There are many reasons you might want to know who owns a boat.
Maybe you found a boat adrift, maybe you would like to speak with a current owner of a boat that you are considering, or maybe a boat has been damaged and you need to speak to the owner.
Whatever the reason, finding the owner of a boat is fairly straight forward if you use some common sense and know a few identifying features.
In this article, we will look at a few ways of finding a boat’s owner and point you in the right direction:
What are the Ways to Identify a Boat?
The first step in identifying the owner is to identify the boat. Boats have many identifying features including registration numbers, names, and hull identification numbers(HIN). The most visible feature will be the name or registration number.
Documented vessels, normally found on navigable waters like oceans, large rivers, or the Great Lakes, are usually larger(at least 5-ton displacement) and are federally registered.
They are identified at a distance by their name, which will be on the stern in at least 4-inch block letters. Most will have the name on either side of the bow above the waterline as well, although this is not required for recreational vessels.
The home port of the vessel is included below the name on the stern. These boats will also have a registration number posted in their cabins, however, this number will probably not be visible without boarding the craft.
Finding the HIN:
In the United States, if the vessel is not a named vessel, most motor-driven craft and sailboats will have a registration number on the bow.
This number will be a combination of numbers and letters following the format XX 1234 XX. The first two letters will usually be the state abbreviation. The numbers and following letters are unique to the boat.
The one absolute way to identify a boat is by the Hull Identification Number(HIN).
Since 1972, boats manufactured in the U.S. must have a permanently affixed HIN. The number is normally found on the stern or lower corner of the transom on the outside.
HINs have a format dictated by law. They are 12 characters long and include both letters and numbers. The first three characters will be the manufacturer’s identification code or the importer designation. The next five digits will be a serial number assigned by the manufacturer and cannot include the letters I, O, or Q.
The ninth character will be a letter corresponding to a month. “A” for January, “B” for February, and so on to December. The tenth digit corresponds to the last digit of the year of manufacture or certification.
The last two numbers are the model year of the vessel, so a HIN ending in 21 will be the model year 2021.
If there is no registration number, name, or HIN, then things get tricky. If you live in a state where motors are titled, then you have a chance of finding the owner through the serial number of the motor. If the boat is trailered, you might also be able to use the trailer serial number or tag number.
How do you find the owner of a boat?
First, it is important to note that boats, marinas, and docks are private property and trespassing is illegal.
If you are just curious about the type or model of boat, call a dealer or broker who deals with that type of boat. It is their job to answer questions and they will be more than happy to help.
Otherwise, it is best to wait until the owner is present and strike up a conversation.
If the boat is at a marina, you can ask the patrons or employees, and chances are someone will know to whom the boat belongs. For boats at private docks, never approach the property owner from the water unless there has been an accident or other emergency.
If you find a lost boat, there has been property damage, or you suspect a boat is stolen it is best to alert the authorities.
Smugglers often use stolen boats and, in the U.S., you never know if someone is armed. If you want to find the owner yourself, then you can try an online search of the HIN. You can also try the state office responsible for issuing registration numbers, but they are unlikely to give out personal contact information.
How Do I Check a VIN Number on a Boat?
As previously mentioned, boats have a unique identification number called a Hull Identification Number(HIN).
Boats do not have a VIN. HINs are normally located aft on the stern or transom and will be permanently affixed to the hull.
What do I Use the HIN for on a boat?
HINs are a way to identify a boat, like a serial number.
HINs will be on any manufacturing certificates, titles, registrations, or federal documents associated with the boat. You can use the number to check and see if the boat is stolen or if any other problems have been reported.
To find information about a particular HIN you can use an online service or check with local authorities.
Will the Owner’s Name Always be Attached to a Boat?
In almost all cases, yes.
There may be a few unusual instances when a boat will not have the actual owner listed, but these are rare.
Homemade boats, small human-powered craft like canoes and kayaks, and government-owned boats may not have a specific owner listed or have no documentation at all.
What do I do if I find a Loose Boat?
If you find a boat loose, secure it before you look for the owner.
If there is a marina nearby, start there. If not, report the vessel to local authorities and they will locate the owner.
How do I Know if a Boat has Been Stolen at Some Point?
The best way to know if a boat is stolen is to use an online search service or call the state office responsible for registering and titling boats.
Many online options are available.
Always call the last state where the boat was registered if possible as states may not always share information.
Finding the Rightful Owner
When in doubt, alert the authorities.
Otherwise, local marinas, online search services, and state registration offices may be able to help.
Remember to use caution when approaching someone on private property and never board a vessel without permission.
We hope you have gained an understanding of how to find a boat’s owner.
Be respectful, exercise caution, and always strive to find the rightful owner and you will be successful.
Be safe out there!
Morten is the founder of GoDownsize. He has filmed and interviewed people living in tiny houses and RVs since 2011. He grew up on the coast where his dad took him boating from a young age. He has completely rebuilt two RVs in which he travels with his family for months at the time. Read more about Morten here.