Classification: Statutory certification explained

20 January 2015 • Written by Frances and Michael Howorth
Farewell, a SouthernWind 100 Deck Saloon, was registered in Italy with restricted charter for 60 nautical miles offshore

Is certification an unnecessary complication, the costs and hassle of which far outweigh the benefits, or a helpful and reassuring framework which sets the highest standards for structural and operational safety and safeguards life, property and the sea environment?

No one could possibly deny that the large yacht industry is, and has been for some time, in the throes of a boom in spite of a recent downturn since 2008. Some observers would suggest that this is in spite of all the new rules and regulations that seem set to dog the yacht owner’s every move. Others would suggest that it is through the introduction of rules and regulations such as the MCA’s Code of Practice for Safety of Large Commercial Sailing and Motor Vessels that the industry has been given the confidence to expand with such vigour, knowing that their investments are safer – both financially and physically – because of regulation.

Classification societies are non-governmental organisations or groups of professionals, ship surveyors and representatives that develop, publish and certify standards and technical rules to ensure an acceptable degree of stability, safety and environmental impact, among other things. They are authorised to certify yachts and vessels flagged virtually anywhere.

A classification certificate attests that the yacht complies with the standards developed and published by the issuing society

New construction and refit surveys carried out by a surveyor from the classification society under which the yacht is built are important inspections that take place at intervals throughout the duration of the project. They ensure that any and every installation, repair, upgrade or modification is carried out to the standards of that society. Classification surveyors are interested in the structural integrity of the hull, installation of equipment, stability, structural, engine and machinery surveys, electrical, electronic and ancillary equipment, rigging inspections, safety recommendations and ultrasonic thickness gauging.

Every owner has his own vision of what he wants his yacht to be and designers strive to deliver just that. The fulfillment of this vision in turn becomes paramount in the eyes of the building yard and others who represent the owner, so it is often the policies imposed in the form of building regulations and classification rules that act as the voice of reason. This ultimately allows a balance to be struck between the attainment of that vision and the safety and reliability embodied in the construction of a yacht built to class.

A classification certificate attests that the yacht complies with the standards developed and published by the issuing society. Periodic surveying of a yacht in service by the appropriate class surveyor, at intervals dictated by the appropriate classification society, is also required to ensure the vessel continues to meet the rules and thus maintain her in-class status. Should any defects that may affect class become apparent, or if damage is sustained between surveys, the owner or operators are required to inform the society concerned without delay.

Almost every yacht that is launched is bigger or in some way better than the last and, quite often, more complex than its predecessor

As independent, self-regulating bodies, classification societies have no commercial interest in design, building, ownership, operation, management, maintenance, repairs, insurance or chartering. Classification rules are not intended as a design code and, in fact, cannot be used as such. These are more generally covered by the flag state, which lays down standards, or codes of practice that dictate construction good practice.

Almost every yacht that is launched is bigger or in some way better than the last and, quite often, more complex than its predecessor. As this trend continues, so too is the involvement and role of classification societies increasing and evolving. But what exactly does classification entail, and how is it linked to the statutory requirements of the various flag states? These matters are often misunderstood, which can potentially result in a conflict of responsibility.

Whilst out of the water, work included replacing a worn cutlass bearing


The classification process The classification of yachts may be regarded as the development and worldwide implementation of published rules and regulations which – in conjunction with proper care and conduct on the part of the builder, owner and operator – provides for the structural strength and, where necessary, the watertight integrity of the hull. The same rules cover any appendages to the hull itself.

Classification rules lay down regulations that govern the effectiveness, safety and reliability of the propulsion and steering systems and other features, as well as the auxiliary systems which establish and maintain basic conditions on board and ensure that guests and crew can be safely carried while the yacht is at sea, at anchor, or moored inside a harbour.

Owners sometimes see classification as an unnecessary complication offering no real advantage for the cost. Some even suggest that the classification societies exist simply to make a profit out of a yacht builder’s desire to build a saleable product.

‘This is a misconception and one that needs to be addressed,’ Paul Martin, a principal engineer at DNV, points out: ‘Classification societies are independent bodies without a commercial stake in the build, and are therefore in a unique position to make sure that the yacht meets requirements without considering commercial impact. This enables yachts to be built with safety of the yacht, her crew, other vessels and the environment given maximum priority, irrespective of cost.’

Owners sometimes see classification as an unnecessary complication offering no real advantage for the cost

‘Because most classification societies have enormous experience,’ he continues, ‘as well as a lot of data on the failure of various types of vessels, machinery and other connected disciplines, they can bring these to bear on new projects ensuring fees are justified, and at the same time enhancing safety against the most up-to-date maritime knowledge and good safe practice.’

