Contessa 26 Tech Notes

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"Bad Dog" vs. the Landlubberly Bureaucrats

by Dave Morgan

This is the story of one regular guy’s struggle with American bureaucracy…what we here commonly call “Big Government.” It has a somewhat happy ending ,but I learned several important lessons along the way. I’m sure that these lessons are generally applicable wherever you might be.

The process of preparing my Canadian-built Contessa 26, “Bad Dog,” for bluewater cruising has been long and sometimes arduous. For the last three-and-a-half years, I’ve been transforming what was a neglected and rundown boat that was hidden in a local boatyard, into a stout vessel that’s ready to take on the open ocean. I’ve still much to do, but if I wanted to, I could be ready to leave for Bermuda or other faraway destinations in a matter of days.
One necessary item for sailing to foreign shores is proper documentation. My guess is that the U.K. equivalent is what I’ve heard called “Full British Registry.” Here in the States, we have two levels of boat registration: State and Federal. State registration is honoured in all 50 states, but is considered insufficient elsewhere as proof of the vessel’s nationality. All U.S. recreational vessels are eligible for State registration, but only vessels of five net tons or greater can be documented with the U.S. Coast Guard. My boat was registered with the Commonwealth of Virginia. This is not about displacement. If it were, our 5,400-pound Contessa’s certainly would not qualify. Instead, it’s an arcane measure of cargo capacity, called admeasurement. Net Tonnage is a theoretical calculation of how many “tons” of cargo the vessel can carry, factoring in space for the engine. If there is no inboard engine, gross tonnage equals net tonnage.

I called the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Vessel Documentation Centre, and they sent me a packet of forms. Included was a form for “Simplified Measurement for Recreational Vessels.” So far, so good. Simplified Measurement allows many American recreational boat owners to measure their own vessels themselves, instead of paying hundreds of dollars to an organisation like the American Bureau of Shipping or Lloyd’s Register. I had no Builder’s Certificate, which would have been most valuable for this process. Sadly, J.J. Taylor and Sons, Ltd. has been out of business for a number of years now.

The form included some basic (I charitably prefer to use the word “vague”) instructions and drawings on how to measure a vessel. (They have since substantially improved the information that they send out.) Length and breadth are pretty straightforward. Depth is where the boobytraps lie for the Contessa 26. The U.S.C.G. sailboat admeasurement instructions included an alternative measurement for depth. Unclear to me was which formula to use. The normal formula measures from the top of the gunwale to the top of the keel, at or near amidships. The measurement on my boat is about 77 inches, or 6.4 feet slightly aft of amidships. This has to be measured in the bilge, just aft of the ballast. The alternative formula measures from the top of the gunwale to the bottom of the keel, again, at or near amidships, but is for sailboats only. My measurement of this at the preceding haulout was 78 inches, or 6.5 feet. The instructions and diagrams gave me the distinct impression that I had to use the alternative formula. Deciding to confirm that I would have no problem with this, I called the Documentation Centre, which is oddly located in the landlocked state of West Virginia because of a back-room political deal. I asked for the formula, but the lady who took my call said that she could not give it to me! She told me that all they do is enter the numbers into the computer, and that it spits out the answer! She then assured me that my 26 would have no problem qualifying for documentation… that they document plenty of 25 and 26-foot boats all the time. (Mistake #1: I took her word for it. Mistake #2: I did not write down her name, and the date and time of the call.) Feeling still a bit unsure of the process, and not wanting to waste the $133 filing fee, I called Contessa 26 Association member Ken Rich up in Canada to see if he knew the boat’s net tonnage. Ken told me that his Canadian-built CO26 is indeed a bit over five net tons, but that in Canada, you have to hire an admeasurer, who does it all for you. Feeling slightly more confident, I sent off the application and the money. A few weeks later, I received a thin envelope from the Documentation Centre… and you know what the thin envelope means!

