Coast Guard Documentation Q&A

Q: What is a Coast Guard Documentation Number? 

A: The Coast Guard Documentation Number is the official number of a documented vessel. This number is to be prominently displayed on the vessel, signifying its documented status. This number stays with the vessel for the vessel’s lifetime. 

When someone sends in their form to get their Coast Guard documentation number, they receive a USCG Certificate of Documentation. 

The USCG Certificate of Documentation shows that the vessel has been documented. A Certificate of Documentation (“COD”) must be issued by the Coast Guard’s National Vessel Documentation Center. This was actually the 11th act of the First Congress, dating back to September 1st, 1789. 

However, to find ways that it can benefit your vessel, you do not have to go back several centuries. Documented vessels tend to have enhanced options in terms of vessel financing. Indeed, since 1920, preferred mortgages have been available for vessels with this form of documentation. 

With this certificate, a vessel will be admitted into particular coastwise trade and fisheries that would otherwise be restricted. Additionally, this increases the likelihood that the vessel can receive a preferred mortgage while providing irrefutable evidence of nationality for international purposes. 

USCG documentation expires one year after the date of issue. To be clear, it is not “one year after the vessel owner receives the Certificate of Documentation.” Rather, it expires one year after the date it was issued. The Certificate of Documentation must be renewed every year to stay valid. Services such as the Maritime Documentation Center can renew for up to five years in advance. 

The Coast Guard will send you a “Notice of Renewal” to the address that is on the documentation somewhere around 45 days (a month and a half) prior to the expiration deadline. If there is more than one owner of the vessel, this form will be sent to the managing owner. This is all the more reason to have the right address on file (or to submit a “Change of Address” form should the managing owner have moved). 

USCG documentation is important for vessel owners for different reasons. Not every vessel owner will need to get their vessel documented. However, many will find that they cannot use their vessel in the manner in which they intended without it. In some cases, the owner may choose to delete their documentation. 

For example, with some notable exceptions, vessels which are five net tons or more that engage in fisheries or coastwise trade on the navigable waters of the United States or certain marked Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) must be documented. 

For the purposes of vessel documentation, “EEZ” is an acronym for “Exclusive Economic Zone.” This refers to the “zone” that extends no more than 200 nautical miles from the United States’ territorial sea baseline. Within this area, the United States has jurisdiction over natural resources. 

A Certificate of Documentation grants the vessel access to these waters and fisheries. Additionally, vessels can carry charter fishing parties and other passengers. Salvage, dredging, towing, and similar activities within the waters are allowed as well. 

You may have heard the words “fisheries” and “Coastwise trade” used differently in other contexts. For the purposes of Coast Guard documentation, “Coastwise trade” tends to refer to the transportation of passengers and merchandise between the Exclusive Economic Zone and the United States. That includes vessels such as dredges and towboats as well. 

“Fisheries” tends to mean heading into the EEZ or United States’ navigable waters and catching, harvesting, storing, cultivating, processing, or even transporting fish, shellfish, vegetation, or marine animals. 

For these activities and others, vessels of more than five net tons, for the most part, must acquire USCG documentation. To qualify for this kind of documentation number, you have to be able to demonstrate that you own the vessel, your own U.S. citizenship, as well as the fact that you’re eligible for the endorsement you’re seeking. 

If you’re wondering exactly how long it takes to get your USCG documentation number, it’s different for just about every vessel. USCG documentation has no set processing timeline. Depending on their priorities, their staff, and their workload, the processing times can last from the span of a couple days to multiple months. 

Services such as the Maritime Documentation Center can help to expedite this process. With “rush processing,” they may be able to save vessel owners some time. A Coast Guard documentation number is not something that a person gets once for their vessel and then just has for the rest of the vessel’s life. Indeed, USCG documentation must be renewed annually. To not lose their documentation, vessel owners must renew their documentation before the deadline. That deadline is the date that the Certificate of Documentation was issued. 

Vessel documentation can be renewed online or by mail. Services such as the Maritime Documentation Center offer the option to renew documentation for multiple years at once, up to five years in the future. It is possible to renew USCG documentation earlier than the renewal deadline. Any documentation received more than sixty days before the expiration deadline will be issued with a new expiration deadline. Bear in mind: this will shorten the document’s period of validity. Any certificate that is received fewer than sixty days from expiration will keep the same deadline. 

