Cruising South - USA & ICW

1989 ICW Mistress Quickly II

General travel information:
Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) provides Travel Advisory Reports and information for Canadians going south. Get a list of Canadian diplomatic contacts where you plan to go. (Government Directory)

Cruising to the U.S.A.
Canadians are allowed to be in the U.S. 182 days in any calendar year - about 6 months (subject to change). Before your cruise exceeds that, you and your crew will need to leave the country and return to continue your cruise. Rules for the boat may differ. You will need to get a Cruising Permit and a User Fee Decal at the border. Everyone needs proper identification (usually a passport) to enter the U.S. (Entering the U.S.A. by boat)

Health information outside Canada:
Health Canada distributes bulletins on communicable diseases and travel health information for the United States or other countries. Visit a doctor well in advance of any travel plans for immunization shots required for any countries you may visit. (Government Directory)

East Coast Routes South

  1. From the St. Lawrence River to Montreal, via the Champlain canal and Lake Champlain to the Hudson River to New York City. (map of canals)
  2. The Erie Canal connects Lake Erie at Buffalo, NY and Lake Ontario at Rochester, NY then connects to the New York State barge canal (known as the Oswego Canal) which connects Lake Ontario at Oswego, NY. It joins the Erie Canal near Syracuse and ends at the Hudson River which takes you to New York City.
  3. Lake Ontario out the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Ocean is the longest and most challenging route. From the Great Lakes, you must share the St. Lawrence Seaway and it's locks at Iroquois and Cornwall with large ships. Once past the last lock you proceed to Montreal and into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and on to the Maritimes.

Once at New York City, all routes converge and continue along the coast in the ocean to Manasquan Inlet. Shallow draft vessels can take an inland route from Manasquan Inlet to Cape May, but the usual route is to Cape May (inlet hopping day trips), then northward in Delaware Bay to the C&D Canal, which leads into Chesapeake Bay. You enter the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway) at Norfolk, at the southern end of Chesapeake. The ICW is the preferred route for snowbirds heading for Florida, the Keys, Bahamas or Cuba. Most sailboats cross to the Bahamas south of Ft. Lauderdale.

Cruising: Waterborne pleasure journey embarked on by one or more people.
Successful Cruise: A cruise in which the same number of individuals who set out on it return, in roughly the same condition they set out in, at some piece of habitable dry land, with the boat still in one piece.



Preparing the boat:
Choosing a boat is beyond this page - as a sailor once said: "Boats, like marriages, are about the compromises you can live with." General preparation is covered by books about cruising. Planning a "snowbird" cruise, we discovered a great product (something like 'Black Max') for coating our stainless steel fittings - and had no corrosion after a year in salt water. We added several coats of ablating bottom paint and had little to clean on returning north. Others using hard paint had to haul in mid-cruise or hire divers to remove barnacles - like zebra mussels only worse. Make a work list of improvements to rig, gear, storage, spare parts, extra anchors - everything won't get done, but unless something critical is undone, just go. Don't forget about improving comfort - after all, this will be your home. And those little $15 battery-powered water alarms could save your boat - get one for the top of the bilge and another beside the head <ahem>.

Put two zincs on your shaft. Put another inside the hull as a cheap stopper against losing the shaft, plus it makes a good spare. If you have a closed cooling system, check the pencil zinc in the heat exchanger. Even a zinc connected by a heavy cable to your rigging can be helpful in busy harbours. Canadians in fresh water don't usually worry about corrosion and may need to add a few regular chores to prevent it. It's not usually practical to replace bottom paint to cruise in salt water for less than a year, but talk to your paint dealer. The really effective bottom paints from years past are now banned.

Cruising boats have the unfortunate task of finding out all state regulations as they travel south - environmental laws, fishing, customs and immigration, liveaboard rules and taxes, etc. A motor vehicle travelling the same route would never have to worry about "checking in" to every INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) "district" or U.S. Coast Guard inspections under armed guard. Foreigners really should check all current regulations in the states they wish to travel in.

