A fog of regulation
Documented boats sail into troubled waters in Florida
You’ve finally crossed the border into Florida after more than 700 statute miles of Intracoastal Waterway cruising and your mind begins to wander to thoughts of that upcoming Gulf Stream crossing to the Bahamas. But, your daydream is suddenly cut short when a marine patrol boat with blue flashing lights blasts up alongside and the uniformed officer waves at you to stop for a check of your papers and an inspection. Welcome to Florida!
All too often this scenario is repeated in Florida as boaters find that the combination of popular winter cruising grounds, numerous law enforcement agencies with boats, and confusing laws and regulations create scofflaws out of even the most button-downed cruisers.
Some of the least understood aspects of Florida boating law are the rules for reciprocity for visiting out-of-state boats. With thousands of transient boats passing through every year you would think the laws would be well-known and clear.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Many boaters, with their craft legally registered in their home state, pass through with no issues. The state-issued numbers on your bow along with the dated registration sticker provide clear evidence your boat is licensed and legal.
However, if your boat is documented with the U.S. Coast Guard, the water gets murkier. First, it is very important to keep in mind that the words “registered” and “documented” mean two very different things in the U.S. The loose use of these terms has lead to much confusion in the boating world.
Almost all cruising-sized boats in every state in the U.S. must be at least state “registered.” This is a process organized and controlled by the state, and in many states includes the requirement to obtain a title for the boat, much like most of us have to do when registering an automobile. The boat is issued numbers that must be shown on either side of the bow along with one or more state-issued registration stickers that indicate an expiration date.
Many owners of cruising boats longer than about 26 feet have the option of instead getting a U.S. Coast Guard issued “document” that acts as both the legal title to the boat and its license to ply the waters of the world. Documented boats are assigned an official number, but pleasure vessels do not need to show this number on the exterior of the boat. The only markings required of a documented pleasure boat are a properly sized and lettered boat name and hailing port on the stern of the boat. The hailing port can be any officially recognized place name within the USA, and must be accompanied by the name of the state or its abbreviation. You can choose anyplace you want, regardless of your address or where you keep the boat most of the time.
A USCG document is recognized throughout the world as the legal license a U.S. boater should be carrying and therefore is considered the gold standard when asked for your papers. Theoretically, the document should also be recognized in all 50 U.S. states, just as it is in the rest of the world, but sadly that is not always the case.
Some states, like Florida, require you to state register your boat even if it is also documented. Needless to say, this generates some fairly significant fees for the state and the counties that issue the paperwork. By federal law documented boats that are also state registered are not required to show the numbers on the bow, but they are required to display the registration sticker in the location on the bow just as with a state-registered boat.
There are also many states that do not require a documented boat to get state registration, and may not even allow it. On the U.S. East Coast these states include Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
Documented boats based in one of these states will not have the bow numbers or bow stickers that indicate a state-registered vessel, and it is quite obvious to law enforcement that they are not registered. But, there must be some sort of reciprocity in Florida, right? Of course there is. Florida’s enormous boating tourism industry dictates the commonly found 90-day reciprocity for out-of-state boats, but there is one huge catch. The law does not grant such reciprocity for boats that are only USCG documented with no state registration. See the sidebar for the full text of the law, and keep in mind the legal definitions of “registered” and “documented.”
Now, many of you will jump to the conclusion that item 2 in this law grants the 90-day reciprocity to USCG documented vessels, but this clause only adds to the confusion. Item 2 was included because in the past some states, including Alaska and New Hampshire, did not have their own state boat registration systems. In those states, in the past, the Coast Guard handled the assignment of numbers to boats, but it was not the same as USCG documentation.
In any case, the operative clause for documented boats is 3, and it is fairly clear. Documented vessels must have “a valid registration in full force and effect from another state” in order to operate in Florida. Many incredulous cruisers find this statute hard to believe, so they may want to check out the website of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the lead agency for on-the-water law enforcement in Florida. See the sidebar for an explanation from the FWC website. The second to last bullet point in the sidebar spells out Florida law on this in plain language.
