Boat at centre of $34M cocaine bust sparked COVID-19 fears when it arrived in N.S.

What started as concern about the spread of COVID-19 in a small town on Nova Scotia’s South Shore has turned into a major $34-million drug bust.

On July 17, local store owner Tim MacIntosh received a call that a boat carrying two people had entered Lockeport harbour and needed gas. 

MacIntosh’s small store in nearby Lydgate has gas pumps, so he got in his truck and drove to the wharf.

When he arrived and greeted the man and woman carrying gas cans, they immediately got in his truck, and he took them back to his store.

MacIntosh said they had an accent, so he asked where they were from. The man told him they were from a small town in Quebec but had been on the water for five weeks. He said their hometown had no cases of COVID-19.

“He said, ‘We should be more than safe. Nothing to worry about,'” MacIntosh said.

While the couple may not have had the coronavirus, they did bring another kind of trouble with them.

The next day, while the 12-metre Northstar sailboat was docked at a yacht club in Halifax, authorities from the Canada Border Services Agency boarded the boat and seized 270 kilograms of what they suspected was cocaine hidden throughout the vessel. The drugs, they said, were valued at around $33.8 million.

They arrested the two people on the boat, although the CBSA didn’t publicize the arrests until 11 days later and has not named the couple or provided any other details about the investigation.

Changing story

The CBSA said the vessel had originated in the Caribbean and failed to report when it entered Canadian waters as required.

CBSA’s Yarmouth bureau had asked Jamey Nickerson, a part-time employee of the Lockeport Harbour Authority, to go to the north wharf and check the name of the boat.

Jamey Nickerson, who works part time with the Lockeport Harbour Authority, was asked by the CBSA to check out the boat while it was docked at a local wharf. (Yvonne Colbert/CBC)

Nickerson said when he approached the Interlude, he saw it had a crack in the hull and looked to be in rough shape. The man on it identified himself as being from Quebec.

He initially told Nickerson he’d been on the water for four weeks and had come from “Saint Martinique” in the Caribbean. It’s not clear whether he meant the island of Martinique.

The man assured Nickerson he had had no contact with others in recent weeks, but upon further questioning, acknowledged he’d been in port at Salem, Mass., three days earlier for food and fuel.

Nickerson said he doesn’t know whether the couple had gone ashore there.

“I was kind of annoyed with the man at this point because he had changed his story a little bit with me, and all I was really concerned about was the well-being of Lockeport citizens,” Nickerson said.

Store owner had to self-isolate

Everyone entering Canada from another country must self-isolate for 14 days.

Nickerson said the man told him he was going to Halifax and planned to inform customs once he was there. Nickerson said the couple was pleasant and polite and even apologized for leaving the vessel.

Tim MacIntosh runs a small store and gas station near Lockeport, N.S. He went into self-isolation after he drove the couple from the sailboat to get gas in his truck. (Facebook)

Nickerson reported the name of the vessel and what he learned back to CBSA. He asked whether the boat should be there but was told that information could not be disclosed.

He also contacted the RCMP but was given little information about what to do and ended up staying at the wharf until the boat was out of the harbour. He said the RCMP eventually showed up after the boat left.

“Maybe they didn’t spread anything because they don’t have the virus, but we have to assume and treat them as though they did, unfortunately,” Nickerson said. “Lockeport, of all towns, has done a really, really good job of dealing with COVID-19.”

Because he had had close contact with the couple, MacIntosh went into self-isolation, where he will remain until this weekend. He had to hire someone to replace him at his store for the isolation period.

Restrictions entering Canadian waters

In an email, CBSA spokesperson Louis-Carl Brissette-Lesage said the agency works with its law enforcement partners to actively monitor Canadian waterways for any non-essential cross-border activities.

Earlier this year, the federal government barred most foreign nationals from entering Canada as part of its measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus — with some exceptions, such as immediate family members, temporary workers and some international students.

The travel restrictions require anyone entering Canadian waters — “regardless of country of origin” — to report to the CBSA. 

The agency said boaters who enter Canada without reporting — even if just to refuel — “may face severe penalties, including monetary penalties, seizure of their vessels and/or criminal charges.”

Brissette-Lesage said the minimum fine for failing to report is $1,000. He also noted that failure to comply with border restrictions is an offence under the Quarantine Act and could result in up to six months in prison and/or $750,000 in fines.

“Further, a person who causes a risk of imminent death or serious bodily harm to another person while willfully or recklessly contravening this act or other regulations could be liable for a fine of up to $1,000,000 or imprisonment of up to three years, or both,” Brissette-Lesage said.

He said Canadian citizens have the right to enter the country and simply seeing a U.S.-plated vehicle or boat is not a reason to suspect someone of suspicious cross-border activity.

CBSA encourages anyone with information on suspicious cross-border activities to call 1-888-502-9060.