The sinking of the Chinese cruise ship Oriental Star and the South Korean ferry MV Sewol has caused raised some concern about the safety of cruise ships. One factor in both of these sea disasters was modifications from the original design. Modifications to the MV Sewol made the ship top heavy and hard to steer in certain conditions. It is suspected that modifications to the Oriental Star made a larger surface for the wind to press against that the draft and beam could not counter. Cruise ships routinely go into dry dock every few years for maintenance, and while there may undergo modifications to the ship itself. The logical question is “how do we know these modifications are still safe?” The answer in a nutshell is we put our trust and faith into the classification societies.
We have all heard the phrase “A1” which means the very best or first class, but do you know where that phrase originated? Strange enough it started in Lloyd’s coffee house in London in 1760. Lloyd’s was used as a meeting point for insurance issuers. A company would insure a cargo ship for a trip and then have others underwrite the policy spreading the risk and rewards. To help manage the risk, an attempt was made to inspect each ship once a year and report on its condition. These original reports were done by retired sea captains. The hull’s were classified as A, E, I, O or U, based on construction and soundness. The equipment was G, M, or B: good, middling or bad. Later the equipment rating was replaced by 1, 2 or 3. Top score was an “A1”. This system led to a position where ship builders consulted insurance companies during construction. Over the years, Lloyd’s of London has become the largest insurer in the world and the Lloyd’s Register one of the leading Classification Societies in the world.
The International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) is an association of 12 member classification societies, who together classify 90% of ocean-going ships. Their document, Classification Societies – What, Why and How?, gives an outstanding review of what classification is and its impact on ship safety. The book gives an excellent explanation of a Classification Society function:
“As an independent, self-regulating, externally audited body, a Classification Society has no commercial interests related to ship design, ship building, ship ownership, ship operation, ship management, ship maintenance or repairs, insurance, or chartering. In establishing its Rules, each Classification Society may draw upon the advice and review of members of the industry and academia who are considered to have relevant knowledge or experience. Classification Rules are developed to establish standards for the structural strength of the ship’s hull and its appendages, and the suitability of the propulsion and steering systems, power generation and those other features and auxiliary systems which have been built into the ship to assist in its operation. Classification Rules are not intended as a design code and in fact cannot be used as such.”
The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) requires each member nation to inspect and survey to SOLAS standards the ships flying under their flags. Recognizing that not all flag nations have the expertise to perform such a task, they authorize the delegation of the inspection and surveys to a Recognized Organization (RO). In the world there are about 50 Classification Societies, however most are small and limited in scope. Generally, Classification Societies are aligned with certain nations such a Lloyd’s with the UK and the American Bureau of Shipping with the U.S. However, many of them have international acceptance and act as RO for other nations as well.
The role of a Classification Society starts before construction, they review ship design and plans as an outside auditor concentration on design and safety. As a ship begins construction, the society monitors the construction to ensure the standards are being maintained. After construction is complete and a final inspection is done, the society issues a “class.” A Flag Country will not allow a ship to sail commercially until the SOLAS requirements are met and the class certification complete. Insurance companies also require an active class. To maintain their class, a ship owner must allow an inspection of the ship each year. Any modifications that effect the hull, steering, or displacement must be evaluated by the society before they are made. Failure to do so will result in the suspension of the class. If these modifications are minor, the society will inspect the ship after completion and on major modifications make inspections during the dry dock period.
International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) has consultative status with the IMO and remains the only non-governmental organization with observer status which also develops and applies technical rules that are reflective of the aims embodied within IMO conventions.