The word seaworthy is loosely thrown around amongst captains, crew, surveyors, attorneys, insurance, and everyone in between. For the average person and many yacht owners, the meaning of the word usually boils down to if the yacht can float on the water and move off the dock.
It means just a bit more than that.
When we use seaworthy in relation to maritime law, it takes on a different definition. Maritime law, also referred to as admiralty law, is a centuries-old, specific body of law based primarily on precedents issued by the courts. Because of this, what is seaworthy can be a complicated and somewhat ambiguous topic.
If one has access to a certificate of insurance coverage for a yacht, we will see the definition for seaworthy references a common phrase: “reasonably fit for its intended purpose.”
That definition, along with seaworthy, is not clear. In comparison to documented case law, the handling of seaworthiness is a large gray area. It allows for an enormous amount of interpretation and subjectivity.
In general, U.S. courts have defined seaworthy as a vessel that is built, equipped and manned for a voyage at sea. This definition is consistent with the “fit for its intended purpose.”
While an owner or captain may feel that their yacht is in tip-top condition and thus seaworthy, a minor deficiency can immediately change that status. Something as simple as a slippery teak deck, loose ladder rung, or even incomplete crew training can create an unseaworthy condition.
To illustrate this example, let’s theoretically look at a 130-foot (40m) yacht. She operates privately, no charter, but is classed by a major society.
The yacht operates in the Bahamas and discovers one of the many sandbars that do not appear on the chart. The yacht’s hull lightly touches bottom. Thankfully, the hull is not breached. There is no ingress of water.
The captain sends a diver down to take some pictures. According to the captain, all appears in order, minus some bottom paint. About two months later, the yacht undergoes her periodical bottom survey for classification. The attending class surveyor is conducting an inspection of the hull and notices several large sections of bottom paint missing, plus an indentation in the hull near the keel. The surveyor asks the captain about his observations. The captain relates his Bahamas story.
The surveyor reviews the yacht’s file and asks when the captain notified class about the incident. The captain states that it was a non-issue and he did not notify the class society. The surveyor then cites his society’s classification rules: Since the date of the incident, because it was not reported, the yacht’s classification status was automatically suspended.
For the yacht’s insurance policy, classification must be maintained to keep the policy valid. In addition, the yacht’s mortgage dictates that classification must be kept current to remain in good standing with the bank. A supposedly harmless sandbar encounter has now morphed into a major financial issue for the yacht.
Where the captain felt the yacht was seaworthy, the absence of notification had the opposite effect. The yacht has been declared unseaworthy.
From this discussion, we can see that the definition of seaworthiness is far from perfect. To help eliminate some potential issues, it is important for yachts to complete constant maintenance, plus compliance with all regulatory matters. To provide verification of this practice, it is equally important to have regular inspections. These inspections should be done by the captain, crew, flag inspectors, class surveyors, insurance representatives, or any combination of the same. If in doubt, err on the side of at least notifying those involved.
An owner must remember that he is legally responsible to ensure that the yacht is seaworthy. This cannot be delegated, even to the captain. Failure to guarantee seaworthiness of the yacht exponentially increases the risk of liability.
Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau (www.yachtbureau.org). Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.