A challenge in building ocean-capable yachts for the world stage is navigating all the different boat building standards, rules and regulations that exist. Most countries subscribe to some published set of guidelines, codes or laws that a boatbuilder must follow in order to sell a boat in that country. Some of the more familiar ones are USCG, ABYC, CE, AS/NZS and ABS. Let's discuss some of these in more detail.
Thankfully, there is a great deal of parity between many of the different international regulatory bodies that create these standards, so in most cases there are more similarities than differences. However, there still are many differences a builder must be aware of, depending on where in the world a boat is going. While it might seem simpler to just build every boat to satisfy every different international standard there is, one doesn’t have to wade too deep into the details to quickly learn how foolish such an approach might be. The more pragmatic approach—and we'll use Nordhavn as an example—is to offer the ability to build to any published standard there is.
There are some notable differences between building boats that are labeled “in compliance,” “certified” or “classified.” In the US, it’s mostly up to the builder to voluntarily comply with the published guidance, which is certainly in the builder’s best interest. In other cases, such as the European Union, by law a boat has to be inspected, documented and certified that it meets the published guidance. This understandably adds to the cost of the boat in terms of hiring outside inspectors and creating documentation. Then, there's an additional level of scrutiny for any boat where a pleasure yacht or commercial charter yacht classification is desired, which typically involves ongoing inspections throughout the build, extensive documentation and the use of materials and equipment, all held to a higher standard.
In the US, there are several laws within the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) with regard to the construction of recreational boats. However, these requirements are mostly limited to small boats less than 20 feet in length with gasoline engines. There are also requirements for fire extinguishers, lifejackets, navigation lights and visual distress signals (you can find these federal requirements at uscgboating.org). For the most part, however, the US government leaves it up to private industry to create a body of guidance for building safe recreational boats.
Enter the American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC), which was formed in the 1950s in response to the emerging recreational boating market. Its focus was, and continues to be, on developing safety standards for the design, construction, repair and maintenance of recreational boats. Its first book of standards, published in 1956, only included guidelines for lifesaving equipment and battery chargers. The current book includes more than 65 different standards covering nearly every aspect of boat construction.
Many builders voluntarily build boats to comply with ABYC standards, and ABYC is clear about what it considers necessary. In its standards, it uses the verbiage “a builder shall” for anything that is a must-do to be in compliance with a specific rule, and “a builder should” for recommendations that are not considered must-do items for compliance. The standards themselves are in a continuous state of evolution and are revised and updated at regular intervals to keep pace with changing technology and improved building practices.
There is no such thing as an “ABYC Certified” boat. ABYC does not employ boat inspectors who verify that builders are following its standards. It is up to the individual builders to ensure they understand and follow the standards if they want to be in compliance. ABYC does offer education courses which can certify the builders' engineers and technicians. These folks can then use that knowledge to ensure their boats are in compliance with all the latest ABYC standards.
The obvious benefits of building a boat to ABYC standards include greatly enhanced safety for the owner and a very high measure of liability protection for the builder. An additional benefit of building a boat to ABYC standards is that doing so covers the majority of requirements for most other countries. In fact, some countries have simply incorporated the language of the ABYC standards into their own book of rules or codes. And, in some cases, they have built these standards into actual law, which shows the high degree of confidence in the guidance ABYC is putting out there.
OUTSIDE THE US
In 1996, countries in the European Union adopted the Recreational Craft Directive (RCD), which is a single set of “harmonized” essential requirements for boats sold in any member country. Unlike the ABYC standards in the US, compliance with the RCD is required by law in the EU and third-party inspections and certifications are required as part of the process. The boat is given a CE mark at the end of the process, which confirms that it has passed muster and is legally valid for sale in the EU. These are typically referred to as “CE boats.”
At least 60 standards have been developed to support the requirements of the RCD, and each points to a specific International Organization for Standardization (ISO) document that contains the detailed requirements for that particular standard (such as ISO 10088: 2009 Small Craft – Permanently Installed Fuel Systems). Like ABYC, these standards are revised and updated at regular intervals.
The good news for builders of global product is that there is little real difference between the RCD standards and the ABYC standards. The biggest difference is actually all the documentation and inspections that are required for building a CE boat. Nordhavn, for example, uses special software that creates a massive checklist of items that must be confirmed for RCD compliance. In each case, the builder notes how a specific requirement has been satisfied, and once complete, the software compiles a large technical file for the inspector. The inspector reviews the file, inspects the boat and makes note of any additional actions that are necessary for compliance. Once he’s satisfied that all the requirements of the RCD are met, he issues a certification that the boat is worthy of a CE mark.
