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Vessel Documentation Basics

What you should know about U.S. Coast Guard vessel documentation.

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U.S. Coast Guard vessel documentation is a federal registration system for both recreational and commercial vessels. A basic understanding of when this applies and how it relates to state level and foreign registration is an essential component of any research implementation. The following synopsis represents a basic overview of what vessel documentation is all about and how ownership, mortgages, and claims of lien are recorded.

Although required for vessels engaged in commercial activities, Coast Guard documentation is optional for recreational purposes only. It is designed to provide evidence of nationality, facilitate commerce throughout the United States, and to enhance marine financing. Vessels that meet the required qualifications are issued a Certificate of Documentation which serves as verification of ownership and entitles the vessel to engage in certain trades. Vessel documentation is administered by the National Vessel Documentation Center which is located in Martinsburg, West Virginia.

In order to qualify for documentation a vessel must measure at least five net tons in terms of cargo volume. This is equal to approximately twenty four feet in length depending on the vessel's overall width, depth, and hull configuration. All types of vessels may qualify for documentation, including power boats, sailing craft, ships, barges, houseboats, and certain inflatables. Documented vessels are assigned a six or seven digit official number which must be permanently affixed to an interior part of the hull. The vessel's name and designated hailing port must also be displayed on the vessel's exterior.

As a general rule, documented vessels must be wholly owned by U.S. citizens. This includes individuals who were native born, naturalized, or derived from U.S. citizens while living or travelling abroad. Citizenship rules also apply to the principal parties of vessels owned by entities such as corporations, limited liability companies, and partnerships. Trust arrangements, joint tenancies, estates, and other types of ownership arrangements are typically allowed whenever they conform to jurisdictional requirements. Vessels may become documented even if not located within U.S. waters so long as the owners have met the necessary citizenship requirements.

One of the most endearing aspects of vessel documentation pertains to federal legislation called the Ship's Mortgage Act of 1920. It is one of the primary reasons that most recreational boat owners choose such an option. In fact, most marine lenders will require documentation in order to secure and perfect their boat loans with a Preferred Vessel Mortgage. Upon recordation, this affords them with settlement priority over all subsequent contractual loan arrangements. It also provides lenders with a final say with respect to changing any aspects of the existing documentation status.

Ownership, lien, and mortgage recordings on documented vessels are indexed into a "Abstract of Title" similar to what one would find in the real estate industry. Obtaining a copy of this is paramount to any kind of boat title research endeavor, even though a documentation is no longer current. The documentation center can provide these for any vessel that was ever documented. A copy of the last Certificate of Documentation can also be obtained to confirm it's validity and expiration date. Abstracts are however cryptic and can be difficult to decipher if there are many entries which may therefore call for professional assistance. As for discovery or preliminary documentation research, our BoatScope database is an ideal starting point as it can be searched by various criteria.

There are also matters of "Lien Claim" recordings and "hidden" or non-recorded liens which can impact documented vessels. Certain states may additionally require registration of documented vessels which may prove relevant to a thorough title search. More detailed information on Coast Guard documentation research and how it relates to other recording methods be found on the "Guidelines", "Database", "State" and "Foreign" pages of our website. You will also find some extremely valuable boat title search resources on our "Resource" page which includes "free" preliminary database search lookups and other validation tools.


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