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While the International Maritime Organization (IMO), flag administrations, port state controls, and other industry organizations all play a vital role in the maritime safety genre, perhaps the one entity that plays the highest level of involvement for development, maintenance, and enforcement of maritime safety is the classification society.


The classification society has a fundamental role in the prevention of accidents at sea, through its dual role in the classification and certification of ships and yachts.


Classification, as a completely private service performed by these societies, consists of the issuing of rules for the safety of yachts, and performing inspections to ensure that these rules are being applied.


The main purpose is to protect yachts as a piece of property. The rules apply principally to the structural strength of the hull and the reliability of its essential machinery and equipment. The owner uses the certificate issued by the classification society as an assurance of technical soundness and as a tool for obtaining insurance at a reasonable cost.


Class rules do not cover every piece of structure or item of equipment on board a yacht, nor do they cover operational elements. Activities that generally fall outside the scope of classification include such items as design and manufacturing processes; choice of type and power of machinery and certain equipment (e.g. mooring bitts, capstans and winches); number and qualification of crew or operating personnel; form and passenger carrying capacity of the yacht and maneuvering performance; hull vibrations; spare parts; life-saving appliances; and maintenance equipment.


These matters may, however, be given consideration for classification according to the type of yacht or class notation(s) assigned.


It should be emphasized that it is the owner who has total control over a yacht, including the manner in which it is operated and maintained. Classification is voluntary and its effectiveness depends upon the owner, and other interests, operating in good faith by disclosing to the class society any damage or deterioration that may affect the yacht’s classification status.


If there is the least question, the owner should notify class and schedule a survey to determine if the yacht is in compliance with the relevant class standard. Too many times, we see yachts suspended or withdrawn from class for failure to maintain compliance with the applicable rules.


The technical skills possessed by classification societies and their international network of personnel have led them to assume another, more public service role. Under powers delegated by flag administration, they enforce the regulations contained in the international conventions on safety at sea and protection of the environment.


In this case, they carry out the necessary inspections and deliver official statutory certificates of conformity to such regulations. Similar to classification, this is a certification service, by which a yacht’s compliance with previously established requirements is formally stated. When serving in this role, classification societies are also referred to as Recognized Organizations.


The history of classification societies began with a commercial motive rather than a safety-oriented one. The organizations were developed to meet the needs of marine insurers at the beginning of the 18th century. At that time, hull and cargo underwriters worked under great difficulty, deprived of any reliable data on which to base their premiums, any periodic statistics on shipwrecks, or any accurate information on ships.


Their only recourse was to question shipmasters and seamen on the age and nautical qualities of vessels known to them. The information that circulated by word of mouth was unreliable. Assessments of ships varied depending on individual sources. No general picture or consistent standard was provided. Sometimes information was distorted under the influence of unscrupulous owners.


Particularly in England, where “spin-nakers” were active, goods were insured well beyond their real value and then shipped on old vessels. Few of these ships had little chance of ever reaching their destination. It was against this background that the first classification societies came into existence.


The societies were extremely successful in the second half of the 19th century. Classification brought appreciable economic benefits to marine insurers, for whom high financial value of certain vessels represented a serious risk. Awareness of their actual condition made it possible to bring these risks under control. This method of risk management was based on the award of a “rating” to each ship.


Classification societies today are characterized by their number and diversity. They differ in size, with the smallest employing only a few surveyors concentrated in certain geographic regions, while the largest have a network of inspectors extending over all the continents.


In 1950, there were fewer than 10 clearly identified societies engaged in classification. Today, there are more than 100, many of which do not meet the minimum conditions for performing their role properly. This has resulted in unpardonable inconsistencies at applying safety standards. Promoting such a reputation has brought discredit to the profession.


Aware of these difficulties, the largest classification societies joined forces in 1968. Known as the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS), more than 90 percent of the world’s cargo carrying tonnage is covered by the classification, design, construction, and through-life compliance rules and standards set by the 13 Member Societies of IACS. Members of IACS are American Bureau of Shipping (ABS, USA), Bureau Veritas (BV, France), China Classification Society (CCS, China), Croatian Registry of Shipping (CRS, Croatia), Det Norske Veritas (DNV, Norway), Germanischer Lloyd (GL, Germany), Indian Register of Shipping (IRS, India), Korean Register of Shipping (KR, Korea), Lloyds Register of Shipping (LR, United Kingdom), Nippon Kaiji Kyokai (NK, Japan), Polish Register of Shipping (PRS, Poland), Registro Italiano Navale (RINA, Italy), and Russian Maritime Register of Shipping (RS, Russia).


As the classification profession evolved, the practice of assigning different classifications has been superseded, with some exceptions. Today, either a yacht meets the relevant class society’s rules or it does not. As a consequence, it is either “in” or “out” of “class”.


However, each of the classification societies has developed a series of notations that may be granted to a yacht to indicate that it is in compliance with some additional criteria that may be either specific to that vessel type or that are in excess of the standard classification requirements.


Understandably, there is much at stake. Apart from the control of a billion-dollar market employing more than 10,000 people, the societies need to be given the chance of a more active role in improving the safety of yachts. This must be done both for occupational safety of those at sea and the structures upon which they live and work.

Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau (IYB), an organization that provides flag-state inspection services to yachts on behalf of several administrations. A deck officer graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, he previously sailed as master on merchant ships, acted as designated person for a shipping company, and served as regional manager for an international classification society. Contact him at +1 954-596-2728 or www.yachtbureau.org. Comments on this column are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.

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