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Jack Knox: Border bother maroons water taxi

The owner of a cross-border water taxi service has been told that under Canadian rules, his boat must come and go from a ferry terminal — not exactly an ideal fit for a 23-foot vessel on no fixed schedule.

Miles Arsenault thought he had jumped through the right hoops.

He thought he had all the permissions he needed, from both sides of the border, to launch a water taxi service from Sidney to San Juan Island in Washington state.

So he went ahead and launched the run Nov. 3. By Jan. 2 he had done his eighth cross-border charter, bringing back to Sidney a Canadian mariner who had just dropped off a yacht on the American side. But that’s the day Canadian authorities pulled the plug. Arsenault was told such trips were no longer possible, not the way he had been doing them, anyway.

Since then, he has been allowed to take passengers to the U.S., but not to bring anyone from there to here. He’s feeling hard done by.

Why, he wants to know, can Canadian authorities not accommodate him in the same way the Americans do?

The answer, in essence, is that those are the rules. We’re not set up for a business like his.

Arsenault has owned Bay-to-Bay Charters since 2019. You might remember him from 2020 when, with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle holed up in North Saanich, he made the news for turning down the $150-an-hour business of a Japanese TV crew that had wanted to film the couple’s waterfront estate from offshore.

Too intrusive, Arsenault said. ­Markle phoned him to thank him for putting principle over profit.

When Arsenault looked into adding cross-border service last year, the Americans told him they would allow him to dock his 23-foot, eight-passenger boat at Roche Harbor and Friday Harbor marinas on San Juan Island, just as long as he put up a bond, gave 24 hours notice before each trip, paid port fees on each occasion ($19 US in, $19 out) and had a manifest filled out when he arrived. A U.S. border agent met him each time.

Arsenault said he was told he could do something similar on the Saanich Peninsula, pulling into the Van Isle marina, which has been designated as a place where boaters arriving from the U.S. side can use a phone to report their presence to the Canadian Border Services Agency.

The CBSA has the option of sending agents to check out the arrivals, but on each of Arsenault’s crossings, the agency simply granted permission for his passengers — usually one or two of them — to disembark.

Then came January’s course correction. CBSA told Arsenault that under its rules, his water taxi counted as a ferry, and therefore was not eligible to use its report-by-phone locations. He needed to arrive at a site designated for ferries.

The problem is the only such site on the Peninsula is the Sidney ferry terminal, which has been growing weeds since Washington State Ferries back-burnered its Sidney-Anacortes run in 2019.

The U.S. carrier, short of both crew and ferries, says it won’t restore the link until this summer, if then.

Even if the terminal were open, Arsenault figures his business, which operates a small craft not on a schedule but when needed by clients, isn’t a good fit in an operation designed for a football-field-long ferry on a fixed timetable.

CBSA says water taxis can still arrange to have agents on hand when docking outside the agency’s regular locations and hours, but that would mean entering into a cost-recovery agreement and adhering to a regular schedule. Arsenault said that would not only be cumbersome (taxis are by nature unscheduled) but could potentially cost more than he grosses from some trips.

He feels marooned. “They’re shutting me down,” he said.

By contrast, the Americans have made things easy, he said. “The U.S.A. doesn’t classify water taxis as a ferry or expect a schedule to arrive at their docks. They have made it very straightforward.”

Perhaps it simply comes down to the Americans having border agents handy at a busy location but the same not being true over here.

CBSA, which says it can’t comment on specific cases, merely states that water taxis are treated as ferries and, if operating outside designated terminals and hours, need to enter into cost-recovery agreements — which, the taxpayer-supported agency could argue, translates to being fiscally responsible.

Still doesn’t make it easy to cross the water, though. Arsenault has been turning down clients ranging from Americans wanting to have their yachts serviced in Sidney to cross-border lovers separated by the saltchuck.

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