Visionaries’ Vessel ID System

Imagine, as an F&I or other marine industry professional, having access to a nationwide database of recreational boats through a link on your desktop computer (or PDA for that matter).

Within the 17 million or so records are details that can expedite a decision on making a loan or extending insurance to a consumer, whether to take a pre-owned boat in trade, identify an outstanding yard bill unpaid by a previous owner, or verify that an outboard motor attached to a particular boat is the property of the boat owner. Bottom line: better, faster decisions with increased security for all involved parties.

Having these and other details would be a boon to lenders, dealers and brokers, insurance agents, and anyone else providing service to boating consumers. The data could provide new boat manufacturers, marketers, boat listing providers and industry analysts with information on the chain of ownership events that occurred with a particular boat, the geographic movement of boats and prolific demographic information that they yearn for. In addition, state and federal government agencies would have necessary law enforcement and security data to identify and track troublemakers.

Is it a dream? No. But to become reality, or for certain portions of the data to become available to the marine community, action is needed now. The timing is such because the U.S. Coast Guard, which is charged with development of a recreational Vessel Identification System, is moving to bring together all state boat registration records in a single place. The primary impetus is to enhance Homeland Security. They believe a searchable database will help them identify a boat that might be on a terrorist mission, much like the U.S.S. Cole disaster, or aiming to torch a harbor-based liquid natural gas terminal.

That is a lofty and worthwhile goal for law enforcement, but the history of Congress’ intentions for VIS suggests many other uses for such a national boat database. Language in the law (P.L. 100-710 which created Chapter 125 of Title 46 U.S.C.) directed the Secretary (when passed, the Coast Guard was under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation) to make the registration data available to the states first. It then clarified that the Secretary “may make available information in the system to others, under conditions the Secretary may prescribe.”

Congressional authors (members of the Coast Guard & Maritime Transportation Committee) were explicit in their goals for the use of VIS data: “However, the Committee firmly expects that information will be made available through computer terminals in satellite offices or direct computer access by modem. In this manner, boating organizations or financial or documentation services could retrieve data without paper transactions for a fee.”

When features of VIS were being identified and in attempts to design a working prototype, it was a great collaboration of well-meaning volunteers from the marine and lending industries, state boating law agents, admiralty attorneys, Coast Guard personnel who worked with the states and those responsible for the Documented Vessel data center, and providers of data services. Perhaps they tried to build too much into the system, but the benefits were visionary and continue to have high value today.

Participants from the original collaborative group should be reconnecting and establishing a focus to assist in the enabling of VIS. They should be thinking of ways to inject useful information into the system. Lenders, for example, should consider offering to populate records with information on outstanding loans. Marinas and yards might provide details on outstanding liens. New boat builders could offer HIN numbers to initiate records as product moves out of the plant and heads for retailers.

Incorporation and management of disparate databases – and related costs – have always been a stumbling block for VIS. A Government Accounting Office report issued in 2002 basically said the effort to establish the system had failed and funds were squandered. But the benefit of national security has afforded VIS a priceless dimension since it was first envisioned more than 15 years ago. Significant strides have also been made in data management over that period, so some of the difficulties of merging useful information into one neat place have likely been reduced over time.

VIS will be invaluable if it gives federal and state authorities the information they need to thwart a single terrorist plan. It can also be a remarkable repository of recreational boating data to expedite and secure boating transactions that help tens of millions of Americans get on the water to briefly escape their fears of a terrorized world or other daily cares.

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