US Coast Guard Vessel Documentation Q&A

I Have a Commercial Vessel. Can I Use It How I Want? 

Possibly. It depends on many different factors. Those factors include the commercial activities that you would use the vessel in, whether it was built in the United States or not, the net tonnage of the vessel, and other factors. 

What’s the Definition of “Coast Guard Documentation?” 

Simply explained, it’s the national form of vessel registration. Specifically, for the context of this company, it’s the one we use in the United States. This documentation is issued by the Coast Guard’s National Vessel Documentation Center and is evidenced by a Certificate of Documentation

How Long Has the United States Been Documenting Vessels? 

For a very long time. In fact, this was one of the very first functions of the federal government. Way back in the First Congress of September 1st, 1789, this was the 11th Act of Congress. Since then, vessels have been documented in the United States. 

What Can Documentation Do? 

It has many possible functions. For example, it facilities commerce between states. Coastwise trade and the fisheries are, in many cases, considered restricted trades which this documentation can allow access to. Moreover, documentation provides clear cut evidence of nationality. So, if you’re traveling internationally, this documentation can come in very handy. It can even make it easier to pay for your vessel, too. Preferred Mortgages on documented vessels have helped vessel financing for more than 80 years. 

So, If I Have a Commercial Vessel, It Has to Be Documented? 

Not necessarily. Whether or not you need to document your vessel depends quite a bit on the net tonnage of your vessel and which commercial activities you’re involved in. For example, to return to the earlier answer, if you’re using your vessel commercially in the fisheries or in coastwise trade in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) or on the navigable waters of the United States, then you need to get it documented. But, to go back to the size requirements, you do not have to do that if your vessel is less than five net tons. Vessels that have that measurement but don’t operate in United States coastwise trade or the fisheries in either the US or the EEZ have an exemption in regards to documentation.  If you have any further questions about how this works, we’ll be glad to answer them. 

What Does “Exclusive Economic Zone” and “EEZ” Mean? 

Think of it as the area around the United States where the US has jurisdiction over the natural resources. To define it, the EEZ reaches out 200 nautical miles (or less) from the territorial sea baseline of the United States. Now, as you know, 200 nautical miles is a great distance. If your vessel is going to be involved in coastwise trade there, then you may require documentation. 

Can You Define “Coastwise Trade?” 

For the most part, it refers to transporting passengers or merchandise, specifically between the EEZ, the United States, or the United States territorial sea. This is one of those things where you probably don’t want to “overthink” it. For example, charter fishing parties are included, as is carrying passengers, that sort of thing. Additionally: dredging, towing, and salvage are included, too. 

“The Fisheries” Is Just a Word for “Fishing,” Right? 

It’s more expensive than that. For the most part, “the fisheries” refers to catching, cultivating, storing, processing, harvesting, and even transporting (with the exemption of foreign commerce) fish, marine animals, shellfish, or vegetation on the EEZ or the United States’ navigable waters. One potentially confusing example: charter fishing. That would come under the heading of “coastwise trade” and not “fisheries” unless the catch were to be sold. 

Does It Matter Where My Vessel Was Built? 

Absolutely. While there are some narrow, limited exemptions, if you want to get into coastwise trade and the fisheries, then your documented vessel must be built in America. Even if your vessel doesn’t have to be documented due to the tonnage (or other exemption) it still has to be built in America. Specifically, that’s the case if you want it to get a “coastwise endorsement.” However, that’s not the case for a “fisheries” endorsement. Your vessel doesn’t have to be built in America, so long as the tonnage makes it excluded from documentation. 

There Have to Be Exceptions to This, Right? 

You’ll find as you learn more about documentation, there are often exemptions. Some vessels, for example, that were forfeited, captured, or even wrecked would be exempted. There’s also what’s called a “MARAD Waiver.” This is a way to engage in commercial business legally with a foreign-built vessel. However, you can’t carry more than twelve passengers for hire. In fact, you can get a MARAD Waiver even if your vessel was built in American but has an unknown or provable build. 

If I Document My Vessel, Am I Correct in Believing I’m Exempted from State Jurisdiction? 

That’s not the case. If you’re operating a documented vessel in a state, you have to comply with any and all laws of that state. Should you encounter state law enforcement personnel, you have to be able to show them the Certificate of Documentation, should they ask for it. You may even have to put on some state decals, saying that you’ve complied with their requirements. In some states, it’s actually necessary to register even a documented vessel. 

