From Sea to Shining Sea

How a new law makes it easier to register your yacht with a U.S. flag.

yacht us flag registration
Before the legal change, large-yacht owners wanting to fly “Old Glory” faced tough hurdles. Some pursued Acts of Congress.iStock.com/JNemchinova

In 1920, u.s. lawmakers decided a yacht was a vessel with a volume no greater than 300 gross tons. Anything more, and the vessel had to register commercially — and adhere to standards more befitting a tugboat than a pleasure craft.

Ever since, precious few superyacht owners have flown “Old Glory.” A handful pursued Acts of Congress to get the flag for their yachts, but the general rule remained.

That changed in August, with a new law designed to bring U.S. code in line with modern yacht construction and use, much as Britain’s LY3 code does there.

“It’s really exciting,” U.S. Superyacht Association President Kitty McGowan said in September, adding that she’d received five calls in a single week from owners wanting to fly the U.S. flag.

The law gives the U.S. Coast Guard until late 2019 to finalize the new regulations, McGowan says. For now, yachts that meet LY3 standards can get the U.S. flag. Going forward, she says, details will be set for everything from U.S. crew requirements to chartering possibilities.

In achieving the change, McGowan credits Tilman J. Fertitta, star of the TV show Billion Dollar Buyer and owner of the Houston Rockets as well as Landry’s restaurants. He could have focused on his own yacht, but instead helped the association, which had been working on the issue for a decade, clear a legislative path for all yacht owners — in just three months.

“It took a phone call to the speaker of the house and a couple other majority leaders, and that was it,” she says. “When you get a motivated owner working together with the industry, what you can make happen is unfathomable.”