By Bob Booth - Warwick, Rhode Island - USA

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By the late 70’s I had completed some eleven years of active duty military service, was newly divorced and grappling with being a single parent, getting reestablished in the civilian sector, following the labor market from SC to RI, and eventually getting remarried.  It wasn’t until the 80’s, a decade which found me happily up to my neck in old wood, that I could seriously get back to boats--an ancient Malabar Jr. followed by Wiano Sr. followed by Rosborough Brigantine, followed by a Crocker ketch, all stuck together with dreams of a new construction school-ship dancing in my head.

Interspersed between the boats were the formation of a non-profit outreach program and the incorporation of my boat shop.  Then came the 90’s: the economic downturns, no more work coming into the boat shop, my wife’s cancer, embezzlement of funds by the then president of the non-profit and the general loss of dreams. 

The 90’s however passed; I picked up work at Concordia on WallyGator, freelanced as shipwright on the Bounty, got picked up by Raytheon for some submarine work due to my previous naval background, moved off the Crocker (home for some five years while the storms of life raged overhead) and bought a house with detached double car garage (aka boat shop). Boats again became a thing of dreams, albeit, little ones. 

My years in the non-profit and as licensed skipper had seen the development of inclining tests, stability calculations, school ship documentation, commercial ship documentation; many dealings with a variety of Coast Guard offices and living inside the Code Of Federal Regulation.  Too, my years in repair, restoration, and sawdust had taught me the care of building new vessels. Throughout all I had kept my beloved library on boat building: Chappelle, Stewart, Gardner, Simmons, Culler, Gudgeon Brothers, Hill and Oughtred among others; all extolling the creation of small craft—usually traditional, sometimes regional, all of wood in its various forms.

Now I have reached the age when people begin worrying about pending retirement—thinking that knocking out a boat now and then in my spare time might help make ends meet and establish a hobby to keep me busy in later life...

Then along came a miniscule 85 pound 9’ 8” rowing skiff sporting a napkin sprits’l bringing with it brouhaha the likes of which none of these books or experiences had prepared me—the Tetra.

Before going further, I need to digress slightly lest I give an improper view of things.  Actually what came along were two vessels, well the plans for two (o.k. o.k. many sets of plans—but ultimately two which I decided to build).  The first was the Selway-Fisher Islay Skiff; a 16’ double ender of either lug or gaff-cutter rig, and the second was the Tetra.  The Tetra all along was intended as the means to the Islay.  I had enough “disposable” income to purchase the materials for a Tetra but not an Islay.  I did however have time on the weekends, which could be put to good advantage.   Therefore, the Tetra became a “spec” boat with which to demonstrate my building abilities and secondly to fund an Islay Skiff.   I talked this over with Tetra’s designer, Steve Redmond and had a gentleman’s licensing agreement for follow-on hulls.  The stage, as they say, was set.

Boats unfold at a pace all their own.  I knocked together the molds & jig in the fall of 2006, got the transom, inner stem, and chine logs hung and put things away.  Winter found me sail making, spring involved in readying Sea Minor (10’ Cape Dory) for sale and subsequently getting an antique Blue Jay in the water.  Summer of course was spent messing about IN boats.  Thus it wasn’t until Columbus Day weekend 2007 that the Tetra again rose to the surface.  Skipping ahead to January 2008, the Tetra is fitting out: hull structure complete, trunk installed, thwarts and mast partner going in.  Time had come to think about marketing and PAPERWORK.  Enter the brouhaha.

In Rhode Island, where I live, the Department of Environmental Management Office of Boat Registration & Licensing is the place for boat-associated paperwork.  Their web site lists everything needed to register a newly purchased boat.  Unfortunately it also completely neglects home building.  “Questions—e-mail us.”  I did.

In my honesty and, I suppose, naivety, within the body of that e-mail I mentioned my intention to sell the boat—little did I suspect I would soon be entering unfathomable Federal waters. 