Yachts are said to be ‘in class’ when the classification society believes that its rules and regulations have been complied with, unless it has granted a special dispensation from compliance for a particular aspect. In order to decide whether a vessel should achieve in-class status surveyors appraise design, surveys and reports on the vessel’s construction, machinery, apparatus, materials, components, equipment, production methods and processes of all kinds for the purpose of verifying their compliance with plans, specifications and rules, codes of practice, or their fitness for particular requirements.

Class surveyors can also provide other technical inspection and advisory services relating to yachts and maintain these provisions during periodical visits to ascertain that the vessel is complying with classification society regulations at all times. Any modification which would affect class must always receive prior approval by the society.

When a yacht is going to be built to class, construction plans and all particulars relevant to the hull, equipment and machinery have to be submitted for the society’s approval before the work commences. Subsequent modifications or additions to the scantlings, arrangements or equipment shown on the approved plans must also be submitted for appraisal.

Implementation Statutory aspects deal with issues such as stability, life-saving appliances, pollution prevention and structural fire protection. Generally there are quite clear dividing lines between class and statutory requirements, although there are a few exceptions.

An ensign shows a boat's country of registration. Some are the same as the state's national flag, while others differ greatly

Flag states

The flag state, or nationality, of a yacht is important because it controls which country has the right to prescribe and enforce laws governing her operation. A ship must sail under the flag of a single state. The most common method by which a ship is granted the nationality of a state is by formal registration of the ship with that state.

Upon registration the ship acquires rights and duties as a result of registration which vary depending upon the state and the conventions and treaties to which it is party.

The rights will normally include action in an international court if there is a violation of international law against the vessel by another state, and representation at international conferences and organisations.

The duties include the upholding of the law of the flag state aboard the vessel, wherever she may be in the world.

Quality flags will also provide a recognised reputation for excellence, helping the vessel to avoid lengthy Port State Control inspections in foreign ports, and give worldwide support from embassies and consuls of that state and the protection of its navy.

International Maritime Organization

Statutory regulations are not only produced by the marine administrations of countries, but also the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

While some marine or flag administrations have the ability and knowledge to produce their own legislation, this is not true for the majority of countries. As shipping is an international business an international organisation is needed to regulate statutory issues. The United Nations established the IMO for the purpose of adopting the highest standards concerning matters of safety, navigation, and pollution prevention. The IMO held its first meeting in 1959 and now comprises 165 flag state members.

The United Nations established the IMO for the purpose of adopting the highest standards concerning matters of safety, navigation, and pollution prevention

The IMO’s purpose is to facilitate the general adoption of the highest practical standards in matters concerning maritime safety, efficiency of navigation and the prevention of marine pollution from ships among governments. Since its inception the IMO has introduced 40 conventions and protocols, although it is the responsibility of member countries to put these regulations into effect.

Statutory Implementation

The process of statutory implementation begins with the development and adoption of regulations by working groups at the IMO. Before these regulations come into force they have to have been accepted by a certain percentage of the IMO’s member states. This can take some time as each country has to introduce these statutory regulations as part of their maritime law before they can actually become mandatory on the ships registered in those countries.

It is important to understand that the IMO can adopt international legislation but that it remains the prerogative of the flag state to implement and enforce it. If a yacht registers with a country that has accepted these regulations then the yacht and her operators have to comply with them.

Maintenance of compliance is verified by a regular survey regime, which is the responsibility of the flag administrations and normally carried out by flag surveyors.

Not all flag administrations have the expertise or manpower to carry out the survey regime themselves, and they often delegate this work to classification societies

This arrangement means that the same class surveyor can issue certification on behalf of a flag state for compliance with, amongst other things, the MCA Large Yacht Code and Load Line Conventions. The class surveyor can also handle issues covered by the various annexes contained within the MARPOL Regulations, such as the prevention of oil, sewage and air pollution.

Class surveyors are often empowered by the state to inspect and certify crew accommodation, safety equipment, safety radio requirements, safety of navigation requirements, international tonnage, Suez and Panama Canal Tonnage Certification, and United States Coast Guard compliance. They are also frequently called on to service the requirements of SOLAS whenever a yacht becomes liable to comply with it.

Clearly, classification and statutory certification often go hand-in-hand where statutory certification requires classification of the yacht, and where a classification society requires valid statutory certification for the class to be valid.

In the preparation of this article the authors gratefully acknowledge the help they received from:

Engel JW de Boer – Service delivery manager, Lloyd’s Register, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Mario Dogliani – Corporate affairs and communication, RINA, Genoa, Italy

Jean-Jacques Juenet – Commercial manager, Bureau Veritas (BV), Paris, France

Paul Martin – Det Norske Veritas (DNV), Houston, USA

John Guy – Merlin Corporate Communications, London, UK

Nick Gladwell – Regs4yachts, Southampton, UK

Originally published: May 2008.


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