Lynn and Larry Pardey, a world-famous cruising couple who have written many books, did a survey some years ago of cruising boats transitting the Panama Canal. They discovered that the annual cost of cruising increased directly with the length of the boat! Their motto was Go small - but go.

Get a Canadian passport valid for at least 6 months beyond your expected return to Canada. Although proof of citizenship is often all that is legally required, a passport is by far the best one to use. You must be able to prove your identity and carry either a birth certificate, citizenship certificate, or passport as proof of citizenship. A permanent resident of Canada must carry a Permanent Resident Card from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) to reenter Canada. Check with the countries you plan to visit through their embassy or consulate offices for other requirements for entry of the crew, your boat and its contents.

Entering the U.S. with food:
Check with U.S. Customs about restrictions as they may change at any time! Meats, livestock, poultry, and their products are generally prohibited from entering the US. These packaged foods are admissible if clearly marked as Canadian: eggs, dairy products, poultry, pork products, fish, baked good, candy, fruits, vegetables. Call the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, Import Division at (402) 221-7400 for current restrictions. Check the government links page for U.S. travel tips.

Using a mobile device for calling from a boat can be unreliable. Using a mobile phone in another country usually requires installing a local "sim" card and service plan since roaming charges are expensive. You can also use a laptop or phone connected to the internet using a Skype account (or similar service) to call any phone in the world starting at 3¢ a minute. Calling someone who is also running Skype online is free!

Get a valid Canadian radio licence for any radio for use outside Canada — VHF requires an operator's licence plus a ship's radio licence. Get a valid Pleasure Boat Operator's Card, which is honoured in the U.S.

"None of us ever knows how much time we will be given on this earth. We've got to make the most of each day. It's better to knowingly take biggest risks when necessary and live the life you were meant to live. The risk of all is to live life to the fullest. Dream big, and go for it." - Diane King Stuemer, author of ?The Voyage of the Northern Magic: A Family Odyssey?

Marine Radio:
Channel 16 is the primary distress channel for VHF marine radio. However, commercial ships (and others) monitor DSC Ch. 70. Completion for the Coast Guard Rescue 21 communications system is planned for 2007. Listen to the regular local broadcast Notice to Mariners announced on VHF Ch. 16 and broadcast on Ch. 22A. Bridge tenders monitor Ch. 13, except Florida and S. Carolina use Ch. 9. (More about marine radio..)

Sea Bear
PHOTO: "Sea Bear", Peter Passano awarded Cruising Club of America 2007 "Blue Water Medal". He spent five years between Maine, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador in the north and the Caribbean and the Spanish Main in the south.

Check your hospital and health insurance requirements for residency in Canada. If your insurance will end while you are out of the country, arrange to buy travel health insurance. Health costs in other countries can be very high. If you have allergies to medications, you should wear a medical alert bracelet. Some drugs that are legal in Canada (codeine in cough syrup, 222's, allergy drugs) could cause problems in other countries -consult your pharmacist or doctor. Take extra copies of your prescriptions, extra supply, and ensure they can be filled where you're going. If you have major health problems, carry information documents signed by your doctor.

A well-known hazard of cruising is drinking like you're on a holiday cruise, and end up sinking (metaphorically speaking). For those who keep their head above water, on an even keel, here are a few jokes for your next cockpit gathering.

Talk to your doctor and dentist early in planning about any health problems or medicines you are taking. In addition to a first aid kit, prepare for emergencies like sprains, broken bones, toothache, choking, infections, constipation, dysentery, pain, or panic. Being prepared for common emergencies could save your life. See our information for Cruising first aid kit, Preventing colds, and Preventing seasickness.

"The doors we open and close each day decide the lives we live." - Flora Whittemore

Get your teeth checked well in advance of leaving. Good habits now will prevent inconvenient trips to find a dentist.

