Documentation versus registration

Coast Guard HITN 300x169 - Documentation versus registrationCommercial vessels of 5 or more net tons operating in US waters must be documented by the Coast Guard. With respect to recreational vessels, it is an option. What’s the difference between registration by a state and documentation, and what if any are the advantages of documentation?

Registration: Federal law requires any undocumented vessel equipped with machinery (engine) to be numbered in the state in which it is principally operated. There is also a requirement for barges of 100 gross tons to be numbered, but this is outside of this discussion which will deal only with recreational vessels,

States administer their own registration or numbering systems, but in Alaska, it is performed by the Coast Guard. When I bought my first boat (a 27 footer) some thirty or so years ago,

I had to search the records of the nearby states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania to determine if the boat I was buying was encumbered in any way — bank loans, etc. Fortunately, my company’s legal department was available to me to accomplish this task.

Since the boat I was buying was undocumented, all I had was the seller’s word that he owned the boat. In those days boats were not titled, so proof of ownership was difficult.

Had the boat been documented, there would have been no question of ownership, but all he had was a New Jersey registration which did not prove ownership. All that one had to do in those days was show up at the registration office, tell the clerk the size of the boat, whether it was sail or power and pay the fee. It was merely a revenue generating function.

Years ago, New Jersey (and most other states) passed a more meaningful registration law. Boats were now to be titled. The problem was that requirements for proof of ownership to obtain a title for a boat were quite fuzzy. First, the people at the Motor Vehicle Bureau didn’t understand what was required, and, thus, procedures to prove ownership were extremely lax.

To obtain my title, all I had to produce was the registration, and this, of course, was not proof of ownership. The clerk asked for a bill of sale. All I had was one that was handwritten. This could have been a forgery, of course. Title requirements have since been strengthened and, thus, a title is now more meaningful.

Ah! but what if the title I obtained at that time was not legitimate? If you bought my boat relying on this title, you really didn’t know if I actually owned the boat and if it was unencumbered.

Tracing ownership of older vessels that were not documented is still a problem. Documentation, on the other hand is like money in the bank. Documented vessels have what amounts to a title that follows the vessel from birth to death.

This is why lenders insist on larger vessels being documented. Documentation begins with a “Carpenters Certificate” when a new boat is first transferred to a dealer. This certificate describes the boat and indicates the HIN (Hull Identification Number).

Smaller new boats (under 5 gross tons) such as runabouts are now titled by the state, and that title is similar to that of an automobile. If you buy such a boat, this is the best assurance you have of true ownership, since it cannot be documented.
Gross tons is not a weight measurement, but one of volume, and generally a boat 25 or 26 feet in length might meet this criterion.

Since lenders are likely to insist that a larger boat be documented, the question is how to do it. You can do it yourself or have one of the companies that perform this service do it for several hundred dollars.

When I financed my first boat, the bank insisted that I have a company that they worked with document my boat at a cost of $375. I balked and told them that they could not require me to use this company and that I would do it myself. When they continued to insist, I cited law dealing with ‘tie-in” sales.

They relented, and a trip to the Coast Guard Documentation Division, which at that time was at the Battery in Manhattan, with the necessary papers, including the “Carpenter Certificate,” accomplished my goal. I think the fee at that time was $35, and is now $133. Doing it yourself will save hundreds of dollars.

Documenting a new boat is not difficult, and the folks at the Coast Guard are very helpful. For a previously documented vessel, a change of ownership must be made on the document, and the Coasties will guide you. If a seller can produce up-to-date documentation, there is little doubt of ownership.

The documentation certificate must be renewed each year, and the Coast Guard sends you a notice prior to expiration. There is no fee for renewal. You receive a notice of renewal, certify its correctness, sign and return it by mail. There are serious fines, however, for failing to notify the Coast Guard of any loans, etc. you might have on a boat. Follow the rules and it’s like a title to your house.

Another advantage of documentation is that it makes customs entry and clearance easier in U.S. and foreign ports. It is treated as a form of national registration that clearly identifies the nationality of the vessel.

When you receive your documentation number, the number must be carved into the main structure of the boat or affixed so as to make its removal or alteration difficult. Many skippers fiberglass a plaque with the number into the bilge or another area. On my current boat, I have also used a waterproof magic marker to inscribe it in a location that no thief would ever find.

The name and hailing port (where the boat was documented or your hometown) must be marked on the exterior of the hull (generally the transom) in legible block letters no less than 4″ in height. Remember, even if your boat is documented, it still will have to be registered. You do not, however, display the registration numbers on your hull at the bow as required for vessels registered but not documented.

If you want to document your boat or learn more about it, contact the Coast Guard Documentation Office through the link on our squadron website. The Documentation Center is now in Falling River, West Virginia. Go to

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