To find a USCG documentation number, if possible, look on the vessel itself. The number will be preceded by the abbreviation “NO” and be somewhere on the interior of the hull. Should this not be possible, a search can be conducted online. If you have other information about the vessel, such as its name, HIN, or call sign, you can search here.  Unfortunately, vessel owners lose Certificates of Documentation often. If a vessel owner loses their Certificate of Documentation, it must be replaced. This is a different service than having a Certificate of Documentation renewed. The Certificate of Documentation has to be replaced and then renewed. 

Acquiring a Coast Guard documentation number is easier than some may realize. Coast Guard documentation can be obtained through the mail or online. The online system is more popular and tends to be faster. It is possible to transfer or change Coast Guard documentation in regards to the ownership of the vessel. 

Often, this is done due to someone selling the vessel, adding or removing their spouse, changing the managing owner, or transferring the vessel to another individual, trust, or company. 

This cannot be done if there is an outstanding mortgage on the vessel and the lender (mortgagee) declines to allow it. If the mortgage is satisfied or the lender (mortgagee) permits it, then the Certificate of Documentation can be transferred. This can be done through the mail or online. This is one service offered by the Maritime Documentation Center. 

One of the best ways to learn more about a documented vessel is to obtain an Abstract of Title. Should the vessel be documented, an Abstract of Title will contain the vessel’s entire history. If there are mortgages, whether or not they were satisfied; any liens placed against the vessel, the entire chain of ownership – that is just some of the history that an Abstract of Title will contain. 

There are certain vessels that, to look at them, one would think they absolutely would require a Coast Guard documentation number for operation. However, they are exempt. Not many vessels fit this bill, but some do. 

Vessels that are exempt from USCG documentation are those which do not operate on fisheries in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) or on United States’ navigable waters. Additionally, vessels that are non-self-propelled and used in coastwise trade on the rivers, within a harbor, or in a lake (with the exception of the Great Lakes). This is also true of canals or internal waters of any state. 

Furthermore, many vessels that are used as rapid response for oil spills do not need to have documentation (despite their size as well as where they operate). “Five net tons” is how much a vessel’s volume must be for it to require USCG documentation. “Tonnage,” in this context, does not measure “weight.” It measures volume. Specifically, it measures a water-going vessel’s internal volume. 

This volume is measured from the stern to the bow and the funnel to the keel. It’s meant to measure the parts that hold cargo. To that end, vessel areas that do not hold cargo (such as the crew’s space) are deducted. For another way to look at it, think of the “tonnage” as “where is the vessel useful?” 

If there is an area in the vessel where something can be transported, or where the vessel can be used in such a way as to make money, then that part is probably calculated within the tonnage. 

Due to the different shapes of vessels, their net tonnage will vary in how they are determined. For the most part, measurements of the length, breadth, and depth are utilized. A good rule of thumb: measure if the vessel is more than twenty-five feet in length. If so, it is almost invariably more than five net tons in volume. 

Even a documented vessel must comply with state jurisdiction. Any and all documented vessels are required to follow all of the laws of the state in which they are in. In some cases, documented vessels may be required to show that they have complied with state requirements through special decals. If state law enforcement requests a vessel’s documentation, it must be shown to them. 

It is important to remember that, even if a person does everything “right,” even if they get their Coast Guard documentation number and keep up with their documentation, it can expire. Your number does not update automatically. Unless, of course, you go through an online service that updates your documentation for you automatically. 

If a Certificate of Documentation has expired and a vessel owner still wants to renew it, they must apply for reinstatement. This is an entirely different form and process than renewal. If a vessel owner whose documentation has expired files for “renewal,” they will not receive valid documentation. 

After a vessel owner’s documentation has been reinstated, then their documentation is once again valid. From there, they will have to renew their documentation annually. 

To get your USCG vessel documentation back faster, go to the site of the Maritime Documentation Center. From there, fill out your form. Then, towards the bottom, select “Priority Request/Rush Processing.”  It’s important to note that there is actually more than one kind of Certificate of Documentation. 

The different kinds of Certificate of Documentation include those that endorse for recreation, registry, coastwise, or fishery. Vessels documented for “recreation” can be used solely for that purpose. However, all other documented vessels can be used for recreation.  “Coastwise” is used for coastwise trade, “fishery” is self-explanatory, and “registry” is typically used for foreign trade.