To confirm this I recently contacted Capt. Tom Shipp of the FWC, Department of Law Enforcement, Boating and Waterways, and he reinforced this interpretation of the law with the following statement: “A vessel, federally documented or not, that is not covered by a registration from another state or by the USCG in a state without a federally approved numbering system, is not provided that 90-day reciprocity time and would need to register with DHSMV.”
Okay, so we need to register our documented boats, but where? Inconveniently for most boaters, it must be done in person in one of Florida’s county tax collector offices, meaning you will technically be in violation of the law if you wait to do this until you and your boat are in Florida. Boaters report that most law enforcement officers give a warning ticket and allow you to register in Florida within two weeks.
But the problems don’t stop there. Of course there is a fee. For boats from 26 feet to less than 40 feet the annual state fee is $85 with an optional county fee of $39.13, and for boats from 40 feet to less than 65 feet it is $134.50 with an optional county fee of $63.88. Transient boaters from out of state might be surprised to discover that the registration form (HSMV 87244) for a non-titled vessel requires you to list the “owner’s street address in Florida.” This item is labeled “mandatory.” So, what is a transient boater, with no address in Florida, supposed to do? My guess is that some tax offices might let you get away with listing a marina address where you are staying overnight, but I am uncertain of that. Failing that, you might be able to use the address of a friend or relative in the county where you are registering. If possible, choose a county that does not tack on the optional fees.
Note too that if your boat is less than six months old you may be liable for sales or use tax. Be careful about that one if you come from a no-tax state like New Hampshire, Rhode Island, or Delaware. The exceptions to owing the sales and use tax are listed in the sidebar.
One thing that is crystal clear is that many tax collectors, law enforcement officers, boat brokers, marina operators, and fellow boaters are not properly informed about the details of Florida law. And whatever you do, don’t depend on the advice from some Internet forum! Before heading to Florida, check official state websites for the latest rules and regulations, and print out and carry copies of the applicable laws on your boat. Unfortunately, you may very well need to pull out this material and your check book in order to sail the warm waters of the state.
John J. Kettlewell, along with his wife, Leslie, is the author of the Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook: Norfolk to Miami.
328.58 Reciprocity of nonresident or alien vessels.
The owner of any vessel already covered by a registration number in full force and effect, which has been awarded by:
1. Another state pursuant to a federally approved numbering system of another state;
2. The United States Coast Guard in a state without a federally approved numbering system; or
3. The United States Coast Guard for a federally documented vessel with a valid registration in full force and effect from another state, shall record the number with the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles prior to operating, using, or storing the vessel on the waters of this state in excess of the 90-day reciprocity period provided for in this chapter. Such recordation shall be pursuant to the procedure required for the award of an original registration number, except that no additional or substitute registration number shall be issued if the vessel owner maintains the previously awarded registration number in full force and effect.
• All vessels, with the exception of non-motor-powered vessels less than 16 feet in length, non-motor-powered canoes, kayaks, racing shells or rowing sculls, regardless of length, must be registered through your local Tax Collector’s Office.
• Letters must be separated from the numbers by a hyphen or space equal to letter width.
• The Certificate of Registration must be on board and available for inspection by an enforcement officer whenever the vessel is operated.
• Vessels must be registered and numbered within 30 days of purchase.
• Registration numbers must be displayed on the forward half of the vessel on both sides above the waterline.
• The numbers must be bold block letters at least three inches high in a color contrasting to the hull.
• The vessel registration decal must be renewed annually and is to be displayed within six inches of, either before or after, the registration numbers on the port (left) side.
• Documented vessels without a state registration in full force and effect must also obtain a Florida registration and display the validation decal on the port side of the vessel when using Florida waters.
• Also see: www.flhsmv.gov/dmv/faqboat.html