Boat chores:
Decide how you will cope with all boat jobs. It wise to have at least two people who can handle important jobs such as anchoring, running the engine, navigation, docking, operating stoves and emergency procedures. Take some courses, read books, practice - that means everyone on board. (Of course the skipper usually gets to change the oil - that's just normal chores!)

How will you handle postal mail (friend, family, service), money (money machines, credit card company with auto-payment, travellers checks), investment decisions.

From the moment you tell your best friend you're going to go cruising, from that moment on, you've begun the trip. A month before you leave, you will still have a long "todo" list. It won't ever get shorter. Just go.

Cell phone Internet:
An Internet-enabled phone within range of cell towers can be used to purchase e-mail or Web service. There are also special e-mail services that include a portable device using cell phone service. A wireless PC Card modem in a laptop can connect to AT&T Wireless or internationally on roaming partners (900/1800 MHz GSM/GPRS frequencies). Once you have an internet connection, you can call phone numbers using VOIP software (Skype, Nimbuzz, Fring).

Internet Access:
Most towns in North America provide free Internet terminals in civic buildings and libraries. Many marinas provide "hot spots" for Wi-Fi (Wireless Internet) service - often for free to attract business. Some marinas provide wired Internet connections at your dock (which is more secure), along with cable TV, phone lines, water and power. Marina or boating directories list these services.

Don't carry a gun on board unless you are trained, licenced, are sure you would be prepared to use it. Check the rules about importing and carrying guns. Security measures on your boat will help you much more. Flare pistols are considered lethal weapons in some places but I've never heard of cruising people being charged. Cruising outside America is another matter. By 2008, the seas around Nigeria and Somalia are regarded as the most dangerous in the world. Criminals in speed boats with machine guns have been targeting ships. India and the Gulf of Aden rank second. Less sophisticated pirates will attack smaller boats. (It may pay to look "poor" but armed.)

require special consideration - accommodating, litter boxes, toys, harness, scratching posts, food, immunization, exercise, scoop-kits, seasickness. For dogs there is often no place to go ashore. Get a harness for your dog or cat that can be grabbed with a boat hook. More about Cruising with Pets.

In most Caribbean countries, you can't get a work permit to fill a job that a native could do. If you have a special skill (qualified as a commercial boat captain for example) you may be able to get a permit. Working 'under the table' puts you in danger of being thrown out of the country or worse.

"More fires are caused from alcohol or kerosene - they tend to be smaller but managable, and can cause severe damage to life, limb and boat. But a propane event is always a BIG BOOM!!" - by a boater's Marine Surveyor as posted in the Aloha Owners forum.

Cruising Notes

[From a cruise from Ontario via the New York State canal system to Florida 1989 and multiple charter cruises in the Bahamas, British Virgin Islands, and Grenadines.]

Where is...?
In a notebook, list (in pencil) the contents of every locker, drawer and box in the boat - you won't be sorry.

Smell the roses.
Leave in summer instead of fall - then you can take time to see things along the way - and be warm doing it. It's a shame to miss spending several weeks in the Chesapeake just because fall is arriving.

Stolen dinghies
are common. Do whatever you can to discourage thieves. We theft-proofed it with hardened chain and lock when leaving the dinghy unattended. In some areas you may need to take extra precautions. (I also painted a double "wave" along the sides, but couldn't bring myself to paint the engine bright orange.) A yellow nylon bow dodger supported with flexible plastic pipe keeps gear dry, and also can be seen from a great distance. You must license the dinghy to travel through canals or to the U.S., and paint licence numbers on both bows (good marine paint can last 20 years). Paint a name on the stern, but don't use the ship name as this announces which boat has crew ashore.

