SOLAS: Safety of life at sea often enhanced after problem

Feb 27, 2014 by Capt. Jake DesVergers

Since the earliest times, the sea has always been synonymous with insecurity for those who venture on it. “He that would sail without danger must never come on the main sea,” as the old seafarer saying puts it.

This endemic absence of safety probably explains why early maritime trade was mainly the preserve of adventurers. The sea was associated with the idea of chance or fate, a concept still to be found in expressions such as “maritime perils.” Ocean transport developed in such a laissez-faire way that the many accidents, of which bold navigators were victims, were soon accepted as part of the natural course of things.

The technological innovations that accompanied the Industrial Revolution encouraged development of maritime transport during the 19th century. The most important developments were undoubtedly the introduction of steam-powered engines on board ships and the construction of iron and then steel hulls. These technological advances were accompanied, however, by an increase in risks at sea, corresponding to the greater number, size and speed of vessels engaged in trade.

While regulation on shipping was normally seen as a hindrance on free trade, a general push toward more standardization was seen following a series of maritime disasters in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

SOLAS. It is a term in our industry that is thrown around with great frequency. But what exactly is this acronym and why does it play such a major role in what we do?

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) is generally regarded as the most important of all international treaties concerning the safety of ships at sea. The first version was adopted in 1914, in immediate response to the Titanic disaster, the second revision in 1929, the third in 1948, and the fourth in 1960.

The original intention was to keep the Convention up to date by periodic amendments, but in practice, the amendments procedure proved to be very slow. It became clear that it would be impossible to secure the entry into force of amendments within a reasonable period of time.

As a result, a completely new Convention was adopted in 1974 that included not only the amendments agreed up until that date, but also a new amendment procedure — the tacit acceptance procedure — designed to ensure that changes could be made within a specified (and acceptably short) period of time. There are numerous recent examples of this including the ISPS Code immediately after the events of Sept. 11 and the new requirements for balcony fire protection of passenger ships after the accident on M/V Star Princess in March 2006.

Instead of requiring that an amendment shall enter into force after being accepted by, for example, two thirds of the parties, the tacit acceptance procedure provides that an amendment shall enter into force on a specified date unless, before that date, objections to the amendment are received from an agreed number of parties. As a result, the 1974 Convention has been updated and amended on numerous occasions. The Convention in force today is sometimes referred to as SOLAS, 1974, as amended.

In its present form, SOLAS is divided into 12 chapters on different subjects including: construction, fire protection, lifesaving, firefighting, radio communication, navigation, cargo, nuclear ships, safety management, high-speed craft, maritime security, and special measures for bulk carriers. Each chapter and subpart may have a different applicability for a yacht depending upon length, age, and most often, gross tonnage.

Life rafts, rescue boats, and lifejackets must be designed, constructed, tested, evaluated, and maintained in accordance with Chapter III of SOLAS and the associated publication International Lifesaving Appliance Code.

Chapter IV of SOLAS outlines the specifications for items such as GMDSS, EPIRBs, and SARTs. This is closely aligned with the Radio Regulations of the International Telecommunication Union.

Regardless of the size of yacht, knowledge of SOLAS regulations is essential. While “SOLAS yachts” are typically considered those above the 500 gross ton threshold, many of the regulations provided through the SOLAS Convention trickle down to the less-than-500-gross-ton fleet.

This is especially true for commercial yachts certified to a specific Yacht Code, such as the MCA’s Large Yacht Code (LY3) or the Passenger Yacht Code (PYC). Major yacht registries, such as the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda, have recognized that yachts in commercial use for sport or pleasure do not fall naturally into a single class, and certain prescribed merchant ship safety standards have been found to be incompatible with the intended use, scope of operations, or safety needs particular to such yachts.

In order for yachts to substantially comply with SOLAS, these yacht registries use the Codes to provide equivalencies to the major merchant ship safety rules. The application of these Codes allow those yachts that cannot fully comply with SOLAS to meet an alternate, but internationally accepted standard.

Knowledge of SOLAS is also a professional requirement for those possessing a deck or engineering license. A significant portion of the license exams focus on the applicability of SOLAS and its diverse regulations.

So next time you have a spare minute or two, or if you can’t find a solution to your insomnia, dust off that big blue book on the shelf and give it a read. You’ll be surprised to know what information it contains.


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