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Importing a Vessel Into Canada From The United States

old glory

Old Glory flying proudly over MacRay Harbor

A few years back, we purchased our current boat (Sea Ray 400 Sedan Bridge) in the U.S. and brought it home to Canada. I wanted to share what we learned, as there is some confusing information online and I’m hoping this will make it clearer for anyone wanting to do the same thing.

 Before we actually went ahead with the purchase (when we were still internet shopping for our dream boat), we did some preliminary research as to what we might need to do to make things go smoothly with the ‘import’ process. Good thing, because there is a lot to learn.

Getting The Right Story

Getting the boat into Canada was actually very simple, once we knew exactly what had to be done. The correct term is ‘Importing A Vessel Into Canada’. But please, don’t take my word for it – you REALLY should call Canada Customs to get their story. But don’t be surprised to get more than one interpretation of what is required – we got three different ones!

If you are considering having your boat trucked into the country, the firm you use should be able to handle the border crossing directly, if they are a licensed broker. Check with any potential companies to see what services they offer. The only part you would be handling in that scenario is any Custom Brokerage fees, and the HST on the boat. If you have a trucking firm in mind already, check with them to see how they approach that issue.

Michigan to Ontario by Water

Our boat was purchased at MacRay Harbor in Harrison Township, Michigan. It is located on Lake St. Clair just north of Detroit. Our journey home took us through Lake St. Clair and north on the St. Clair River to Sarnia, Ontario (where we ‘Imported’ the vessel). Onward from there, we traveled north on Lake Huron, through Georgian Bay and down the Trent Severn Waterway to our home port.

St. Clair River boating

Boating north on the the St.Clair River.

Canada Customs

Whatever way the boat comes into the country, whether by land or sea, it is subject to Canada Custom’s scrutiny. As we entered by water, we were obliged by law to report the boat being in Canada upon making landfall. Arriving at Sarnia Bay Marina, I gave Canada Customs a phone call as soon as the boat was secured, letting them know that both my wife and I had re-entered the country as well as the fact that I wanted to import the vessel. We were given a 9 digit number when clearing our passports, but more on that later. . .

In most instances, a Customs officer would come to the boat, take a look around and perform the required paperwork there. In our case, however, on the night we arrived, they were too busy at the border crossing to send anyone, so we had to walk over to them to facilitate everything.The Bluewater Bridge border crossing between Sarnia, Ontario and Port Huron, Michigan is usually quite busy, so it’s no wonder that they couldn’t spare anyone.

Bluewater Bridge

The Bluewater bridge between Sarnia, Ontario and Port Huron, Michigan.

Bill of Sale

All I had to show the Customs folks was the bill of sale and the ‘Deletion From Documentation’ from the previous owner, then pay the HST on the sales price. As it was, the only thing questioned by the woman in charge was how I got the boat so cheap! Quick note; have available any web listings, emails or whatever else you can supply to back up the purchase price – which I did. We bought the boat through a local yacht broker, so that made things look better & more ‘legit’ to the Customs folks.

One other thing to make note of is how much you are going to have to pay to Canada Customs. Under the terms of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), any boats built in either Canada, the United States or Mexico during the past number of years is only subject to the HST (in Ontario), and free from duties.

Buyer Beware of Duties

Now, here’s where a HUGE, double caveat comes into play. One should make sure that the boat they are bringing into the country was indeed built in North America. We know of a boater who was unexpectedly hit at the border with a big duty fee because his particular model was built in England. Even though his newly bought vessel was an ‘American’ company (Viking Yachts), that particular model came from England (Princess Yachts), so there was a 9% duty to be paid. Oh ya, and the 13% sales tax on top of it all.

The other kicker is that Custom’s won’t take a cheque for amounts greater than $200, so make sure your Visa card is in good standing. Again, if you are simply having your boat trucked back, a custom’s agent should be able to give you the rundown on all of your obligations.

One final note on the sales tax. The boat will be assessed the tax amount on the day it crosses the border – not the day you bought it. What I mean by that is that from the time we took possession of our boat (paid for it) and the time it entered Canada was about three weeks later. During that time, the Canadian dollar actually rose against the U.S. buck, so we ended up having to pay less HST than I had initially anticipated. Plus, since we were out of the country for a few days to get the boat, I could claim the exemption entitled to me for the time out of the country and apply it to the boat purchase price. After all, we didn’t bring any cheap booze back with us ;-) All in all, that part worked out way better than I even thought it could!

Keeping a close eye on all systems of the new ship.

Keeping a close eye on all systems of the new ship.