"Ships and sailors rot in port."  - Admiral Nelson

Towing or Stowing?
Don't tow a dinghy in the ocean or large sounds. The weather gods will get you sooner or later! Towing in large waves, especially downwind, creates a huge force on fittings, and more if the dinghy fills with water. A block and tackle on a spare halyard can raise a dinghy onto the deck, even underway - better than having to turn around and trying to retrieve it. Yup, did that, but we later learned that many others were fooled by the good forecast and lost their dinghy in the unforecast NE gale - that will spoil your day.

is often a very long way from the water, and sometimes not available at all. Have an alternative.

US fuel:
In the US, fuel comes in U.S. gallons (smaller than our old gallon) and you pay in U.S. dollars (worth more than ours). Confused? Just take the U.S. price divided by 3.7853, then divide the result by the value of the Canadian dollar. i.e. If fuel is $1.10 US/gal and Canadian dollar is worth $0.60, the equivalent price is $0.43/litre in Canadian money.

$US-per-gallon / (3.7853 * Value-CDN-dollar)

RadioMedical Marine Telephone Service
: Master of ships (?) may obtain medical advice by call an MCTS Centre and request to be connected to a doctor. (1998)

Selling a boat
: You can't sell a Canadian boat in the U.S. without following the rules - even listing your boat used to be an infraction unless you paid duty first. Buying a U.S. boat in Canada is also not permitted. (Check current rules - they change regularly.) Buying a boat in the U.S. for import to Canada is a lot of paperwork, but getting easier.

The "ICW Pass":
The passing boat comes off plane right astern of you, passing his wake harmlessly to either side. Then YOU slow down. The passing boat then passes at his best displacement speed. As soon as he is past, you both resume your former speeds. All the professional delivery captains do this - heart-stopping the first time you see it, but it works well.

Remember, "Take the blueberry muffins!" Why? When you finally decide you want one, there won't be any left. Refers to any opportunity that comes along while cruising - a car ride, free showers, fresh veggies, beer in the Bahamas, ice in the BVIs, and washing machines anywhere!


Favorite Atlantic Snowbird Stops

Boat Showers: Although there is no substitute for direct experience, a rough idea of a shipboard shower can be obtained by standing naked for two minutes in a closet with a large, wet dog.

Great Circle (Great Loop) Cruise

The Great Circle Cruise can start anywhere along this route from the Great Lakes, down the east coast, and up the Mississippi waterways:
Great Lakes, Erie Canal, St. Lawrence Seaway to Lake Champlain or New York State Canal, Hudson River, Intracoastal Waterway (US east coast), Okeechobee Waterway (across Florida), Gulf of Mexico, Tombigbee (Tenn-Tom) Waterway, Mississippi River, Illinois River, back to Great Lakes. The reverse direction would be easier travelling with the Mississippi River current, instead of against it.
MAPS: Great Circle Cruise | Ontario & New York Canals | Tenn-Tom Waterway

The Small Circle Cruise is, well, smaller: Lake Ontario, Rideau Waterway, Ottawa River, Lachine Canal, St. Lawrence River, Richeleau River, Lake Champlain, NY State Canal, Oswego Canal, Lake Ontario. There are other versions that include the Erie Canal, St. Lawrence River, and Thousand Islands (not to be missed). We should also mention the all-Canadian "Circle Cruise", which is simply down the St. Lawrence River, up the Ottawa River, and the Rideau Waterway back to the St. Lawrence. Note: Travelling with the St. Lawrence current will save you time and fuel.

"The cruising sailor's skills, those of good seamanship and survival skills, the ability to take off onto the remote waters of the earth knowing that it is only by your own careful hand you will make it to your destination, go largely unrecognised by everyone except others who have had the same experiences." -- Nancy Knudsen, former editor of Sail-World Cruising

Two little rules for the captain of a happy ship:
1. Whenever you're wrong, admit it,
  2. Whenever you're right, keep quiet !


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"My father talked and talked about what he'd do when he retired, and he died before he had a chance, ..Life's too short. Don't put off 'til tomorrow what you can do today." - Pia Griffin, after cruising the Great Circle Loop (article)

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