In a letter that was terse even by bureaucratic standards, a documentation officer said that my vessel was not eligible, because it was not at least five net tons. I was dispirited and puzzled. I also got mad. I called the Documentation Centre, which referred me to an office in Washington, D.C. That office referred me to an office just across the river from me in Portsmouth, Virginia. That office in turn referred me to yet another office back in Washington! They also kept telling me that I would now have to get an “approved” surveyor to perform the admeasurement. I eventually discovered that “approved” meant the American Bureau of Shipping or Lloyd’s Register. I finally reached the U.S. Coast Guard’s Tonnage Admeasurer, who was uncommonly courteous and helpful. I could not believe that such a person could ever exist in the BIG and often impersonal United States Government!

Frank Perrini listened to my plight, asked me questions, and advised me that I had indeed used the wrong formula! He told me exactly how I should have measured the depth, and he even faxed me copies of the various formulae and the text of the regulations from the Federal Register. He also told me that I could resubmit my application without involving A.B.S. or Lloyd’s. Turns out, the formula that I had used (the alternative one for sailboats) includes a 75 percent coefficient that drops the net tonnage of a Contessa 26 down to about four net tons! The correct U.S. formula yields 6.12 gross tons, and 5.51 net tons for a Contessa 26 with an inboard engine.

Here are the correct U.S. formulae for a Contessa 26: Gross Tonnage = [0.5(Length X Breadth X Depth)] / 100.
Net Tonnage (Inboard Engine Only) = 0.9 X Gross Tonnage
Net Tonnage (Outboard Engine Only) = Gross Tonnage

I also enlisted the help of a local documentation service. At no charge, they advised me to get copies of Builder’s Certificates for other J.J. Taylor Contessa 26s, and then submit those with the second application as proof of dimensions. This I did with the help of the broker through whom I bought the boat, as well as fellow member Douglas Brown in Lexington, Virginia. Doug’s CO26 is U.S.C.G. documented. With the new application, I enclosed a detailed letter explaining the whole situation. I received an e-mail message from the Documentation Centre a few days later. It was from the same Documentation Officer who had turned me down originally. My heart sank with dread as I retrieved the message. Again, it was a short, terse message. This time, the officer demanded payment of $133 within two business days. Unsure of exactly what this meant, I called the officer, and she told me that prompt payment would indeed ensure that I would receive documentation.

That was fair enough, for my not doing enough homework originally. I also did not feel like fighting another battle with the U.S. Government, and $133 was much less than what the alternatives would have cost.
Lessons Learned:
1) Don’t assume that bureaucrats necessarily know what they are talking about. Do the necessary research, and be absolutely sure of the rules and how they apply to you before you submit an application. After all this was settled, I found the formulae in a book that I already had on the shelf!
2) Whenever you talk with bureaucrats over the phone, write down their names, and the dates and times of the calls, as well as exactly what they tell you.
3) Save all paperwork, including faxes and letters (sent and received).
4) Be persistent. As I found, there’s a chance that you will eventually come across someone in government who knows how to help, and is actually willing to help. There are indeed government employees who are friendly, helpful, caring and knowledgable. You just have to find them. When you do, be sure to thank them heartily. When a higher-ranking official gives you the information you need, don’t be afraid to “drop” his or her name to add clout to your case.
5) If all else fails, be ready to take your case to your M.P. or Congressman. Here in the States, Congressmen and women have large staffs to help constituents cut through the “red tape.” It’s a powerful re-election tool.
6) If you’re a Contessa 26 owner, belonging to the Association can really help, even if it’s just moral support. Encourage fellow Contessa owners who do not belong to consider joining.

(Many thanks to Association members Ken Rich and Douglas Brown for their kind assistance!)

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Contessa 26 Association Newsletter in 1998 and was sent to us by Peter de Jersey, Association Secretary. We thank him for his efforts in our behalf.


It appears that I with Dave Morgan’s help, I have stared down the U.S. Coast Guard!

You will recall that they refused my initial request for documentation of my Contessa on the grounds that it did not make the required 5 net tons. I protested knowing that other Contessas had been documented and pointed to the information that Dave supplied to me and wrote up in his Newsletter piece. After remeasuring the depth of the boat in the fashion that Dave
described, the Coasties agreed that they were incorrect in their first response. So Fairborne is now an officially documented U.S. Sailing Vessel! It is interesting to note that they classified her as 8 gross tons and 6 net tons.

Thanks to Dave again for his help in this process.

Newell Decker