About Vessel Documentation
An overview of U.S. Coast Guard vessel documentation.
Documentation Defined - U.S. Coast Guard
documentation is a federal registration system for recreational and
commercial vessels. It is designed to provide evidence of
nationality and facilitate commerce throughout the United States. Vessels that meet the required qualifications are
issued a Certificate of Documentation which serves as evidence of
ownership and entitles the vessel to engage in certain activities
Federal Administration - Vessel documentation is administered by the U.S. Coast Guard's National Vessel Documentation Center. Although previously fragmented into several districts, this operation has now been centralized into a large and very modern facility. Everything is processed electronically which makes for very efficient handling of recordings, research, and the documentation process in general.
Recreational Usage - Documentation was originally established to regulate commerce, however it is now dominated by recreational vessels. There are many advantages to documenting a pleasure boat, but this has come about mostly because of the Ships Mortgage Act. Marine lenders will now typically insist on vessel documentation in order to have a preferred vessel mortgage which gives them an optimal security interest. Boats used for non-skippered bareboat charter are considered as recreational for documentation purposes.
Commercial Operations - Although Coast Guard documentation is optional for recreational boats, it is mandatory for vessels that will engage in commercial activities. These include operations such as carrying passengers, hauling freight, and commercial fishing. Certificates of documentation for commercial vessels must be endorsed for the respective types of usage. Vessel build and owner citizenship requirements are considerably more stringent for commercial vessels.
Owner Qualifications - As a general rule, all owners of a documented vessel must be US citizens. This also applies to legal and business entities such as corporations, limited liability companies, and partnerships. Principals who own and operate such entities must be U.S. citizens in their own right. An individual person who owns all or part interest in a documented vessel must be native born, naturalized, or a derivative U.S. citizen. Coast Guard documented vessels may be operated or placed under the command of a foreign citizen only if the vessel is used for recreational purposes.
Vessel Qualifications - In basic terms, a vessel must measure in volume at a minimum of five net tons. Vessel tonnage is determined by a measurement process rather than by calculating the vessel's weight or displacement. Such tonnage is determined by a formula involving the length, width, and depth. Most vessels will need to be approximately twenty five feet in length at minimum to qualify. The country in which a vessel was built is only an issue for commercial documentations.
Official Number - When initially documented, every vessel is assigned a unique official number which becomes the primary identifier. This must be affixed to the inside of the hull its or an integral part thereof and preceded by the letters "O.N". It must also be secured in a permanent manner and located where easily accessible upon an inspection. An official number remains with the vessel for life and is never changed. The Coast Guard maintains official numbers and their corresponding abstracts of title indefinitely, even for vessels which are no longer documented.
Name and Hailing Port - Every documented vessel must display a name and hailing port on the exterior of hull where it can be easily seen. Vessel names are not exclusive and can be of the owner's choosing so long as it is not profane or in conflict with safety signals. Hailing ports may consist of any city and state which has a postal code. These can be completely arbitrary as the Coast Guard no longer maintains home port designations.
Certificate of Documentation - A certificate of documentation is issued on first time or re-documentations of every vessel. It services as evidence of ownership and indicates all trade endorsements under which the vessel is entitled to operate. The certificate must remain on the vessel whenever it is operational for presentation to law enforcement officials and service vendors. Certificates of documentation must be renewed on a yearly basis and a new one is issued upon such occurrence.
Managing Owner - A managing owner must be designated for contact purposes whenever there are multiple owners of a documented vessel. In the case of two or more individuals this can be any one of the parties. As for legal or business entities, the name of such entity will itself be shown as the managing owner. The managing owner's name and address are then listed on the certificate of documentation.
Documentation Changes - Changes can be made in the documentation status such as the vessel's name, hailing port, trade endorsements, specifications, and transfers of ownership. If a change is made due to an error on behalf of the Coast Guard, they will re-issue the certificate of documentation at no charge. Otherwise, an application for re-documentation must be submitted along with the appropriate fees. A new certificate of documentation is then re-issued showing the respective changes. Re-documentation is not required for a change of address as this can be implemented with a simple notification.
Mortgages & Supplements - A lender's security interest in a documented vessel is evidenced by a preferred vessel mortgage. This is very important as such recordings establish a rank and priority which is superior to other means of collateralization. Any number of mortgages can be filed against a particular vessel with the earliest ones having priority. Supplements to mortgages can also be recorded and include such instruments as amendments, assignments, addendums, assumptions, and subordinations. A mortgage is discharged or offset by implementing a release or satisfaction recording.
