Americans sailing north to Alaska causing waves of worry around Vancouver Island

Oak Bay Marina. Alaska-bound American pleasure boats continues to travel along the east coast of Vancouver Island, despite a border closure barring non-essential travel | Photo: Darren Stone, Times Colonist

A small stream of Alaska-bound American pleasure boats continues to travel along the east coast of Vancouver Island, despite a border closure barring non-essential travel, prompting concerns about boaters bringing COVID-19 to the Island.

Ken and Aarol Pattenden have been watching marine traffic online during the pandemic through a website that provides information on vessels, including whether they’re pleasure craft or commercial boats and what flag the vessel flies.

Ken Pattenden said he sees a couple of American pleasure boats travelling through the Inside Passage between the Island and the mainland on the website each day. From his home overlooking Port Sidney Marina, he watched border agents step off an American vessel before the boat set off, heading north, last week.

“So, what these boats are doing is apparently allowed to be done. I just, with a closed border, I don’t understand why they’re letting it be done,” he said.

While the border is closed to non-essential travel, boaters transiting from the mainland U.S. to their home in Alaska are permitted to cross into Canadian waters, according to the Canada Border Services Agency. The agency said it’s considered essential travel, and the trip must be “direct, continuous and uninterrupted and by the most reasonable route.”

That concerns Pattenden, an avid boater, who said the trip from the border to Alaska takes at least a week for most recreational vessels, and is impossible to do without stopping. Many of the Alaska-bound boaters will have to stop to refuel, pick up supplies or take refuge in poor weather.

Campbell River Mayor Andy Adams shared his concerns about boaters from Washington or Alaska in B.C. to Premier John Horgan during a call Thursday with other community leaders on Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast.

“It’s more just the overall concern that we’ve done so well in the province managing the pandemic that we don’t want to slip backwards,” Adams said.

He said he doesn’t know how many American boats are passing Campbell River or docking at the city’s marina, but he questioned how border agents can ensure that everyone who says they’re travelling home to Alaska is telling the truth.

“What if someone says: ‘Well, I’m going to Alaska,’ but that’s not really their intent?” Adams said.

With reports of American-plated vehicles in Dawson Creek and American tourists spotted in Banff, others are questioning how many travellers are getting across the border for recreational purposes. Like boaters, drivers crossing into Canada are allowed into the country if they’re heading directly home to Alaska, Canada Border Services Agency said in an email.

The agency said everyone crossing the border is asked whether they have COVID-19 symptoms and questioned about the purpose of their travel. Anyone who says they’re going to Alaska is asked to prove the travel is essential. “Should an officer have any doubts with regards to the traveller’s intended purpose, the traveller will be required to prove/substantiate their purpose of travel,” the agency said by email.

Emergency Management B.C., which is working with the federal government on border measures, said in a statement that those heading to Alaska are still subject to B.C.’s requirement to self-isolate for 14 days and are required to show an adequate self-isolation plan.

During a news conference on Friday morning, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said some Americans need to travel through Canada to get to other parts of the U.S. as part of their daily lives. She said border guards have been effective in determining whether travel is essential.

“I would just like to emphasize to all Canadians, to all Americans, that these restrictions are there for a reason. They are there to keep us all safe. Please do not come to Canada unless you are coming for an essential reason,” she said.

Times Colonist