International Maritime Organization makes the rules

Feb 11, 2013 by Capt. Jake DesVergers

The London-based International Maritime Organization (IMO) occupies a special position within the maritime community. This specialized agency of the United Nations has 170 member states and an annual budget of nearly $100 million dollars. It is the force behind nearly all technical standards and legal rules for safety at sea and prevention of pollution by ships. Its priorities are reflected in its motto, “Safe, secure, and efficient shipping on clean oceans.”

The concept of the IMO was born after the RMS Titanic disaster. By modern standards, the design of the  Titanic made her appallingly vulnerable. Her “watertight” bulkheads, by design, did not extend all the way to the main deck because the designers calculated that it was impossible for the ship to take on a trim or list sufficient for water to cascade over their tops if the bulkheads were of a certain height. When  Titanic struck the iceberg, these calculations were proven dismally incorrect.

In addition, when people began abandoning ship, it became obvious that not nearly enough lifeboats were available or those trained in their use. Many lives and much money were lost in this tragedy. Up until that time, each nation had made its own rules about ship design, construction, and safety equipment. The Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO) was formed in response to the Titanic event, but was “put on the back burner” when World War I broke out.

After the war ended, IMCO was revived and produced a group of regulations concerning shipbuilding and safety called the “International Convention for the Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS).” Through the years, SOLAS and subsequent regulations have been modified and upgraded to adapt to changes in technology and lessons learned.

Today, many of the new regulations that are developed unfortunately stem from an accident. Recent examples of this can be seen following the Exxon Valdez (oil spill), M/S Scandinavian Star (fire), M/S Estonia (flooding), M/S Costa Concordia (grounding), and the events surrounding 9-11 (security).

The IMO adopts international shipping standards regulations and it is the responsibility of governments to implement them. Implementation of IMO standards is crucial to achieving the IMO’s objectives. The flag state of the ship has the ultimate responsibility for ensuring the ship meets applicable standards and for issuing certificates confirming the ship is seaworthy and the crew properly trained. To do this, all ships must be surveyed in order to be issued certificates, which establish their seaworthiness, type of ship and statutory conformity.

The flag state has the option of performing these surveys directly or they may “entrust the inspections and surveys either to surveyors nominated for that purpose or to organizations recognized by it.” In practice these “recognized organizations” are often the classification societies. The largest of the classification societies, such as American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), Bureau Veritas (BV), Det Norske Veritas (DNV), Lloyd’s Register (LR), and Nippon Kaiji Kyokai (NK/ClassNK) belong to the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS). They are a non-governmental organization, which was granted consultative status with the IMO in 1969, and act as the primary technical source for the organization.

Noting the structure of the IMO, where do these regulations come from? Unbelievably, they originate from the members. While there is a considerable amount of proactive initiatives established by the IMO in an effort for continuous improvement, it is a regrettable reality that most rules that are developed or revised initiate from a serious marine incident.

Take for example, the fire aboard the Bermuda-registered cruise ship Star Princess, while on passage between Grand Cayman and Montego Bay, Jamaica. The fire began on an external balcony and spread over several decks. The cause was investigated by the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) on behalf of the Bermuda Maritime Administration in cooperation with United States’ authorities. Before the investigation was complete, the MAIB and the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL) issued a safety bulletin and a safety notice, respectively, which included urgent safety recommendations pertaining to the incident. A related paper was submitted to the IMO by the United Kingdom, which the Committee agreed to fast track.

The result? Amendments to SOLAS aimed at ensuring that existing regulations for primary deck coverings, ceilings and linings, use of combustible materials, and smoke generation potential and toxicity are also applied to cabin balconies on new passenger ships. For existing passenger ships, the IMO approved relevant provisions to require that furniture on cabin balconies are of restricted fire risk unless fixed water spraying systems, fixed fire detection, fire alarm systems are fitted, and that partitions separating balconies be constructed of noncombustible materials, similar to the provisions for new passenger ships.

How does this affect yachts? It is very important to monitor the actions affecting large commercial ships. As history has illustrated to us, regulations that are enacted to protect higher risk vessels, such as passenger ships and tankers, are always modified over time and customized to affect all vessel types and sizes. These regulations eventually cascade down to yachts.

Alternatively, as we have seen in the last decade, yachts are being built larger than ever, thus requiring them to be designated as ships. These actions not only pertain to international regulations such as SOLAS and MARPOL, but also to the flag-specific Large Yacht Codes enforced by the United Kingdom, Marshall Islands, Malta, and various other registries.

Is there an end to these regulations and the work of the IMO? Quite the opposite. In fact, there are new regulations being put forth regarding the actual number of inspections. It appears that upon review of the IMO’s own work over the years, so many new rules have been developed that ships and yachts are now being over-inspected. The pendulum has swung from one extreme to the next, hopefully with something in the middle now the goal.

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 Comments on this column are welcome at