Claims & Liens - Claims of lien can be filed against any vessel that is actively documented. These are unilateral filings on behalf of a claimant and written consent of the owner is not required. Such recordings do not afford validity to any particular claim, but they do place a cloud on the abstract of title. Most lenders and potential buyers will insist on having these dealt with before proceeding with a loan or purchase. Such claims are discharged or offset by implementing a release or satisfaction of lien.
Abstracts of Title - When a vessel is first documented, the Coast Guard creates an electronic index or ledger wherein all transactions are recorded. These include transfers of ownership, mortgages, and claims of lien. Abstracts also contain notational information such as changes in the vessel's name, build information when presented, recording cross-references, and entry corrections. Any party involved in a documented vessel transaction should obtain an abstract of title, even if the documentation is no longer active. Abstracts are important because mortgages, lien claims, and methods of ownership are not shown on the certificate of documentation itself.
Advantages of Documentation - Coast Guard vessel documentation is only required for commercial operations and whenever a preferred mortgage is called for by the lender. However, there are advantages to voluntary documentation on recreational vessels. This will establish a complete chain of ownership, the vessel may be exempt from state registration in some jurisdictions, state numbers are not required on documented boats, and documentation it is generally considered to be more prestigious. It is especially important to have documentation for offshore cruising as this offers evidence of nationality and certain protections under the U.S. flag.
Application Process - The documentation process is quite exacting and can become rather involved in some cases. The Coast Guard's application form is somewhat confusing and various supporting items must be provided depending on the transaction. Instruments presented for recording such as bills of sale and preferred vessel mortgages must contain specific citations and be properly executed. Any applications that do not meet such standards are promptly rejected by the documentation center.
Documentation Fees - One of the more endearing aspects of vessel documentation is that application fees are one time only with no cost for yearly renewals. However, an application for initial or re-documentation can amount to several hundred dollars depending on whether the services of a documentation professional are employed. The Coast Guard does not collect taxes or customs duties as part of the application process.
Documentation Services - Anyone with the time and inclination can implement their own vessel documentation. However, such effort may prove difficult and frustrating for those unfamiliar with the process. Documentation fees can also become forfeited if any deficiencies are not dealt with promptly. The assistance a qualified documentation specialist may therefore be a worthwhile consideration. Our self-service vessel documentation kits are also a great option for those on a tight budget.
The National Vessel Documentation Center's processing times can vary
from a few days to several months depending on its workload and staffing
levels. Recording priorities are also influenced by a vessel's usage,
the type of filing, and whether there are special circumstances
In an effort to keep the public apprised of such conditions, the documentation center posts a case processing list to its web site. This is updated on a weekly basis and shows the current status with respect to various types of filings. Although sometimes optimistic, the list is usually accurate within several days.
If you have submitted items for recording and your filing date exceeds the backlog report by more than a week or two, it would be prudent to contact the documentation center for a status report. Keep in mind that your recording will be delayed if the underlying submission was not complete or if there were deficiencies. Incomplete or deficient fillings are automatically relegated to the bottom of the queue until finalized.
The National Vessel Documentation Center regulates and administers all
activities related to U.S. Coast Guard vessel documentation. It
commenced operations on August 1, 1995 as the result of consolidation
efforts where fourteen regional documentation offices merged their
activities into a centralized location. This move greatly enhanced the
Coast Guard's ability to process vessel documentation and mortgage
Public assistance from the documentation center is however, limited in scope and detailed or meaningful instructions are difficult to obtain. Just getting through to a live person can a challenge depending on their workload and the time of day. You will accordingly find a number of private agencies throughout the country that represent clients in their efforts to accomplish most documentation tasks.
In response to the high costs usually associated with such agents, we have developed a full compliment of inexpensive vessel documentation packages which are easy to use and readily available online. Our vessel documentation service packages, self-service kits, forms, and handbooks offer expanded guidelines, forms, examples, and support services that go far beyond anything you will find at the documentation center.
