Government officers clarify policies for yachts in U.S. waters

Nov 21, 2016 by Dorie Cox

The rules for yachts and crew in U.S. waters can all be found in written regulations, but there are often questions as to interpretation. To clarify topics such as U.S. cruising licenses and travel to Cuba, the Marine Industries Association of South Florida invited experts to a panel during the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show in November. The question-and-answer session included officials of the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection / U.S Department of Homeland Security.


“Cuba is not as complex of an issue from the Coast Guard point anymore,” USCG Cmdr. Bradley Clare said. “We don’t have any offshore condition of entry requirement for vessels coming from Cuba. So as long as you are in compliance with all federal requirements, we’ll be treating you as we do for any other port in the Caribbean. You need to have your Notice of Arrival requirements and are potentially subject to Port State Control inspection.”

“For these yacht exams, we are concentrating on foreign-flagged vessels that are 300 gross tons,” USCG Lt. Clark Sanford said. “A high percentage of the yachts we are doing exams on are following the regulations and have all the documentation onboard. We are looking at life-saving appliances, fire-fighting, that the vessel is manned properly, and that the people that are piloting and maintaining these boats are doing just that and know what to do in the case of emergency situations.

“We’re off the boat in a couple hours and realistically we’re doing about two exams a week,” Lt. Sanford said. “We don’t have the personnel to do as many as we would like to do. Realistically our goal is two yachts per week and that’s not a lot for the yachting capital of the world. We have cruise ships and tank ships and only a handful of people that can do these exams. Our goal is just to have safety for navigation and pollution.”

Questions from the audience raised these topics:

USCG: “When we get Notice of Arrival of foreign-flagged, over 300gt, we vet these vessels and make sure they have COFR, [Certificate of Financial Responsibility], vessel response plan sometimes, documents. With most of these yachts we look up in our system to find information on them and we have none. Either we have never reached out or the vessel has not come to the U.S.”

Q. It is hard to send all this documentation to the government email system.

USCG: “Application is a lot of information and our system is ancient. You have to fax, send in CD or bring in person. The problem is, from a national standpoint, they cap the size of each email and that’s not going to change.”

“If you know a vessel is coming here, yes, send documents. The more notice and the more information ahead of time, that really would help us. We’ll respond, ‘well received.’ It’s frustrating that we ask for this information saying that we may come out, but we might not get there for months. We apologize on behalf of the Coast Guard, but we are doing our best right now.”

Q. Can we use something like Dropbox with digital files?

USCG: “I believe Dropbox links would work.”

Cruising license

“In general, if you’re a foreign-flagged vessel coming in and going to request a cruising license, the regulations state that you may be eligible for up to one year to receive a license to cruise in the waters of the United States,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection Supervisory CBP Officer Yolanda Santos said. “We have gotten pushback because a lot of these laws were written in the 1960s before any of this happened.”

Back then, a 40-foot boat was popular. Today, that’s a tender. No one expected the industry to explode like this, Officer Santos said.

“We are now enforcing these laws as written,” she said. “Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do to change the way they were written. We’re trying to be as reasonable as we can.

“As long as the vessel is not for sale, not going to be for charter and not going to be in the boat show, then you become eligible,” Officer Santos said. “We have an application and ask all those questions.”

Q. Explain the reporting requirements.

“Once you get the cruising license, you don’t have to come into the port system for U.S. Coast Guard,” Officer Santos said. “But you still have to report arrival for immigration purposes. The reason people want the cruising license is you no longer have to come into the port of entry and make a formal entry or get a permit to proceed from port to port.”

Not all countries are eligible, for example Malta, she said.

“You’re not eligible for a cruising license,” she said. “In that case, then you make your formal entry, leave your registry on deposit, and we give you a certificate for it.”

If not eligible for a cruising permit, when the yacht comes back in, it must request a permit to proceed, make formal arrival again and surrender the document again.

“At each point you have to come in and make a formal entrance and follow clearance procedures.”

Q. If for sale in Europe but not in the U.S., can the yacht get a cruising license?

“We will issue if it is really cruising,” Officer Santos said. “If you come to us and say that’s what you’re going to do, we’re going to take you at your word.”

Q. If the cruising permit is issued here, does it limit you to ports in Florida?

“We understand you may want to go somewhere else. The cruising license isn’t going to restrict you in that manner. That’s why many put down ‘Florida ports and East Coast’. We’re not trying to make it seem as if we’ll have a GPS tracking you, but we do want to know,” Officer Santos said. “The regulation does state you need to file a float plan, but it technically allows you into any port in the United States.”

Q. If the vessel needs maintenance where’s the line for commerce versus cruising?

“We don’t look at is as commerce, per say, that’s a misconception,” Officer Santos said. “We have people say we’re going to do a little maintenance for a couple of weeks and then cruise for six months. We issue the cruising license in that case. But the other case is ‘can we dry dock for several months or do a retrofit?’ At that point we ask the person to come back [after the refit] and request the cruising license.”

Q. What are the penalties?

“These days, we wouldn’t have anywhere to put these boats,” Officer Santos said. “It is a written penalty for the value of the boat.”

Q. When and why are you enforcing now?

“Pretty much about a year-and-a-half ago,” Officer Santos said.”We had an audit and someone was talking about the different enforcement policies in other ports. Turns out, other ports are enforcing float plans and limits on the cruising license, and we were deficient in that area. In order to bring us into uniformity in that area, to make sure we’re all applying the law in the same way, that’s why we have to care.”

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at


About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is a writer with Triton News.

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