A Type Certification can be issued for production boats that do not change from boat to boat, which a builder like Nordhavn would typically do this for its smaller CE production boats. This way, only the first boat has to be inspected. Larger Nordhavns, which might change substantially from boat to boat, require individual inspections and certifications for each CE boat.
There’s also the MCA Code of Practice, which is a set of rules that applies only to the UK and other “Red Flag” UK overseas territories (Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Gibraltar, Isle of Man, etc.). MCA is shorthand for the UK Maritime and Coast Guard Agency. Vessels certified by the agency fly the red MCA flag. The MCA Code, which publishes its own set of construction and safety rules, is only for commercial vessels used for sport or pleasure. Even though these are often pleasure yachts, they are crewed working boats and are not considered recreational pleasure boats. The process for building an MCA boat is similar in nature to building a classed boat. More on that later.
Australia and New Zealand publish their own set of rules with regard to electrical installations on boats. The most recent version of the Australia/New Zealand standard (AS/NZS) borrows heavily from ABYC. So again, a builder that is already up to speed with ABYC can easily include the few additional requirements for compliance with the Australia/New Zealand standard.
Compliance with these standards is mandated by law, but there are no special requirements for documentation or inspection like there are for CE boats. It is up to the builder to be familiar with the Australia/New Zealand standards and be prepared to prove that the standards were followed should a regulatory inspector in Australia or New Zealand require evidence of compliance. Nordhavn, for example, satisfies this by using internal checklists, noting specific Australia/New Zealand requirements on the electrical schematics and inspecting the boats for compliance as they are built and upon delivery.
Classification of pleasure yachts is a completely different animal. All the major classification societies, including the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), Lloyd’s Register (LR), Bureau Veritas (BV), RINA, Det Norske Veritas (DNV), etc., are more involved with commercial shipping than pleasure boats. Classification as a pleasure yacht or commercial charter yacht is normally the target here, with the charter classification being more intensive and expensive. Anything smaller than a megayacht is probably not a candidate for classification. ABS, for example, does not classify vessels smaller than 24 meters (79 feet).
When an owner does request a classified boat, the classification society gets involved at the very beginning of the design process by reviewing and approving drawings. The classification societies have their own books of standards, which tend to be much more rigorous than ABYC and the others that focus on smaller recreational boats.
In addition to all the documentation and design scrutiny, classed boats receive repeated visits to the factory for ongoing inspections while the boat is being built. All of this will obviously add to the cost of the boat. Nordhavn, for example, has built a number of ABS-classified N86 yachts, and the additional cost of ABS classification is estimated at more than $300,000 for one of these boats. Once classed, the boats must receive ongoing inspection surveys throughout their lifetime to maintain their status as a classed boat.
THE BUCK STOPS HERE
There seems to be a notion that the more acronyms one can attach to a boat, the better it must be. Some outlets list as many impressive-sounding endorsements as they can when speaking about a boat, but they can miss the mark and create confusion. Here’s one example from a boat review written about a 67-foot yacht:
What?! ABS is very clear that it doesn’t “certify” boats and does not even look at boats smaller than 79 feet. CE is only for boats going to Europe. NMMA is not a part of ABYC.
Ultimately, there is little real difference in a boat built to comply with ABYC standards in the US, or built to satisfy the RCD requirements for a CE mark so it can be sold in the European Union, or built to meet the electrical requirements of Australia/New Zealand. In fact, unity seems to be the trend in pleasure-boat building standards for boats less than 80 feet in length, with ABYC leading the way in many areas of construction.
For very large boats, it makes more sense to go with one of the classification societies if an endorsement is needed. One might say that classed boats are built to a higher standard than boats built to satisfy CE or ABYC because the classification societies are more often focused on approving boats for safe commercial usage, which means they have to be ready for years of heavy daily use. Some classification societies do offer non-commercial pleasure boat classifications (like ABS), with the main difference being a much higher level of scrutiny for commercial classed boats.
For builders like Nordhavn, the first line of every boat order lists the model of the boat to be built, and the second line notes whether it’s a standard ABYC boat for the US market, a CE boat for Europe, an AS/NZS boat for Australia or New Zealand , an ABS boat for international classification, or something else. That way, all parties know from the very beginning what special steps are needed in order to ensure the satisfaction of the standard to which the boat will be built.
ABYC Master Technician Mike Telleria holds a degree in marine systems engineering from the U.S. Merchant Marines Academy, as well as an unlimited U.S. Coast Guard 3rd Assistant Engineer's license.