Recreational Boating Safety – Vessel Documentation

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla
If you are like me, you like to observe the names of the different vessels plying our waters. All large commercial vessels will display a vessel name and hailing port. Recreational boaters also like to display a boat name and hailing port, but in many cases doing so is only a preference rather than a requirement. I am still trying to decide on a name for my new fishing boat. Recreational boaters really enjoy coming up with unique names which are designed to amuse in some cases, or make a statement, such as a boat named “Law V.” Only a small portion of the population would get the meaning of that name. Law V of the rules of soccer is “The Referee.” The owner of “Law V” is telling those in the know that he or she is or was a soccer referee.

The Station Galveston Flotilla of the US Coast Guard Auxiliary operates out of the USCG Station Galveston base on Galveston Island. They aid the Coast Guard by providing maritime observation patrols in Galveston Bay; by providing recreational boating vessel safety checks; and by working alongside Coast Guard members in maritime accident investigation, small boat training, providing a safety zone, Aids to Navigation verification, in the galley, and watch standing.

Another thing I noticed about the recreational vessel “Law V” was that it did not display any state registration numbers. Instead, the only thing visible on both sides near the bow was a Texas registration sticker and a TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) sticker. This observation told me two things. First, the boat has a toilet with a holding tank (the TCEQ sticker is required for such), and second, the vessel is documented. Documented vessels must show their Texas registration stickers, but do not display their registration numbers. Instead, they are required to display the vessel name and hailing port. For this column I will use the Q&A page of the U.S. Coast Guard National Vessel Documentation Center.

What is Vessel Documentation?
Vessel documentation is a national form of registration. It is one of the oldest functions of our government, dating back to the 11th Act of the First Congress. Documentation provides conclusive evidence of nationality for international purposes, provides for unhindered commerce between the states, and admits vessels to certain restricted trades, such as coastwise trade and the fisheries. Since 1920, vessel financing has been enhanced through the availability of preferred mortgages on documented vessels.

Are There Different Types of Documentation?
Yes. Certificate of Documentation may be endorsed for fishery, coastwise, registry, or recreation. Any documented vessel may be used for recreational purposes, regardless of its endorsement, but a vessel documented with a recreational endorsement only may not be used for any other purpose. Registry endorsements are generally used for foreign trade.

What Vessels May Be Documented?
A vessel that measures at least five net tons and, with the exception of certain oil spill response vessels, that is wholly owned by a citizen of the U.S. may be documented. Many people are under the impression that documentation has a minimum length requirement. Not so. It is all about total vessel volume. Net tonnage is a measure of a vessel’s volume. It should not be confused with the vessel’s weight, which may also be expressed in tons. Most vessels more than 25 feet in length will measure five net tons or more, so you can see where people get the idea that documentation is about vessel length.

What Vessels Must Be Documented?
Vessels of five net tons or more used in fishing activities on navigable waters of the U.S. or in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), or used in coastwise trade must be documented unless the vessel is exempt from documentation. Coastwise trade is generally defined as the transportation of merchandise or passengers between points in the U.S. or the EEZ. In addition, towboats operating between points in the U.S. or the EEZ or between the EEZ and points in the U.S. and dredges operating in the U.S. or the EEZ must be documented. Vessels that do not operate on the navigable waters of the U.S. or in the fisheries in the EEZ, are exempt from the requirement to be documented. Also exempt are Coastwise qualified, non-self-propelled vessels used in coastwise trade within a harbor, on the rivers or lakes (except the Great Lakes) of the U.S. or the internal waters or canal of any state.

What Are the Requirements for Documentation?
The basic requirements for documentation are to demonstrate ownership of the vessel, U.S. citizenship, and eligibility for the endorsement sought. If the vessel is new and has never been documented, ownership may be established by submission of a Builder’s Certification, naming the applicant for documentation as the person for whom the vessel was built or to whom the vessel was first transferred. Also acceptable are a transfer on a Manufacturer’s Certificate of Origin, a copy of the State Registration or Title, or foreign registration showing that the applicant owns the vessel. In the case of a previously owned vessel, the applicant must present bills of sale, or other evidence showing transfer of the vessel from the person who last documented, titled, or registered the vessel, or to whom the vessel was transferred on a Builder’s Certification or Manufacturer’s Certificate of Origin.

Citizenship is established by verifying the applicant’s social security. In addition to individuals, corporations, partnerships, and other entities capable of holding legal title may be deemed citizens for documentation purposes. Corporations must be registered in a state or the U.S; the chief executive officer and chairman of the board of directors must be U.S. citizens, and no more than a minority of the number of directors necessary to constitute a quorum may be non-citizens. In addition, at least 75% of the stock must be vested in U.S. citizens for a coastwise or fisheries endorsement.