The National Vessel Documentation Center has a priority system under
which applications and other submissions are processed. This is based on
the date received, the vessel's trade status, the type of submission,
and special circumstances. Upon arrival at the center, all items are
placed into a handling queue which is prioritized according to such
As a general rule, all filings related to vessels with commercial endorsements are given automatic priority over those endorsed only for recreational purposes. However, pleasure vessels may also qualify for priority handling if there are urgent circumstances which necessitate the immediate issuance of a document. Such urgency is most often related to vessels about to embark on foreign voyages, but this is not always the case.
In order to qualify for priority handling, a specially drafted form titled "Priority Request" must be submitted to the documentation center along with the application. The form must contain certain citations and requires a signature by the vessel's owner, or managing owner. The request is then subject to review and approval by a documentation officer. It should also be noted that priority requests will not be granted for incomplete applications and must be re-submitted if there is a deficiency in the paperwork.
information will assist readers in understanding the various methods of
calculating vessel tonnage measurement as it relates to Coast Guard
• Interactive Calculation Form - This form, which is hosted by the Coast Guard's web site, will self-calculate the gross and net tonnage of any vessel by completing the propulsion machinery, shape of hull, and overall dimensions sections. Use your tab button to move among the fields and the results will be displayed in the upper right hand corner of the first page.
• Measurement Organizations - A list of Coast Guard approved organizations that can perform formal admeasurements.
• Tonnage Measurement FAQs - Questions and answers about vessel tonnage measurement as related to Coast Guard vessel documentation.
• Simplified Measurement Guide - A guidebook with information about the simplified measurement process for Coast Guard vessel documentation purposes.
• MARAD -
Link to the Maritime Administration's web site.
• Compilation of Maritime Laws - A Primer on maritime laws as compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration (MARAD). This publication is current as of January 2008.
• Small Passenger Vessel Waiver - MARAD site contains information on obtaining a waiver from the Maritime Administration regarding the U.S. build requirements for operation as commercial passenger vessels.
• Foreign Vessel Transfer - MARAD information and forms regarding foreign transfers of Coast Guard documented vessels 1,000 gross tons and over.
documentation are re-issued on a yearly basis according to the
expiration date as shown on the certificate. This coincides with the
date upon which the vessel was initially placed into documentation or
returned to documentation subsequent to a deletion. Approximately 45
days prior to the document's expiration date, the National Vessel
Documentation Center will send a renewal certification form to the
managing owner's address as shown on their records. The owner must take
responsibility for returning a certification even though a notification
was never received. It is accordingly very important that you keep the
Coast Guard informed of the managing owner's current mailing address.
One of the endearing aspects of Coast Guard vessel documentation is that once established, there are no further costs associated with yearly renewals. However, a renewal certification must be returned before the annual expiration date or additional fees will be incurred. If renewed within the 30 day grace period subsequent to expiration, there is a late renewal fee is $ 5.00. If allowed to lapse beyond the grace period, you will have to endure the cost of reinstating the documentation.
operating under a valid certificate of documentation, every vessel must
be marked with its official number, designated name, and hailing port.
This means that such markings must be properly affixed to the vessel on
or before issuance of a certificate of documentation.
The official number as shown on the certificate of documentation must be permanently affixed to some clearly visible interior structural part of the hull. The number must be preceded by the abbreviation "NO" and must be shown in block type Arabic numerals of least 3 inches in height. Permanently affixed is defined as being implemented in such a manner that removal or replacement would be obvious and cause some scarring or damage to the surrounding area. Clearly visible means that it must be easily accessible in the event of a boarding inspection. The numbers must be affixed to inside of the hull itself or a permanently attached internal structure such as a bulkhead or engine stringer. There are various methods for installing the numbers such as stenciling, engraving, or affixing a plaque. However, these must be glassed over or permanently bonded and not simply secured with screws, rivets, or bolts.
For recreational vessels, the name and hailing port must be marked together on some clearly visible exterior part of the hull. If the certificate of documentation is endorsed for commercial usage, the name must be marked on each side of the bow and both the name and hailing port must be marked on the stern. On commercial vessels having a square bow, the name of the vessel must be marked on some clearly visible exterior part of the bow. The name and hailing port must also be marked on some clearly visible exterior part of the stern. Markings may be made with any materials that are durable. All letters or numerals must made in clearly legible letters of the Latin alphabet or Arabic or Roman numerals and must be as least 4 inches in height. Hailing port markings must include both the city and state which can be abbreviated.