By Gabrielle Plonka of the Whitehorse Star
Published with permission from The Whitehorse Star
More than 20 Yukoners whose boats are harbored in Skagway are seeking a single-day pass to cross the U.S. border and perform maintenance on their vessels.
“All we’re trying to do is be able to go check on our boats, make sure they don’t sink,” Mike Martin told the Star Tuesday.
“All the boats need maintenance to make sure they don’t sink or deteriorate or get mold, all these kinds of things.”
Martin hasn’t visited Skagway in six months.
In a normal year, he would have taken about 10 trips over that six-month period to replace the zincs, check the ropes and top the batteries on his boat. In pre-pandemic summers, Martin would be sailing around Alaska at this time.
Martin’s boat isn’t insured, and he can’t get it surveyed while the border is closed. He worries his vessel may be deteriorating without regular maintenance.
“It might be an inanimate thing, but it actually becomes a friend, and a lot of people feel that with their boats,” Martin said.
“You do get bonded to your boat, so it becomes more than just a thing, it’s not just a monetary issue, it’s more for a lot of us.”
David Storey is another Yukoner concerned about his boat sitting unattended in the Skagway harbor for an unknown period of time.
“I spoke with the border about three months ago and asked if we could come down for a day … they said that unless the boat was floating free in the harbor and running into other boats, we couldn’t come down,” Storey told the Star.
“It was rather heartless, I’m afraid.”
Storey recruited a friend from Juneau to top his batteries with water, but there are numerous other concerns.
“There are otters in the harbor that get into the boats every now and again, and they’ll totally trash your boat if they do,” Storey said.
“There are winds that can wreck the canopies and things; all boats leak through their decks, that’s kind of what we worry about.”
Storey has kept his boat at the Skagway harbor for about eight years.
“A boat is a huge liability and has to be attended to regularly and loved,” Storey said.
“You are – forgive the expression – kind of married to them; they require that kind of attention, I guess.”
Martin has been in touch with more than 20 Yukoners in a similar situation.
Everybody is trying to find a way down to Skagway, he said. The community is seeking a single-day allowance to drive directly to the harbor, spend three to four hours there, and return home.
“Of course, if any Skagwegians have any problem with this, then we don’t want to pursue it at all because it’s their country,” Martin said.
“We feel that what we’re asking for is not going to put anyone at risk if it’s done properly.”
Travel across the U.S. border is restricted to “essential” purposes only.
A spokesperson for U.S. Customs told the Star those rules won’t bend for Yukon boat owners.
“Travel for the sole purpose of checking on a boat is not deemed essential under the temporary travel restrictions,” Jaime Ruiz, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Branch Chief, said in an email Wednesday.
“However, if additional circumstances make the travel essential, the traveller may be admissible into the United States.”
Some boat owners who corresponded with the Star said they’re considering chartered or private flights to Skagway.
They were optimistic that customs agents might allow them to land and make the quick trip to their boat.
Ruiz told the Star that border rules shouldn’t apply differently to those who fly versus those who drive.
“Without speculating the rule is technically the same – travellers arriving on private aircraft would need to request landing rights – or landing authorization,” Ruiz said.
“Approving their arrival will depend on the totality of the circumstances.”
Martin contacted Larry Bagnell, the Yukon’s MP, late last month.
Bagnell told Martin in an email July 21 that he’s received numerous inquiries about visiting boats Alaska-side.
“This appears, on the surface, to be a very simple exercise, but unfortunately Canada does not treat any border crossings differently, at any time,” Bagnell wrote to Martin.
“I will continue to raise this problem, but I am not aware of any solution that is evolving in the near future.”
Bagnell said he estimates “hundreds, likely thousands” of Canadians and Americans are facing similar problems with their boats and properties on the other side of the closed border.
He said both federal governments are likely aware of the situation.
Matt O’Boyle, Skagway’s harbormaster, told the Star there are approximately 49 Canadian-owned boats at the harbor. Twenty-nine of those are in the water.
“Harbor staff do walk the docks daily, but we aren’t allowed on the boats unless we see something that’s alarming,” O’Boyle said.
A local contractor has towed at least two Yukon vessels to the Fraser border crossing for the owners to pick up from the Yukon side.
Some boats are too large to be trailered, however, so this isn’t an option for everybody, O’Boyle said.
He said he’s been in regular contact with several Yukoners who are concerned about the state of their boats. Some have enlisted friends in Skagway to take over the maintenance this summer.
“It’s been kind of a community effort to help out those people who aren’t able to come down,” O’Boyle said.
The collective of boat owners in Skagway is tight-knit, he explained.
“Right now, basically, we kind of miss our Whitehorse boating family,” O’Boyle said.
“There’s a good camaraderie between everybody who comes down from Whitehorse to use the small boat harbor, so it’s like having a little bit of your family missing.”