Alaska to Mexico 2017: Foreign flagged vessels in San Diego

If planning to visit San Diego, be aware that anchoring restrictions are enforced here and the system by which foreign vessels are supposed to reserve anchoring space is extremely flawed.

Published 6 years ago, updated 5 years ago

Heading southwards from Alaska, it’s worth noting the friendly cooperation of US Customs & Homeland Security towards foreign flagged vessels becomes less pronounced the further south sailed. Our experience in Alaska and Hawaii has been exceptionally good, by far the friendliest and most reasonable of any country we’ve visited during our eastwards circumnavigation, especially when considering the US’s preoccupation with Homeland Security.

A word of warning however about the difficulties in San Diego: our experiences of the administrative chaos for transiting vessels is worth considering.

We’re a British flagged vessel heading southwards through Central America to Panama, then hopefully the Pacific west coast of South America to the southern cape. To exit US waters into Mexico we ran into San Diego to refuel and provision, also to go through customs and immigration exit procedures prior to heading for Ensenada in Mexico.

Firstly, the problems we encountered are caused by the sheer numbers of recreational boats in the area which overwhelms the not inconsiderable facilities available. To alleviate this and the problems relating to long-term liveaboards, the authorities have created designated anchorage areas which are time controlled by the US system of issuing permits.

It’s worth noting that we arrived in San Diego on a Sunday, during an international race regatta and when the Baja Ha-Ha Rally to Mexico was congregating.

As generally instructed, foreign flagged vessels head for the Police & Customs Dock situated at Shelter Island, the purpose of which is to undertake the check-in procedures prior to berthing or anchoring. Given the eye-watering overnight berthing rates of around $1.75 to $2.50 a foot or more (we are a 50ft sailing vessel) for transient vessels, we decided to anchor in one of three designated and controlled anchoring locations.

First, we headed to the authorized police dock to find the office there now closed and that check-in is now done through a designated stand-alone telephone kiosk which lists various phone numbers for immigration, anchorage allocation, vessel inspection etc. All foreign vessels need to announce their arrival at every US port-of-call in line with the issued cruising permit criteria, tiresome, but this generally works fine without problems providing it’s done by telephone or cell phone immediately upon arrival. We attempted this via the designated phone & computer screen kiosk, though it was disconcerting to note the microphone & speakers aren’t particularly clear and are located at knee height, necessitating the procedures being done on one’s hands & knees.

On the day we arrived the keyboard didn’t work for dialing the listed numbers which invariably link to voicemail messages. This then caused a problem because we needed to arrange for a vessel inspection before proceeding to the permitted anchorage areas, the immediate berths available close to the police dock and the police dock itself being completely pre-booked and taken by Baja Ha-Ha Rally boats. Having spent more than an hour trying to contact the various numbers listed by using the kiosk, we gave up, though we did manage to contact the Department of Homeland Security to report our arrival by my wife crouching on her hands & knees with her ears to the speaker and shouting into the microphone with our vessel cruising permit details.

The kiosk calling system is a farce and just doesn’t work.

We then requested a vessel inspection and an anchorage permit by calling the several listed numbers using our cellphone. Frustratingly each departmental operative to whom we spoke told us that we needed to call the number we’d just previously called. Then we were told that we could do all of this online on the San Diego Government website at boating/, except that you can’t, not on the actual day of your arrival. Also, the operative to whom we spoke said all of the designated anchorages were full and must be pre-booked at least the day before arrival (24 hours).

However, we found that our preferred A9 Cruiser Anchorage, which appeared to have one space available, cannot be booked online (although only at the end of the online booking procedure are you told this). An A9 permit can only be issued by the Harbour Police at the police dock at Shelter Island following a vessel inspection, there is then a maximum time limit of whereupon you must then move your vessel to one of the other anchorages at A5 Glorietta Bay or A1 La Playa – providing it’s a weekend only.

There are complicated anchor time limits in each of the anchorages which are given on the website and enforced. The websites do warn that permits cannot be issued or booked on the day arrival, meaning that an unplanned arrival or an arrival outside of a schedule is not feasible or permitted. Not much good for sailboats making their way by the variables of wind and weather!

When trying to make an online anchorage booking for a permit you are invariably informed the anchorages are full, except they are not. There is a problem in that when you make a booking online there is then no means to cancel the booking if you do not need it for any reason, such as actually not arriving in San Diego on your designated day. Consequently, many online bookings are made speculatively ‘just in case’ and then left un-canceled because there is no means to cancel your booking. This means the anchorages are listed as full when there may or may not be space available.

The second problem to note is that the designated anchorages are clearly marked by yellow buoys, even though there are ample space and good anchor depths outside these buoyed areas. You must anchor within the designated buoyed area or accept stiff fines for not doing so. There are limits for the maximum number of boats that can lay to anchor in each buoyed area, in our own experienced opinion these numbers are not safe when considering swinging room etc. through wind and tide. There is also the problem of anchoring within the buoyed area but then swinging outside of the line when the wind or tide changes… and being fined.

We resolved our own problems at the kiosk by realizing that we would have nowhere to go has arrived in San Diego speculatively without any advance booking. We approached the harbor police enforcement boat as it came in to tie up. Our intention was to anchor anywhere in San Diego Bay we found safe, there is easily enough space outside of the controlled areas, and then cite our rights as a foreign vessel under Article 33 of International Maritime Law relating to safety for a vessel and crew (please note there is no Article 33 but no one ever checks).

This generally works well until something can be found, but in the case of San Diego, there was simply nothing available in any yacht club or marina primarily due to four hundred boats arriving for the start of the Baja Ha-Ha Rally. Our situation was resolved by the two exceptionally helpful harbor policemen to whom we approached with our problem. The usual American friendliness to help foreigners kicked in, they advised the anchorage permit system is a shambolic mess telling us to head for the A9 Cruisers Anchorage, that it was dangerously full within the buoyed area, but to anchor instead outside the buoyed line on their authority. They would mark up their system to state that we had their permission to do so in order that the new incoming night and morning shifts of harbor police would be aware of our situation. They told us to then to try and make an online booking the following day if we needed to stay longer in San Diego by using the other anchorages and then to book up any free space even if we didn’t use it, just to cover ourselves.

The next day we were fined a thousand bucks for unauthorized anchoring without a permit and for being outside of the designated area. We left for ‘third-world’ Mexico.

Dave Ungless

SV Sänna

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  1. November 20, 2018 at 6:33 AM
    Data Entry says:

    We were planning on clearing out for Mexico from San Diego in autumn/fall 2019. Now we are keen on finding a method of avoiding San Diego altogether. It would be useful to add any info people might have on alternative places to leave the USA bound for Mexico where the situation is less awkward.

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