March 7, 2013

A little piece of the USA

IF YOU’RE PLANNING to go foreign from America, most countries you sail to will require you to have a passport. Your boat needs one, too, and the best kind is a documentation certificate from the U.S. Coast Guard.

A U.S.-documented boat has privileges. Under international law, she is a piece of the United States, and therefore not to be trifled with. Documentation affords her the protection of U.S. consular officials anywhere in the world. She also earns the right to fly the special Yacht Ensign in home waters (but, incidentally, not in foreign waters, where Old Glory must be flown).

Federal documentation legally establishes both her ownership and her nationality beyond a doubt. It’s true that plenty of U.S. vessels with nothing more than state registration have sailed around the world, but the recognized and accepted standard (when a boat is big enough) is U.S. Coast Guard documentation. State registration is not legal proof of nationality even though it’s accepted for convenience in America’s neighboring countries.

The minimum volume for documentation is 5 tons net, and for practical purposes in this case the Coast Guard measures net tons as 9/10 of gross tons. That translates to a heavy-displacement vessel of about 25 feet, or a moderate-displacement craft of about 30 feet in length. A Cape Dory 25-footer I once owned just made it for documentation purposes.

If you’re the sort of person who worries about these things, a documented vessel is safer to buy because her certificate must reflect all liens, mortgages, and liabilities against her. And because a vessel’s debts follow  her around the world, not the owner, it’s possible for an unscrupulous seller to saddle you with large unseen and unpaid debts if the boat is not documented. Caveat sailor.

Today’s Thought
The sea finds out everything you did wrong.
— Francis Stokes

An attractive woman playing bridge with three men felt a foot run up and down her calf.
“If that’s my husband,” she said calmly, “I bid three no trumps. If it’s anyone else, I bid you watch out for my husband.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Allan S said...

Up here in Kanada, with the proper registration, the Queen of England owns a little bit of the boat. Same deal. BTW, enjoyed your book "Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Started Sailing" Best bathroom reader ever. Oh, being a bathroom reader in my household is no insult. Only the best gets a repository there!

Anonymous said...

So let's say you want to own an "offshore asset" -- a boat beyond the jurisdiction of US courts and greedy ex-wives. Would not documenting it protect it from US jurisdiction? How would you prove your ownership if you bought it overseas and never registered it anywhere ? Is a bill of sale sufficient ?

John Vigor said...

Dear Anon: I'm afraid I'm not qualified to give you advice you seek. You need a sea lawyer with experience of greedy ex-wives. But many big ships ply their trade under "flags of convenience" such as the Bahamas or Liberia because their safety and maintenance requirements are less strict than those of the United States. But even if you bought and registered a boat in an overseas country and never brought it to the USA, I'm still not sure it wouldn't be regarded as a shareable asset. It would surely depend on any ante-nuptial agreement as well as the particular laws of the state where you were bethrothed. Sorry, that's the best I can do.

John V.

Anonymous said...

Sidestepping the issue of jurisdiction. If you just want to buy a boat overseas (Caribbean, Med. or South Pacific etc.) and continue sailing from country to country in that area. How do you go about establishing your ownership? Do you have to register it anywhere ? Can you get it documented in the US without physically bringing it all the way back to the US ?

John Vigor said...

Dear Anon:

Call the National Vessel Documentation Center. I'm told they're very friendly and helpful.

John V.

Anonymous said...

And its free :) my 22'er just made the cut.