Flags and Red Tape

Now that the design details are sorted out and construction is progressing, we have to work out the details needed to launch Wildling and take her out on the water. It turns out you can’t just buy a boat in a foreign country and go sailing, that would be way too easy. There are a bunch of international and local rules and regulations that have to be satisfied:

1. A vessel that is sailed internationally has to have a nationality. It’s like a person traveling outside their home country. Without a passport, you won’t get very far. Boats are the same, but unlike people, boats don’t have to take the nationality of their country of birth, so we get to choose a nationality for Wildling. The process of assigning a nationality is called registration or flagging, and Wildling will be an Australian flagged vessel.


2. All vessels should carry an EPIRB distress beacon that will send a distress signal to search and rescue services in case of an emergency. EPIRBs need to be registered with the rescue authorities so they know which boat is sending the message. This is pretty simple, we just have to fill out some forms.


3. An ocean going vessel should carry a DSC equipped radio transceiver capable of broadcasting a digitally encoded distress message, and an AIS transceiver capable of broadcasting and receiving GPS coordinates and information about the vessel. These systems are used to locate and alert nearby ships in the case of an emergency and to avoid collisions. They need to have what’s known as an MSSI number, which is a unique code that identifies the vessel. The boat has to be registered before an MSSI can be issued.

The power of AIS. This is a radar plot of what's surrounding the vessel. The triangles are the AIS signals for the other vessels in the area. The readout gives their location, course and speed and whether there is danger of a collision.

The power of AIS! This is a radar plot of what’s surrounding the boat. The triangles are the AIS signals from other vessels in the area, overlaid on the radar plot. The readout gives their location, course and speed and whether there is danger of a collision. You can see the radar can’t detect the vessels behind the land mass in the middle of the screen, but AIS can show us their exact position.

4. When traveling offshore it’s recommended to carry two types of radio communications equipment. A VHF radio, which is standard for all ships, and provides line of sight communications up to about 50 miles, and an HF radio, which is not required, but highly recommended as it allows for long distance radio communication from 50 to several thousand miles. In most countries an operators license is required for both of these radios. In addition, if you carry an HF radio, you need a special ships station license and call sign for the radio. In Australia, you need a radio operators license, and a registered vessel, before you can apply for a ship station license.

5. Most countries require some kind of driver’s license for the person in command of the boat. The USA does not require this for pleasure craft, but Australia does, and so do most of the European countries surrounding the Mediterranean sea.


The most complicated item on the list is to register Wildling so she can travel internationally. Our last boat was flagged as an American vessel, which worked real well for us. We never had any trouble with customs or immigrations in any of the foreign ports we visited, and it helped us meet a lot of great people when we were cruising. Since we now live in Australia, and we plan on bringing Wildling home to Brisbane at some point, we will be registering her as an Australian flagged vessel. Traveling under Australian nationality is about the same as American, in that it’s pretty well accepted everywhere.

The only downside to Australian registration is that the process is much more complicated and expensive than when we did it in America. We can’t complete the application until the boat is finished and ownership is transferred to us, so we will be getting everything ready to go in the meantime.

Next on the list is to get an Australian marine radio operators license. Getting a license requires passing a theory exam and demonstrating the correct use of marine radio equipment and emergency procedures. You don’t need one of these in the USA, but you do in Australia (are you seeing a pattern here?) Once I have a license, and a registered boat, I can apply for an MMSI and a ship station license. Even though we won’t be operating a radio in Australia for a while, because we have Australian registration we have to get an Australian radio license and MMSI number.

Lastly, I need to get a boat driver’s license (or whatever it’s called). Once again, this isn’t needed for an American pleasure boat, but when sailing in Europe, many ports need to see your license when you arrive, so having an Australian one will give me something to show them, and I will need it when we return to Australia. This requires a training course, followed by a practical and theory exam.

At least all of these study courses, forms and exams will keep me occupied while we’re waiting to go sailing!

One thought on “Flags and Red Tape

  1. I’m really heart-warmed that Wildling is going to be an Australian.
    Typical about the Australian red tape and expense.

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