Vessel documentation is a national form of registration. It is one of the oldest functions of 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.
According to the Code of Federal Regulations, “any vessel of at least five net tons wholly owned by a citizen or citizens of the United States is eligible for documentation.” Vessels that are used for commercial purposes, foreign trade, and recreation are included.
Vessel documentation is required for any vessel that measures five net tons or more, is owned by an American citizen, and will be operated in certain trades, according to the Code of Federal Regulations.
A vessel must be documented if it will be used in fishing activities and/or coastwise trade on the navigable waters of the United States or the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Dredges, towboats, and vessels that conduct salvaging activities that operate in those same waters also must be documented.
“Net tonnage” measures a vessel’s volume. It does not measure a vessel’s weight (which is often also expressed in tons).
If a vessel is 26 feet or longer, then it most likely measures five net tons or more.
According to the United States Coast Guard, “net tonnage is a volumetric measure of a vessel’s useful capacity.” Parts of the vessel that do not hold cargo (such as the crew’s spaces and the like) do not count as part of a vessel’s net tonnage.
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.
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.
For USCG vessel documentation, verifying an applicant’s social security establishes citizenship. For documentation purposes, corporations, partnerships, and other entities capable of holding legal title may be deemed citizens in addition to individuals for the purposes of vessel documentation.
Evidence that a vessel was built in America is necessary for any vessel to be used in coastwise trade or fisheries according to GovInfo.
Cornell Law states that evidence may consist of a completed form CG-1261, or other original document containing the same information from a person who has personal knowledge of the facts of the build. This person may have constructed the vessel, supervised its actual construction, or is an officer/employee of the company which built the vessel and has examined the records of the company concerning the facts of the vessel’s build.
For vessels with a square bow, “the name of the vessel must be marked on some clearly visible exterior part of the bow in a manner to avoid obliteration. The name and hailing port must be marked on some clearly visible exterior part of the stern.”
These markings must be durable and “must be made in clearly legible letters of the Latin alphabet or Arabic or Roman numerals not less than four inches in height.”
Hailing port markings must include a place and a State, Territory, or possession of or in the United States. State abbreviations are acceptable.
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.
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.