How to Protect Vessel Documentation and Other VIP (Very Important Papers)

protect vessel documentation

Even a Floating Home Needs an Office

We all need some kind of home office where we can work on and keep track of the bits of paper that flow in and out of our lives. We need a place to keep the laptop and its peripherals. Some offices are large, some offices are small, some offices fit in a backpack and travel around the world. Since Sunshine is our home, every document that would normally be in our house has to be stored here aboard the boat. And our primary concern is how to protect vessel documentation.

Storing documentation and all the other important papers has been a challenge. Not because we have too many of them, on the contrary, we’ve done a pretty good job paring down to the absolute requirements. What’s been difficult is finding a way to keep the ones we need organized and safe in the marine environment. An environment not always kind to paper.

Worst case scenario is of course sinking. Maybe we’re just picky, but we’d like all the documents that prove who we are and what we own to survive a dousing in sea water.

My Office Aboard Sunshine.

boat office and paper storage how to protect vessel documentation

My office consists of:

  • The dining table
  • Two expandable files on an easily accessible shelf. (I find accessibility is key to keeping records organized. If I have to dig, I create ungodly piles instead of order.) One is for the current year’s receipts, and one is for boat items – purchases and repairs to the physical vessel.
  • A basket that holds files and binders full of projects and papers that I’m actively working on.
  • A plastic box for stored papers – checks, business cards etc. that I keep under the forward berth.

And one last item:

  • A big, bulky dry bag full of our very important papers.

blue dry bag

It’s a rudimentary system but I’ve been relatively happy with it. Except for that dry bag. It’s never performed the way I’d like.

Protecting Important Papers in the Marine Environment

There’s nothing wrong with the bag itself. An Outdoor Research Lightweight Dry Sack, it’s a great product. Tough, waterproof and easy to use. We use dry bags for many things and couldn’t live aboard without them. This one has kept our critical papers safe and dry for a couple of years.

But it’s really not cut out for this particular job. The fabric is slippery, the contents are always shifting around, it’s way too big, the buckle and roll take up far too much room. It doesn’t stack well. Because it doesn’t really fit anywhere, this shapeless blob gets shunted around the boat. The papers inside it take a beating. We’re always looking for a place it will stay put, not be in the way, yet be easily accessed.

The dry bag was a stop gap measure. I pressed it into service when I was wrestling with the problem of how to protect vessel documentation. Sunshine is a documented vessel, which means she’s certified through the US Coast Guard. We’re required to keep a copy of her paperwork on board at all times ready to show to officials at a moment’s notice. Like your car’s registration.

I searched everywhere for a watertight box or bag for documents. Something purpose built, something that fit better, something not so bulky. In my mind’s eye I envisioned the ideal solution – a flat, clear plastic pouch, big enough so that documents didn’t have to be folded, completely waterproof, yet easy to open, sleek and simple. But I couldn’t find that perfect product.

The remaining option was a waterproof box. Pelican Cases makes some beauties for cameras, computers and other pricey hardware. But they’re too much for my needs right now.

I could get a big one and keep everything that needs to be waterproof in it – the camera, computer, paperwork, and other electronics. But everything in one big bin is inconvenient. When I need to produce my documentation for a Coast Guard inspector, I don’t want to have to dig through, or unload everything else. If I need to take the camera ashore, I don’t want to have to haul the whole case full of stuff with me.

Though Pelican doesn’t make anything specifically for paperwork, a few of their cases could work. For those who have a lot of documents to secure, the 1560 Waterproof Case would be a good choice.

I searched marine stores, outdoor outfitters and hardware stores for over a year. Every now and then I’d run across a box or a bag that seemed perfect, and every time it was too small, forcing me to crush, roll or fold the papers. Finally I gave up, shoved the papers in the dry bag and got on with business.

And then, as so often happens, when I was looking the other way, along came the perfect solution. OPSAK Storage Bags.

OPSAK is perfect for keeping all your important papers safe and dry


The OPSAK is like an overgrown ZipLoc bag, but made of sturdier plastic. It has a heavy duty locking seal. Nice clear plastic, so the documentation certificate won’t even have to be taken out to be shown to officials. Perfect.

The OPSAK comes in packs of two or more, depending on size. I got two of the 12″ x 20″ size and immediately put our documentation folder in one and our tax and bank records in the other. The 12″ x 20″ will fit letter size, legal size and even some oversize documents.

opsak big ziploc

docs in opsak

Best of all, the two envelopes full of my documentation and other important papers now easily fit into my plastic storage bin. And the bin slides back onto the stack under the bunk for safe stowage, yet easy access. Finally, all my paperwork can be stored in one tidy, stackable container. That’s just what I was looking for.

opsaks in plastic box

OPSAK specifications

Also, I’ll rest better now, knowing that my papers will never attract bears.

That’s a joke. OPSAK was originally developed to keep the odor of a hiker’s food from attracting bears in the wilderness. But turns out, it’s also the answer to the age old question of how to protect vessel documentation at sea. Just one of those happy accidents.

OPSAK, and sister product LOKSAK, come in lots of sizes. There’s a style to protect everything from a small cellphone to large electronics. Highly recommended.

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