For most American superyacht owners, flying the US Flag from the transom of their yacht is not an option. Despite the patriotic desire to fly the Stars and Stripes, foreign Flags administrations (The Cayman Islands, The Marshall Islands or Malta for example) have made running superyachts under their administration much simpler for owners.

But recently, one American yacht owner with a deep sense of commitment to his US heritage decided to explore what it would take to get his privately-operated yacht, Freedom, a 46m, 497gt Northern Marine (formerly Bella Bri) sailing under the US Flag.

46m Freedom

The owner sought the help of naval engineering firm Murray & Associates. “First we looked at tonnage-reduction techniques to see whether we could get her under the 300gt threshold but it just wasn’t possible,” explained Drew Hains, a naval architect and the company’s vice president who took on the project personally. “So we had to accept that she was going to need to be an inspected vessel, and we were going to have to work with the US Coast Guard.”

“It had always been assumed that US yachts over 300gt simply were not eligible under normal procedures to fly the US Flag,” said Katie Tulip, the yacht’s ISM & ISPS manager who at the time was working with Water’s Edge Consulting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but is now independent. “Drew Hains figured it out and helped us all see how it is possible. It says clearly in the regulations that yachts over 300gt can be flagged if they undergo an inspection. So just like any other Flag, a superyacht under the US Flag has to be surveyed, inspected and certified as safe. The issue is that the US Coast Guard simply does not have an inspection booklet for yachts. They only do commercial and military vessels. The culture is not there; it hasn’t ever been done.”

Before the owner purchased the yacht, Hains sat down with him and explained that getting the yacht flagged in the US could take a year or more and that there would be a lot of arguments with the Coast Guard. But this didn’t faze the owner.

Freedom had already met requirements set by the Cayman Island Flag administration, so Freedom’s owner and his team submitted all their research and source documents to the US Coast Guard for their consideration. However, the request took time to process due to the unfamiliarity of such a case.

“The Coast Guard asked us to compare their rules with that of ABS and the MCA code and provide them with an analysis they could use to assess what we were asking for,” Hains said. “Eventually, the Office of Commercial Vessel Compliance at the Coast Guard in Washington D.C. agreed that the ABS rules could be taken as equivalent to their own rules. So they finally came and inspected the yacht.” 

Tulip oversaw all of the reporting on regulatory requirements like fire fighting equipment, life saving appliances, drills, crew licensing, class certificates, MARPOL certificates, ISM certificates, oil pollution certificates. This involved contacting all of the branches of the US Coast Guard that deal with these different components. “None of the contacts at these departments had ever heard of a private yacht applying for their approval,” Tulip said. “But we got it done.”

For most of 2013, Hains, Tulip and Freedom’s Captain, Dan Corcoran fed the US Coast Guard information, verification, photographs and documentation to demonstrate that the yacht met or exceeded every stipulation of the US shipping code. In the end, it worked.

“The Coast Guard’s civilian inspector in Miami, Paul Bates, gets a lot of credit for helping this happen,” Hains said. “He took the time to explain to the Coast Guard that Freedom is a safe vessel and that getting her flagged American was a worthwhile project. If we hadn’t had his support, it wouldn’t have gotten off the ground.”

Throughout, Freedom’s Captain Corcoran acted as the liaison between the owner Hains, Tulip, the ABS and the Coast Guard. “The day we flew the flag, we all had a big ‘hooray!’,” Corcoran said. “It was a huge accomplishment. Drew, Katie and everyone involved really made this happen.”

But the experience has helped Corcoran conclude other owners and captains shouldn’t have to do the same thing. He explains that the US Coast Guard needs to help American yacht owners who want to Flag in the US avoid this extended, onerous process to get there. “The simple thing to do—and I think it would be great for US business—would be to rewrite the rules and lift the inspection threshold to 500gt,” Corcoran suggested.

Indeed that is exactly what the US Superyacht Association (USSA) is working on. The case of Freedom has given the USSA a shining example of an American owner who insisted that he would do what it took to be able to fly the US Flag over the transom. The USSA is in discussion with lawmakers in Washington and the Coast Guard to plot a way forward.

“The more yachts we put US Flags on, the better it is for our country,” Hains said. “I cannot stand the news articles that come out around election time here in the States that point and shame when an American politician is found to have attended a fundraiser on a Cayman flagged yacht. If anyone really understood what it took to put a US Flag on a yacht, they wouldn’t laugh.”