How Do I Determine Whether or Not My Vessel is the Right Size for Documentation? 

Measure the net tonnage. 

What Exactly is Net Tonnage? 

While it may not be as familiar as “weight,” or “length,” net tonnage is defined as “the volumetric measure of a vessel’s useful capacity.” It’s important to note that, despite the word “tonnage,” which contains “ton,” which we in America tend to associate with “weight,” rather, this is a measurement of volume. Of course, like so many other measurements, depending on where you are in the world, there may be a different measurement system for net tonnage. 

“Different Measurement Systems?” Is This Like “Metric” vs. “Standard?” 

Somewhat. The formal measurements, (often referred to as “dual” or “standard”) are complex. With a number of measurements, deductions, exemptions, and more, it’s possible to find exactly what the tonnage of your vessel is. However, that’s the kind of thing that a vessel owner rarely does themselves, as most, if they go that route, decide to pay a professional for it.

However, that is a workaround that you can avail yourself of. See how long your vessel is. If it’s more than 25 feet long, then it will almost assuredly measure five net tons or more. If it’s 25 feet long, it might, it might not, it could be on the line, but if it’s more than 25 feet, you probably have a vessel eligible for (or requiring) documentation. 

Where Did We Ever Come Up With “Tonnage?” 

As you might imagine, the concept of “tonnage” isn’t something that someone came up with in the last few years. We mentioned earlier how vessel documentation was the 11th act of the First Congress. Well, using tonnage for tax purposes was the subject of the 3rd and 5th Acts of the First Congress. 

The actual origin of tonnage goes back even further than that. Rather, historians trace it back to some time in the beginning of the middle ages. Transporting wine was important but also difficult. So, as tonnage measures the “volumetric measure of a vessel’s useful capacity,” it could help quite a bit. The casks and barrels that wine was typically transported in were called “tuns.” 

As time went on, people in charge needed to know how much wine a vessel could carry. So, measuring the carrying capacity of a vessel in “tons” rose to prominence. For the most part, these “tons” were about 100 cubic feet. As you’ve probably put together, that’s about the size of a barrel or cask. 

My Vessel is the Right Size, But I’m Not Going to Use it in Coastwise Trade or the Fisheries. Do I Still Need to Document It? 

Possibly. “Coastwise” and “Fisheries” are just two of the endorsements that you could get for your vessel. Many instead get “Registry” or “Recreation” endorsements. “Registry” may sound a bit odd, but that’s the one to get if you’re taking your vessel internationally. Should you be interested in foreign trade, that very well could be the proper endorsement. By that same token, “Recreation” is what it sounds like: you are able to use your vessel for recreation. You can’t use it commercially. Of course, you can use any vessel for “recreation.” But, a vessel with that particular endorsement can have no other use. 

What’s the Point of Getting a “Recreation” Endorsement?

For one, it could help you to get financing. Depending on the state you’re in, there may be additional savings on your taxes as well.  For some, it’s an aesthetic thing. You don’t have to show the official numbers on the side of your hull. Instead, you can identify them just by the nailing port or the name. You do need to mark the official number, of course, you just put it inside the vessel. 

Speaking of the Name, are There Any Rules in Regards to That? 

Yes. It can’t be something obscene, indecent, profane, an epithet, and so forth. A good rule of thumb to follow: remember, you’re going to be associated with this name. When people see you on this boat, they’ll associate it with you. So, you want to pick a name that isn’t going to be an embarrassment or, leave you open to embarrassment. On top of that, you can’t use something that’s the same as any word or words used to solicit assistance on the water. That’s true for phonetics as well. However, you can use a name that someone else has. There can be several vessels with the same name. As vessels’ identification also includes hailing ports, you can pick the name that you like best. 

That’s Quite a Few Rules. Can I Change the Name if I Don’t Like It?

Absolutely. It is possible to change a documented vessel’s name, but that’s actually a different form. You must file one of those forms and we make it easy to do so. Whenever you decide to change the name of your vessel, we’ve got you covered. 

Once I’ve Gotten this Certificate of Documentation, I’m Good, Right? 

Yes. But, it’s important to remember that the documentation does not last forever. It only lasts for a year. After one year, it has to be renewed. If you don’t, then the registration expires. If you want to use the vessel how you were, you have to go through the “reinstatement” process, which is not dissimilar to the “initial documentation” process. Of course, most vessel owners prefer to avoid that at all costs. So, they renew it annually. We can help.