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Boat Relicensing Has Become More Complicated for Some Owners

The Coast Guard is enforcing new standards that require many boat owners around the nation to get new hull identification numbers, or HINs, for their boats. A HIN is the nautical version of the vehicle identification number, or the VIN, on a car or truck. So says Gary Brookshire, the service manager at Tobler Marine in Hayden, Idaho.

“It’s pretty much the same idea as a motor vehicle is being able to tie that unique serial number on a boat for the hull identification number, or the HIN number, to the registered owner of the boat,” Brookshire said.

It’s the way for authorities to make sure vessels are licensed properly and not stolen. The HIN is assigned to each boat by the manufacturer. It’s usually posted on the back right side. And in case that’s not legible, the number is also posted inside somewhere. It’s not the same number you see on the boat’s front hull.

“The number on the front of the boat, depending on what state it’s from, is the registration number for the boat issued by the state, which is much like a license plate on a car,” he said.

Licensing agencies in both states have sent notice to boat owners that their HINs may not match what’s in the government records.

“For example, it could be a letter or a number that’s been transposed or, somewhere along the line, if a number in the HIN number was actually an eight and it’s been recorded as a three,” Brookshire said.

So how do you figure out if you need a new HIN?

“Take a photo or a rubbing of your hull identification number and come see one of the licensing offices. It’s possible that your hull number is fine, but the record is wrong in the computer system and we’ve had quite a few of those,” said Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton, who is in charge of boat licensing in her county.

If the numbers don’t match, boat owners may need a new HIN. Most won’t be affected, which means they’ve been able to or will be able to relicense their boats without any extra effort. But licensing officials in Washington estimate 19,000 boat owners will have to do that extra work. We don’t have a similar estimate for Idaho.

Brookshire says, because Idaho boat licenses went into effect the first of the year, the Gem State’s licensing agency, the Department of Parks and Recreation, has already been dealing with this.

“It’s been, I would say, overwhelming for them at some times, dealing with the number of boat owners because that information has to be exchanged between the boat owner and Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation prior to us being able to issue a renewal,” he said.

Because Washington’s boat licensing calendar is different, Dalton says boat owners in Spokane are just starting to show up in her office with their notification letters.

“We’re getting the entire spectrum of reaction, from people who just shrug their shoulders and say, ‘oh, well, ok’, to the more common reaction of ‘how am I supposed to get this done? What am I supposed to use?’, Dalton said. "That’s what’s really causing the issues for the boat owners. It’s not the fact they have to get a new paperwork and a new number. The issue for boat owners is having to put that new number onto their hull.”

Some people are calling the dealers where they bought their boats to get that information, people such as Dan Conrath from Spokane Valley Marine.

“I’m actually working on getting little metal tags, like our manufacturers use, and then some way to stamp numbers in them as well,” Conrath said.

And then owners can post the tags with the new numbers on their boats. The Washington Department of Licensing has issued instructions on its website for how to do that.

When you’re out with your boat this spring or summer, authorities such as Spokane County Sheriff’s Deputy James Ebel will be checking to make sure you have the right HIN.

“Anytime that we do an inspection, whether it’s at the boat ramp or on the water, we’re going to write down that hull identification number and confirm with the registration paperwork that that matches,” Ebel said.

He won’t necessarily write you a ticket if you haven’t taken care of that.

“Every case is going to be different, but for the most part, we just want to be able to help people out and try to get this frustrating process over with,” he said.

Auditor Vicky Dalton is urging boat owners who have received their letter from the Department of Licensing to take care of the issue now, before they get on the water and get stopped.