By John K. Fulweiler

You can’t always buy yourself peace and no matter the class or purchased privileged, there’s only so much privacy available. I was mulling this as I watched him pass his tumbler of Scotch from one hand to the other, angle a hip against the seating ahead of me and ask: “So I heard you earlier in the lounge. You’re a maritime lawyer, right?”

The way it was we were up high and the first service had already gone around and the little half-moon bar they had on this transatlantic heavy was on its second pouring.  Guests, including this boardroom type, were socially lubricated and ready to chat.

He unfolded the issue in the well-oiled way someone who’s used to people listening do. It was a vessel ownership dispute and I pirouetted around providing legal advice by deferring to the contract. Conveniently, neither of us had the contract handy. He wasn’t so much interested then and something shiny and shrill at the bar top distracted him. I heard boardroom laugh loudest at his own joke just before I donned headphones. Against the tim-tam beat of Biggie Smalls’ crime-rhyming (to poach from Public Enemy), I considered how much of the maritime law floats about like flotsam and jetsam. Maybe it was the depleted oxygen of air travel at 37,000 feet, but I pondered why I hadn’t written a book and gotten it all “sorted” as the Brits say.

Biggie gave way to Chopin (‘cause I’m a rounded sort) and I slept to his nocturnes in the melancholy of a B-flat minor. (It’s a civilized way to exit should the aluminum eggshell burst.) When we landed, we stood in customs and sleepy-eyed boardroom was close enough to pitch me another salty query. “So, here’s one,” he begins like this was Hollywood Squares and I’m keening for another question. “I hit a navigational aid last summer. Punched the stuffing out of it and the damn thing sank! Now I got a letter from the Guard saying I’m supposed to go to hearing next month. What’s that about?”

I answered because the line was long. I told him the Coast Guard wouldn’t have been happy and that there’s a regulation speaking to such a situation. He didn’t have a pen and tried to type the regulation into his phone. “It’s 46 C.F.R. § 4.05-20,” I repeated.  “It says the person in charge of the vessel shall report the collision to the nearest Officer in Charge at the Marine Inspection Office.”

It was a Disney-like line where it snakes back and forth and so when we got near each other again he was a little more somber. “Sounds like you know this stuff. Trust me, I’m just making small talk, but what’s the advantages of documenting a vessel? My brother-in-law; he’s always on me about this issue.” If it hadn’t been for a family missing a child’s passport and a customs agent on lunch break, I wouldn’t have had time to explain, but as it was I got a chance to unfold the big issues.

I told him that vessel documentation goes back to the First Act of the Eleventh Congress and it’s the only way to provide a good outline of a vessel’s ownership history. “That’s important if you’re trying to sell your boat or you’re trying to get financing to buy a boat,” I said. “Plus, in some states documenting your vessel may relieve you of having to register it with the state. Then, of course, there’s the whole foreign thing. Trying to clear in and out of foreign countries with just a state registration can be tough, I’ve heard.”

He was nodding and the line was beginning to move again. “So if I document my boat does that cover my tender too?” he asked. I told him I didn’t think it did and he’d probably need to comply with the state law on that issue. I had to talk louder because he was moving away. “Remember,” I sort of hollered, “Not every vessel can be documented. Check with a documentation specialist, but I recall only a vessel greater than five net tons can be documented and that’s measured on the cargo carrying volume, not the weight.” He nodded and tossed me an arm in a parting wave of appreciation.

That exchange got me thinking about how maybe if you want to really know the way something is, you need to ask the person on the ground or, in my case, at the water’s edge. Or, to put it differently, if you don’t know, now you know.

This article is provided for your general information, is not legal opinion and should not be relied upon. Always seek legal counsel to understand your rights and remedies.

Underway and making way.

John K. Fulweiler, Esq. is a licensed captain and a Proctor-In-Admiralty. His legal practice is devoted to maritime law and he represents individuals and marine businesses throughout the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. He does not represent insurance companies. He may be reached anytime at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293), or at his Newport, Rhode Island desk at 401-667-0977 or

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