You know those little number things molded into the transoms of plastic boats—the Hull Identification Number?  EVERY boat built in the U.S. of A is required by federal law to have one.  For homebuilders I refer to Title 33: Navigation and Navigable Waters Part 181—Manufacturer Requirements.  Here four key things are important to know/remember:

  • First:  181.3 Definitions: “Boat means any vessel—(1) Manufactured or used primarily for noncommercial use”; “Manufacturer means any person engaged in: (1) the manufacture, construction, or assembly of boats...”
  • Second: 181.23 Hull identification numbers required (b) “ A person who builds or imports a boat for his or her own use and not for the purposes of sale, must identify that boat with two hull identification numbers that meet the requirements of this subpart:
  • Third: 181.31 Manufacturer identification code assignment (c) “persons who are required to identify boats under 181.23(b) must obtain the required hull identification number from the State Boating law Administrator of the State where the boat will be principally used, or, if the State Boating law Administrator does not assign these numbers, from the Coast Guard District office in the area of principal use.
  • Forth: 181.29 Hull identification number display—Two identical hull identification numbers are required to be displayed on each boat hull.
    • (a) The primary hull identification number must be affixed—
      • (1) On boats with transoms, to the starboard outboard side of the transom within two inches of the top of the transom, gunwale, or hull/deck joint, whichever is lowest.
      • (2) On boats without transoms or on boats on which it would be impractical to use the transom, to the starboard outboard side of the hull, aft, within one foot of the stern and within two inches of the top of the hull side, gunwale or hull/deck joint, whichever is lowest.
      • (3) On catamarans and pontoon boats which have readily replaceable hulls, to the aft crossbeam within one foot of the starboard hull attachment.
      • (4) If the hull identification number would not be visible, because of rails, fittings, or other accessories, the number must be affixed as near as possible to the location specified in paragraph (a) of this section.
    • (b) The duplicate hull identification number must be affixed in an unexposed location on the interior of the boat or beneath a fitting or item of hardware.
    • (c) Each hull identification number must be carved, burned, stamped, embossed, molded, bonded, or otherwise permanently affixed to the boat so that alteration, removal, or replacement would be obvious. If the number is on a separate plate, the plate must be fastened in such a manner that its removal would normally cause some scarring of or damage to the surrounding hull area. A hull identification number must not be attached to parts of the boat that are removable.
    • (d) The characters of each hull identification number must be no less than one-fourth of an inch high.

Back to Rhode Island for a second:  On the phone, DEM readily stated that they did not title boats of 14’ or less, but were less forthcoming on the topic of registration—even providing a fee table on their web site indicating boats down to 0’ were applicable. However, with some digging on state sites I found that canoes, kayaks, rowboats of 12’ or less or boats used primarily for racing were exceptions to the registration requirement. 

I asked Dan McCormick of the Coast Guard’s Recreational Boating Product Assurance Branch if such a minimum length requirement applied to the Hull Identification Number.  The answer was no, accompanied with a copy of the Title 33 Part 181 requirements.

Ok, as to the Tetra.  Remember I mentioned my intention to sell the boat.  Such intention precludes me from falling under the homebuilder criteria.  RI DEM informed me I required a Manufacturer’s Identification Code (MIC) in order to (1) originate a Hull Identification Number and (2) prepare a Statement of Origin (initial title) and referred me to the Coast Guard.  (This is how I first met Dan McCormick—and I must say he has been a most pleasant person to deal with.)

The MIC request must be made in writing on the applicable form to the Coast Guard Recreational Boating Product Assurance Branch.  Said form requires identification of company name, State of incorporation, Business License, and design/model information—in other words you MUST be a formally established and licensed business in the State in which you intend to build boats (according to Dan this does not mandate you be incorporated—you must be a formal licensed entity).

Spare time building for me means knocking out a boat every couple years.  If one boat, such as the Islay Skiff, happens to be a keeper, then perhaps four years between sales.  Not exactly your rip roaring business.  In my days of running an incorporated business/boat shop I was subject to taxes on my tools, taxes on inventory, “voluntary” contributions to state and local law enforcement programs—“the cruiser will come by to pick it up...” at 2:30 in the morning outside my shop door. 

Of course there are other legalities applicable to non-homebuilders associated with Part 181:  labels, tags, certifications etc. but these are minor when compared to the formalities of establishing and maintaining a formal business entity even if it resides solely on paper.

So home builder beware, perhaps it once was better to seek forgiveness than permission and ignorance was bliss, but RI DEM Office of Boat Registration & Licensing has a slogan, “No Numbers, No Papers” and the Coast Guard is no longer with the Department of Transportation.  They are now with Homeland Security.

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