Evidence that a vessel was built in the U.S. is required for a vessel which is to be used in the fisheries or coastwise trade. Build evidence is normally established by submitting a Builder’s Certification. That form must be completed by the person who constructed or oversaw the construction of the vessel or an official of the company that built the vessel who has examined the records of the company to determine the facts of build. The Original Builder’s Certification or Facts of Build Letter must be presented with your submission. A copy will not be accepted.

What Are the Vessel Name and Hailing Port Marking Requirements?
Documented vessels do not display their official numbers on the outside of the hull, but are identified by the name and hailing port. The application for documentation must include a name for the vessel composed of letters of the Latin alphabet or Arabic or Roman numerals and may not exceed 33 characters. The name may not be identical, actually or phonetically, to any word or words used to solicit assistance at sea; may not contain or be phonetically identical to obscene, indecent, or profane language, or to racial or ethnic epithets. Once established, a vessel’s name may not be changed without application, fees, and the consent of the Director, National Vessel Documentation Center. There is no rule against duplication of names for documented vessels, so hailing ports are helpful in identifying vessels.

How Do I Mark My Vessel?
The official number assigned to documented vessels, preceded by the abbreviation “NO.” must be marked in block-type Arabic numerals at least three inches high on some clearly visible interior structural part of the hull. The number must be permanently affixed so that alteration, removal, or replacement would be obvious and cause some scarring or damage to the surrounding hull area. Most of the vessels that I inspect have their documentation number displayed in their engine rooms.

The name and hailing port of a recreational vessel must be marked together on some clearly visible exterior part of the hull. The vessel name of a commercial vessel must also be marked on the port and starboard bow and the vessel name and the hailing port must also be marked on the stern. All markings may be made by any means and materials that result in durable markings and must be at least four inches in height, made in clearly legible letters of the Latin alphabet or Arabic or Roman numerals. The hailing port must include both a place and a State, Territory, or possession of in the United States. The state may be abbreviated. I do Vessel Safety Checks for many documented recreational boats. The four-inch height requirement is different from the three-inch height requirement for the usual state registration letters and numbers, and some newly documented boats I have inspected have failed the inspection because they did not adhere to the four-inch height rule.

Is a Documented Vessel Exempt from State Jurisdiction?
You wish! No, all documented vessels must comply with the laws of the state in which they are operated. The vessel’s document must be shown to state law enforcement personnel upon their demand. States may require documented vessels to be registered (but not numbered) and to display state decals showing that they have complied with state requirements. In Texas, you must register your boat, but you do not display your TX numbers if it is documented.

Is the Vessel Tender Documented?
Vessel tender is the term used for the documented vessel’s dinghy. Some dinghies are simple blow-up row boats used to get from an anchorage to shore, but dinghies on large yachts can be as big as my 18-foot fishing boat. Documentation of your vessel does not cover the vessel’s tender or dinghy. These craft fall within the jurisdiction of the motorboat numbering laws of the state of principal use. Often whenever I perform a Vessel Safety Check on a large yacht I ask the owners if they would like their dinghy checked also. Most say yes.

To Name or Not
While displaying your boat name and hailing port is a requirement for documented vessels, it is also an option for any boater to display their boat name and hailing port. Whenever we go on boat patrol of the area marinas, we like to read all the boat names and hailing ports and imagine what type of person owns the boat. I like boat names that are puns or indicate something about the owner, such as the recreational boat “Law V” mentioned earlier. Naming your boat is an old tradition. My first boat was a small pirogue co-owned with a friend. We named it “Petunia,” (long before John Fogerty wrote “Born on the Bayou”) and we paddled that boat all up and down Pine Island Bayou when we were growing up.

While vessel documentation is required for certain types of vessels, it is an option for most recreational vessels. Most yacht owners opt to obtain documentation for their recreational boats, as they often travel to foreign countries or sail in international waters. If your recreational boat meets the requirements for documentation, you may want to explore the documentation process further. If you simply want to display your boat’s name and hailing port, feel free to do so. Hopefully, people will get a kick out of the name and hailing port you choose for your boat.

For more information on boating safety, please visit the Official Website of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division at Questions about the US Coast Guard Auxiliary or our free Vessel Safety Check program may be directed to me at [email protected] I am available to perform free Vessel Safety Checks, and I will come to your location to perform them. SAFE BOATING!


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