Classification societies (also known as ‘class’ societies) make an important contribution to maritime safety. Their engineers and surveyors, who are experts in the technical aspects of yacht construction and maintenance, have two distinct but related roles.
The first is to research, establish and apply standards for the design, building and maintenance of trading ships and yachts. Known as the ‘rules’ of the society, these standards are highly detailed and technical and cover the strength and integrity of the yacht’s hull, engines and key safety systems, but not aesthetic or operational elements.
The experts’ second role is to perform much of the ‘statutory’ inspection work – required by international conventions – for smaller nations that maintain a registry for flagging yachts, but do not have sufficient expertise of their own.
Occasionally, flag states may insist on a yacht being classed by an approved society, irrespective of size or use
The two roles can overlap. If a flag state’s technical requirements are sufficiently similar to a society’s rules, that society could undertake limited classification and statutory compliance responsibilities during a vessel’s construction, which saves re-inventing the wheel. Further, under the rules of the society, the flag state administration may have to be informed if a yacht falls foul of the rules, which, in turn, may invalidate the flag state’s equipment and safety certificates.
Societies often offer additional consultancy services, going beyond basic classification, during building and refits. It is also possible to have even fairly modest yachts built according to class rules, which are usually higher than those imposed by law and can boost resale value.
Classification is voluntary, unless a flag state requires it, typically by virtue of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).
SOLAS demands that certain yachts be designed, constructed and maintained in compliance with the various requirements of a recognised society, or with the equivalent flag state requirements. This applies to yachts that undertake international passages on any sort of commercial basis, and which carry more than 12 guests, are of at least 500 gross tonnes, or both.
Occasionally, flag states may insist on a yacht being classed by an approved society, irrespective of size or use. In any event, classification is often needed to reassure any banks that hold security on the yacht and would otherwise have no way of ensuring that the asset is not depreciating excessively.
SOLAS demands that certain yachts be designed, constructed and maintained in compliance with the various requirements of a recognised society
Also, owners of larger yachts may also find it hard to obtain insurance at reasonable rates without classification. For the insurers’ peace of mind, policies commonly insist on the yacht being classed, and maintained ‘in class’, by a society agreed on by the underwriters, with all the experts’ recommendations being carried out as directed. If this is agreed to in the policy but then not adhered to, insurers could walk away without paying a penny in the event of a claim.
In fact, the societies were a product of the fledgling insurance industry. When this new sector was developing at the tables of Mr Lloyd’s coffee house in 18th-century London, it became apparent that the insurers’ knowledge of the ships they insured was less than perfect. As construction methods varied, the vessels were classed according to build quality and condition. The idea worked, and Lloyd’s Register was born. Insurance premiums could at last accurately reflect the risks, with higher build specifications and better maintenance being rewarded with lower premiums. Soon societies were being established around the world.