The USCG and foreign yacht inspections

Feb 15, 2016 by Capt. Jake DesVergers

Sovereign and other self-governing nations have the right to control any activities within their own borders, including those of visiting yachts. Authority and control over foreign-flagged ships in a country’s ports, utilized for verifying compliance with the requirements of the applicable maritime conventions, is called Port State Control (PSC).

PSC comes into the scene when ship owners, ship managers, classification societies and flag state administrations fail to comply with the requirements of international and national maritime conventions.

It is well understood that the ultimate responsibility for enforcing conventions is left to the flag state, also known as the Administration. Port states are entitled to control foreign ships visiting their own ports to ensure that any deficiencies found, including those concerning living conditions and safety of shipboard personnel, are rectified before they are allowed to sail. In the inspection regime, PSC is regarded as complementary to the inspections performed by the flag state; each of them working together toward a common goal and purpose.

Within the United States, the agency assigned with primary responsibility for port state control is the United States Coast Guard (USCG).

Historically, yachts have not been actively pursued for inspection in comparison to other ship types such as passenger ships, oil tankers, and bulk carriers. For the true merchant ship, the majority of vessels can expect an inspection by the USCG annually.

At the end of 2015, the USCG published its CG-CVC Policy Letter 15-04. The document is titled, “Guidance on Port State Control Examinations for Foreign-Flagged Yachts.”

The purpose of this policy letter is to set forth procedures for examination of foreign-flagged yachts that are passenger vessels and for other such vessels measuring 300 or more gross tons as measured under the International Tonnage Convention.

The USCG acknowledges that yachts are normally operated as recreation vessels. However, those same yachts may be subject to inspection as seagoing motor vessels depending on their size and area of operation. Under U.S. law, yachts of at least 300 GT making voyages beyond the boundary line are by definition “sea going motor vessels” and are subject to inspection.

Since compliance would require plan review and inspection for certification, it is generally impracticable and often not possible for a foreign-flagged yacht to obtain and comply with a USCG Guard Certificate of Inspection. Alternatively, any vessel of a foreign nation that is signatory to The International Convention Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), with a valid safety equipment certificate, is exempted from the requirement to meet these specific requirements outlined in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations.

However, some flag administrations will not issue a SOLAS safety equipment certificate to vessels that are less than 500 gross tons. Instead, these foreign-flagged, motor-propelled yachts that routinely operate in U.S. ports are surveyed and certificated under a Commercial Yacht Code adopted by their administration. Due to the potential dissimilarities between these Commercial Yacht Codes and U.S. law, the USCG identified a need for guidance on acceptable standards and examination procedures. This is to ensure that a consistent and appropriate level of safety is applied via Port State Control exams.

This new policy letter outlines how the USCG will classify a foreign-flagged yacht. She will fit in one of the three categories:

Foreign-Flagged Yachts Engaged In Trade Carrying More Than 12 Passengers:

Despite her tonnage, a yacht that falls into this category is considered a passenger vessel and must have a valid Passenger Ship Safety Certificate (PSSC). The yacht must also complete a US Coast Guard Control Verification Examination. This is the same requirement applied to all passenger (i.e. cruise) ships in US waters.

Foreign-Flagged Yachts Engaged In Trade Carrying 12 or Fewer Passengers: A yacht that operates beyond the boundary line carrying not more than 12 passengers, of which at least one is for hire or chartered, except valid bareboat charters. This yacht is considered to be engaged in trade.

Foreign-Flagged Yachts Not Engaged In Trade Carrying Non-Paying Guests or Valid Bareboat Charter: “Not engaged in trade,” means that the guests do not contribute consideration as a condition of carriage on the vessel. In a valid bareboat charter, the owner must give up his or her vessel for the occasion as a complete demise, turning over incidents of ownership to the charterer; this includes complete management, control, and operation.

As part of our company’s role as flag-state inspectors, we have already seen this new Policy implemented in several ports around the US. None of the inspections to date have resulted in negative outcomes. Preparation and cooperation are definitely key elements to a successful visit under this new initiative by the USCG.

Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau (IYB). Contact him on