Deletion From Documentation

Ok, back to the part about ‘Deletion From Documentation’ I mentioned. Boats in the United States can be considered a second home, complete with a mortgage and all the financial repercussions that go along with that. So, many boats are ‘Documented’ with the U.S. Coast Guard, as an official status as to who owns – or is ‘Titled’ to – the boat. This would also include any creditors that may appear on the Title. Think of it like a Deed to your home. Same idea.

How then does one perform this ‘Deletion’ process you ask? Simple. Pay someone to do it for you! I found a firm online that takes care of all that stuff for a very reasonable fee of only $250. Do a Google search for those services to find an appropriate representative. And don’t worry where they are physically located – our guy was in California and it all worked out fine. Thank you InterWeb :-)

border crossing

Border crossing at Sarnia, Ontario

Would we consider buying a boat in the U.S. again? In a heartbeat!!! The only reason we were able to be able to buy the boat that we did was because of the dramatic savings – 40% less in our case – over buying a similar model here in Canada.

Yes, it was initially stressful, with all the running around and setting things up to make it actually happen. That was compounded by the fact that we had to drive home, through mostly foreign waters, on a boat that was brand new to us. Not only that, but it was a complete change from the type and style of boat what we had been driving previously.

Numbers Game

One final note about driving a U.S. registered boat into Canada; if you don’t have a chance to get your Ontario (in our case) registration numbers for the boat right away, be prepared to be boarded by Canada Customs officers at any Ontario port you may visit. We were approached both at Kincardine on Lake Huron (our first stop after leaving Sarnia) and then again at Parry Sound on Georgian Bay. There are Customs officers that travel around to all ports of entry to make sure everything is copacetic with both Canadians AND Americans visiting these ports, checking mostly to see if they have cleared their passports. This is where that 9 digit number I alluded to earlier comes in to play. When you get it, best bet is to write it down and have it at the ready, as they WILL ask you for it.

All that said, it was an adventure to remember for the rest of our lives and immense inspiration to one day soon travel further and farther! I’d say that if you had an opportunity to do the same – and save a few bucks – then go for it. Well worth the running around, by far.

Visit to The Sea Ray Boat Manufacturing Plant

Not too long after purchasing our Sea Ray 400 Sedan Bridge, ‘Boogaboo IV’, I was looking online for a firm to perform some gelcoat repairs. One fellow I spoke to suggested that we should visit the manufacturing plant where our boat was built. I initially scoffed at the idea, but when I learned that it was in Florida, my interest was piqued.

Sea Ray maufacturing plant

Sea Ray & Meridian Yachts manufacturing plant in Palm Coast, Florida

Making a Date

When I first contacted a representative at Sea Ray, I was able to set up a general date for our arrival to visit the plant. As we had yet to make travel arrangements to Florida, I couldn’t provide a firm date, but they were very flexible. Ultimately, we decided to make a vacation out of it and decided to stay in Fort Lauderdale for a week before heading north to Palm Coast on our way back northward.

When we did have a preferred day to go, I simply emailed my contact at Sea Ray who arranged our welcome. And welcome us, they did! When we arrived, we were treated as if they had been eager to see us for a long while! Very nice folks who seemed to be genuinely happy to see us.

Sea ray manufacturing plant

Inside of the big Sea Ray plant.

In House Production

When our visit was first confirmed, I had thought that we would get a quick look around the place and then be on our way. Our experience ended up be much more than that. We had a personal tour by one of the plant managers, Sean, who took us to every place in the joint but the employees washroom! A full two hours of interesting insights, with complete explanations of what each work station did and how things were put together.

interior boat components

Checking out the interior components being assembled.

The interior components of a Sea Ray Sundancer being assembled. Very interesting to see the process.

I’d have to say that my biggest surprise was how much they made in house. I was expecting to see most components being produced by third party suppliers, but apart from major mechanical systems, they produce and finish everything right there. It was explained that that is how they can control quality, which stands to reason.

engine room on Sundancer

Engine room of a Sea Ray Sundancer.

Ease  of Installation

Having spent enough time inside of our own engine room, I appreciated seeing how this was put together. Prior to a given boat’s deck being mated to the hull, all of the mechanical systems are put into place. Electrical, plumbing and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) components are all plumbed and connected with ease.

As it is in the automotive manufacturing world, you have to keep in mind that boats are built as efficiently as possible. That sometimes results in a big head scratching when having to service or disassemble something after the fact – not to mention a few choice words.

