a commercial passenger vessel and you felt like you were arranging for a 1000′ freighter to pass through. Some of the individual officers who came to check us in understood the ridiculousness and would waive most of it or even give a courtesy clearance but it was always pretty tense. We did get contacted by Homeland Security one time while in Canadian waters by US officials and were told that basically, we couldn’t come back into the US and we couldn’t go ashore or make contact with the Canadians because they had raised the Marsec level to 2. Talk about a catch 22.

      There are specific ports that seem to handle customs for small boats much better than others and I suspect that it has to do with how many vessels of this size that they see. For example, crossing over in the San Juans has always been pretty smooth for me. The US agents often try to be intimidating but I have never had any issues and they are not confused to see a sailboat. This summer, we were circling waiting for a spot at the Victoria customs dock and the harbor patrol came over and gave us a phone to talk to customs and the whole thing was done in a ~20 second phone conversation.


  • Austin Oct 31, 2013, 7:18 am

    Hi John,

    I agree with your assessment that the culprit is centralized bureaucracy, in Canada that centralization resides in Ottawa. Its a lot like social media except the accountability is program driven not by consideration for the impact on individuals. In 2005 I was tasked with starting up a program in Ottawa and learned very quickly that once you commission a program it is doomed to grow beyond accountability through constant process change and ever changing General Directors. I managed to leave Ottawa in 2009, albeit with a lot less hair :D. While your in the bubble you really do think your serving a greater purpose but once you leave Ottawa (and my favorite view of YOW remains the one in the rearview mirror) you have to wonder what it was that you really accomplished. CBSA is a relatively new program and Ottawa remains to me, “50 sq. miles surrounded by reality”.

  • John Oct 31, 2013, 8:30 am

    Hi All,

    Thanks for all the great comments and advice about clearing into various jurisdictions. It would seem that the central theme to all of this mirrors our experience: most customs and immigration officers are professional and courteous and that the best approach is to be the same.

  • John Nov 5, 2013, 9:33 pm

    Hi All,

    I realize, with 20/20 hindsight, that I let this comment thread get out of control and off topic to a point that I’m highly uncomfortable with where we are now. I should have acted sooner and more effectively to get things back on track. My apologies to all.

    I am now going to act, better late than never, by deleting the comments that are, in my opinion, starting to verge on political opinion rather than being applicable to the core focus of this site.

    In this process of editing I will undoubtedly delete information that is of value and that the writer put a lot of time and trouble into sharing. For that I, once again, apologise. However I’m sure you can all understand that I can’t delete parts of comments and nor can I leave replies to comments that I have deleted.

    In short, I ask all of you for understanding as I try to make the best of a bad situation of my own making.

    I will also be closing the comments on this post.

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