The ABCs of U.S. Vessel Documentation

If you are new to yacht ownership, the documentation process can be confusing, even if you’ve registered a motor vehicle before. There are marine-specific requirements that don’t have a counterpart in any other transaction you’ve engaged in, each with their own descriptions and deadlines.

To make things a bit simpler, we’ve listed some common terms in the vessel documentation process and explained their meaning.

Abstracts of Title

When a yacht is documented for the first time, the U.S. Coast Guard puts together an electronic index to record all transactions involving the vessel. Examples include:

  • Ownership transfers
  • Mortgages
  • Claims of lien
  • Changes to the name of the yacht

When you purchase a boat, always request an abstract of title, because potential complications such as lien claims do not appear on the Certificate of Documentation (see below).

Builder’s Certificate

A builder’s certificate is issued by the builder or manufacturer of a brand new vessel and serves as both evidence of build and an initial title document. In addition to identifying the first owner of the yacht, the certificate specifies:

  • Where the vessel was built
  • The origin of all parts used
  • The vessel specifications

Claim of Lien

A claim of lien is a legal right that someone else has in the yacht, usually as a result of having provided some uncompensated service or materials to it. A claim may be filed against any actively documented vessel, and when one appears on an abstract of title, most lenders will insist on it being dealt with before they will help you with financing.

Certificate of Documentation

Vessels that meet the requirements for U.S. Coast Guard documentation qualifications are issued a Certificate of Documentation. This document provides evidence of current ownership and nationality and indicates all activities that the boat may engage in. If there is a change in documentation status, such as the name of the vessel, a new owner, or new hailing port, an application for re-documentation must be submitted along with appropriate fees.

You must keep the Certificate on board whenever the boat is operational, and renew it annually.

Hull Identification Number (HIN)

A hull identification number is a unique series of 12 digits assigned by the manufacturer and marked on the hull of a vessel. It generally includes:

  • The Manufacturer’s Identification Code
  • The length of the boat
  • The internal hull number
  • The month and year
  • The model year

Boats manufactured or imported on or after August 1, 1984 have a duplicate secondary HIN placed in an unexposed location inside the vessel. Its purpose is to help authorities identify a boat if vandals or thieves damage or remove the primary HIN.


Some states, such as Florida, require a vessel to be registered by the state within 30 days of acquisition. Boat owners must submit proof of ownership, such as a:

  • Bill of sale
  • Manufacturer’s statement of origin
  • Builder’s Certificate
  • USCG Certificate of Documentation

In addition, the vessel must be titled with the state or “Documented with Coast Guard” in order to receive a registration certificate and stickers.

At Howard S. Reeder, our marine documentation division will simplify the entire process for you. We offer a wide range of registration and documentation services at both the domestic and foreign level, and can even assist with important duties such as lien searches, escrow services, and sales closing paperwork for your yacht or other marine vessel. For more information contact us today.

Howard S Reeder Inc