Saturday, June 19, 2010

Surrender to the Crown

The ferry at Glenora is part of the national highway system

Canada’s Prince Edward County, around which we cruised on Tuesday and Wednesday, is a large peninsula with lots of bays.  

Note: Maple Leaf in top position

We stopped Tuesday night in Picton, a classic harbor town long on nautical atmosphere—rickety wooden wharfs, waterweed tossing in the swell, gulls soaring overhead. It was a little disorienting to NOT smell the salty tang of sea air.

By docking in Picton we were setting foot on Canadian soil, and the first order of business was to clear customs.
To do this in Canada's many little harbor towns, you tie up at the dock and march straight over to an old-time Bell phone booth and call an 800 number.

A female customs agent with a reserved demeanor answers the phone and asks you a few questions—the purpose of your visit? length of your boat? length of your stay? are you leaving anything in Canada? do you plan to sell your boat in Canada? 

And that’s it—a phone call. No uniformed agents searching your bilges, no drug-sniffing dogs, no paperwork.  It’s customs on the honor system. 

The customs agent tells you a number, which you write on a scrap of paper and post in the boat window.  Self-service bureaucracy.

There was ONE small problem.  Though we were importing no handguns or assault weapons, we did have a canister of pepper spray. (I bought it this winter, after there was an assault outside the building where I work.) 

Try to find this little detail on the customs website, but it turns out Canada is a peaceful nation where personal pepper spray is prohibited.  (Now, bear spray is OK.  Canada doesn’t mind if you mace bears.) 

Since there was no police force in town, and since the nearest officer of the law was more than an hour’s drive away, and since promising to toss the stuff in the trash was NOT okay with the phone agent, this being a controlled substance and all, we were instructed to stay at the dock and await the arrival of customs agents in the morning.

They showed up around 11 AM, two solemn women in black uniforms and bulletproof vests who accepted the offending canister and bagged it in a Ziploc plastic bag.  

We re-declared our possession of one case of beer and 3 bottles of wine, plus sundry items of fresh produce deemed to be not a threat to Canadian agriculture.  

Then one of the agents guarded us, on the dock, while the other agent boarded the boat and inspected for further contraband.  We feared mightily for the confiscation of our herb garden, but were allowed to keep it with the promise that it not leave the boat.

Finally, I was instructed to sign a form, attesting to the value of the pepper spray, and affirming that I had “surrendered it to the Crown.” 

In case you were wondering, Canada is NOT America with better hockey players. This may be a modern democracy with elected officials, but when clueless American boaters screw up at customs, they surrender to the Crown. 

If you’ve ever visited the American South, you know that for some residents of the region, the War Between the States is a fresh and recent memory, and the sting of defeat is still keenly felt. That’s how it seemed with respect to the American Revolution in Picton, Ontario.   

Many small businesses display or refer to the crown: the Regents Theatre, the Royal Hotel, the Queen’s Inn.  The main street is "Loyalist Highway."   The local paper is "The Whig." 

Meanwhile a highlight at the Marine Artists’ Association (splendid display of paintings of sailing ships) is a display case commemorating the Queen’s visit to the area in the late 1940s.  And when we ordered lovely bottle of local wine to accompany dinner (a charming, faintly blush-pink Pinot Gris) we noticed the label proclaimed that the winery was “the Loyalist version of a French wine estate.”

We are practicing how to curtsy.


  1. Hi Cynthia and Bill. We'll get this comment thing to work yet/ Mom and Dad

  2. Actually, we Southerners we call it "The War of Northern Aggression."

  3. My god, you are honest! 90% of people would have just neglected to mention the pepper spray.

  4. Someone we know hid her Mace so well that it was undetected by airport security on BOTH legs of a cross-country flight. Ahem.

  5. Spell check! You misspelled the word "curtsy" as "curtesy." At least, you were able to see bureaucracy at work when it's effiicent, effective, and in another country.

  6. Looks like a fun trip. The Glenora ferry picture above is really the "William Darrell" international car ferry that runs from Cape Vincent, NY to Wolfe Island, Ontario Canada. The service has been run by the same family for almost 200 years.