With number of larger scale boat repair/upgrade projects under my belt, I have learned a few tricks and insights on how these things tick and are put together. When I replaced our waste water holding tank last year, I made a comment on the fact that the exhaust pipe I was working on removing was originally assembled with ease at this very place, under much more pleasant conditions. Not to mention, prior to the poop tank having anything in it ;-)

Upper deck of a Sea Ray Sundancer

Upper deck of a Sea Ray Sundancer

This upper deck of a Sea Ray Sundancer is just about ready to be mated to it’s hull.

In water testing for Sundancer

In water testing for this Sundancer.

Once fully assembled, every finished boat is put in the water for testing. As one of the final steps in the manufacturing process, they launch each vessel to test the mechanical systems, check for leaks, etc..

Probably one of the most coveted jobs in the place would be the person who gets to take these beauties out for the first sea trial. Located just a stone’s throw from the Intracoastal Waterway allows access to miles of testing grounds, including the Atlantic Ocean. Given the fact that it is surrounded by palm trees and blessed with sunshine most days of the year, it’s in a perfect location to play with boats. And a neat place to visit :-)

Understanding Boating Rules; Red Right Return

I’m often asked some interesting questions through my YouTube videos and, more often than not, I take a simple query and reply with half of a book. So, rather than simply leaving those interactions on YouTube, I figured I could share it with you all, here on the Blog. . .

Here was today’s question; “. . for a subscriber/boating newbie here; I noticed in your lake travels, there are these red and green buoys, to which you always pass between them .. why is this and what is their purpose?

Red & Green Markers

The long and short of the Red & Green markers is to indicate where safe water is. As one cannot ‘see’ how deep a given area of a lake, river or canal might be, the buoys (floating) or day beacons (land based) indicate the edge of a safe way for navigation. Used in conjunction with marine charts (paper or digital), mariners can safely and confidently pass through an area where the water is shallower than what might otherwise be encountered in a given area.

That said, different boats need different depths to pass through a waterway without risking running aground and that’s where the charts come in. The captain of even the smallest boat must be aware of how much draft their vessel draws – how deep in the water it sits – as well as other factors that might determine what a safe depth might be for navigating.

Draft – A Deep Subject

Our current boat, ‘Boogaboo IV’, is a Sea Ray 400 Sedan Bridge model which draws approximately 40″ of water, with an average load. Load refers to the total weight of the boat, including the boat itself, plus other considerations such as fuel, water, passengers, gear, food and yes, even beer ;-) As well, that draft (the depth of the boat in the water, not the beer on tap) will be greatly affected by sea conditions. If we were traveling though rough water, our boat could begin to pitch up and down, making the average depth of water we were traveling through vary considerably, depending if we were on the crest or bottom of each wave. So, if we were traveling through water with only 4 feet of depth and it was wavy, we could bounce up and down enough to touch bottom. And that’s not a good thing! Also, if a passing boat were to throw off a large wake (it happens all the time), we could (and do) get bounced around.

For all of the above reasons, it is imperative one knows where they are and can relate to their proximity to danger, as well as changing sea conditions. And that’s where those red and green markers come in.

Which Side is Safe?

So, why red and green, you ask? I’ll tell you. In North America, as well as other parts of the world, we follow the Red-Right-Return system of telling us which is the safe side of a given marker. In MOST cases, heading upstream (against the current), the red marker is kept to the starboard, or right, side of the boat. When heading in the opposite direction, the opposite is true and one would then keep the green markers on their starboard side.

Red on The Right

Red on The Right

Confused? Don’t worry, it gets better. When going through areas such as Georgian Bay, that all goes out the window. Throw in other ‘Aids To Navigation’ such as yellow Cardinal Buoys, black (or red) and white Fairway Markers, Red/Green/Red OR Green/Red/Green Bifurcation Markers and (sometimes) land based Range Markers and you will soon realize that there’s lots to learn about boating for the serious cruiser!

Unfortunately, many boaters are blissfully unaware of what many of these things mean – or the meaning behind them

Rules of The Road

I should really start a video series on how to learn these things and how they are put in to practice to help folks out. There is also something called ‘The Rules Of The Road’, which plainly lays out who has the right-of-way when on the water. Sadly and frustratingly, there are many, many boaters who don’t have a clue what that means, or how to employ the rules to maintain safety. Here is a quick video I posted last summer after I got ticked off by someone who was in the aforementioned column of not knowing;


I will be doing future posts on what the other markers are, including cardinal markers, bifurcation buoys, range markers and more, so stay tuned for that. I hope my long winded overview on this helps you better understand what goes on. If not, at least it may inspire to you learn a bit more