By ‘documentation' we mean the issuance to a vessel by the competent authorities
of a State of a document evidencing the vessel's nationality and attesting to her
right to fly the national flag of that State. Although registration and documentation
generally go hand in hand, this is not always the case and the two concepts
should not be confused: for registration generally involves the recognition and
protection of the shipowner's title to the vessel and the rights of mortgagees as
well as the conferment of nationality; documentation, on the other hand, is chiefly
concerned with granting entitlement to fly the national flag.
For example, when a vessel is first enrolled on the Panamanian flag, she is issued
with a document known as a patente provisional de navegación (temporary navigation
licence), generally by a Panamanian consular authority. This document, which
entitles the vessel to fly the Panamanian flag for a period of up to six months, may
be issued in respect of suitably qualified ships without any requirement for production
of definitive evidence of the owner's title to the vessel (e.g. an original bill of
sale or builder's certificate) and the recording of that title in the Panamanian public
registry; the latter formality may take place at any time before expiration of the
provisional patente. It is only at this stage, when the owner's title is perfected, that
security interests, such as mortgages, over the vessel may be definitively registered.
In so-called ‘dual registry' situations, which arise when a vessel registered in one
State receives entitlement to fly the flag of another State on the basis of a bareboat
charter arrangement with suitably qualified persons in the latter State, the distinction
between documentation and registration becomes crucial. This situation will
be discussed below.
It is necessary to make the following points when distinguishing documentation
• although registration is often a precondition to the right to fly a particular
flag, this is not invariably so. Documentation, however, is the only allowable
evidence of the right to fly a flag, without which there can be no recognition
on the high seas or in a port State of the national character of a ship;
• registration generally involves ascertainment of the owner's title to the vessel and
the recognition and protection of other rights in rem in the ship, for example
Registration is therefore evidence, generally conclusive, of title; documentation
does not evidence title, merely national character.