Certifications and Ratings: What’s the Deal?


The acronyms alone are enough to drive you nuts: ABYC, ISO, IMCI, ABS, NMMA. And those with real names, what are they: Germanischer Lloyd, Lloyds Register, Bureau Veritas?

One suspects that these whatever-they-ares have something to do with the way boats are built, or not built, but beyond that, it’s well, vague. Readers wonder, and so do we. 

Certifications and Ratings: What’s the Deal?

The United States
Let’s start on our home turf. The dominant trade group in the U.S. is the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA). It has offices in New York and Chicago. The NMMA represents nearly all businesses in the marine sector: boatbuilders, engine makers, and suppliers of accessories. A dozen years ago, during a bad financial phase for the boating industry in general, manufacturers of sailboats and sailing equipment weren’t happy with the way the NMMA represented them; after all, sailing is a small percentage of the boating industry. So a bunch of executives from the sailing realm (Frank Butler, Catalina; Everett Pearson, TPI; and John Southam, Cruising World magazine) started an association called ASAP that eventually came to be called Sail America. Sail America started running its own boat shows, called Sail Expos, and still does. But it was evident that the efforts of Sail America and the NMMA were to an extent redundant, so they have recently buried the hatchet and agreed to again share the same teepee.

Neither the NMMA nor Sail America promulgates standards for the construction or outfitting of boats. However, the NMMA has been vigorous in supporting ISO boatbuilding standards, which we’ll get to shortly.

For a time, the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) attempted to develop standards for the construction of small fiberglass (composite) recreational boats. These standards actually included scan’tlings, but so many people in the industry criticized them as unrealistic that ABS retreated. Now, it offers only publication #37, “Building and Classing Offshore Racing Yachts,” which applies only to racing boats over 24 meters, or about 79 feet.

The ABS, like European classification societies, makes its money developing rules for building ships and other marine structures (like offshore oil platforms), and related equipment; then by reviewing the designers’ and builders’ plans, and sometimes by surveying the actual structure to assure compliance (often for insurance companies and lending institutions).

The Plan Review for a composite boat requires the submission of laminate schedules, information about the resins and reinforcements (fibers) and construction details. Many classification organizations also offer engineering services to companies to help them gain compliance. It’s a pretty nifty business plan: Make up a bunch of rules, then charge companies big fees to tell them how to comply.

The top classification is A1 with a Maltese cross; this means the classification society has reviewed the plans and observed the construction process. An A1 plan means the plans were reviewed for compliance with the rules, but no one from the classification society watched the construction take place.

For vessels built to class, such organizations may also conduct periodic surveys so that the vessel can “maintain class.”

The U.S. standard-setting organization that deals with recreational boats is the American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC), which publishes “Standards and Technical Information Reports for Small Craft.” It’s a democratic sort of society, inasmuch as each standard is written by a committee of industry experts—employees of boatbuilding firms; employees of ancillary companies, like makers of electrical wire, pumps, and motors; and members of the ABYC staff. ABYC members (Practical Sailor is one) have the opportunity to attend committee meetings and to comment on the proposed standards.

ABYC does not have standards for scan’tlings, that is, the structural requirements of a hull in metal (like the thickness of plating), wood (like the spacing of frames) or plastic (like how many layers of fiberglass must be used in a given hull or deck). Nor does ABYC rate boats for specific uses, such as sheltered water versus open ocean. Instead, ABYC largely concerns itself with safety issues: fuel systems, electrical systems, lightning protection, through-hull strength and installation, load capacities, etc.

Compliance with ABYC standards is voluntary. So where does ABYC get its clout? To a great degree, from the insurance companies, which generally require surveyors to judge boats against ABYC standards. So, if your surveyor finds your boat not in compliance with ABYC, your insurance company may deny coverage. The same goes for banks and other lending institutions, which may require a survey to ABYC standards before finalizing a loan.

Boats built in the U.S. don’t have to comply with European standards unless they are to be sold there.

There are a few other groups affecting recreational boats, however: The U.S. Coast Guard is vitally involved in a variety of safety issues, from PFDs to fuel and electrical systems, buoyancy, loading, etc. One can order from the USCG a 271-page booklet titled, “Rules and Regulations for Recreation Boats,” which, to quote the Coast Guard explanation, contains among other things, “information of defect notification, manufacturer certification of compliance, labeling, hull identification numbers, capacity, safe loading, safe powering, testing electrical systems, fuel systems, ventilation, personal flotation devices, visual distress signals, fire extinguishers, marine sanitation devices, accident reporting requirements and state numbering systems.”

ABYC prepares and sells five individual “Compliance Guides” to help marine businesses understand the above codes. The guides on flotation, ventilation, electrical systems, fuel systems and safe loading sell for $25 each.

The Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME) publishes its Technical and Research Bulletin 2-23, “Guide for Quality Assured Fiberglass Reinforced Structures,” which defines the basic materials and outlines what it considers acceptable shop practices. This could be considered an adjunct to the ABYC systems standards.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) similarly has rules germane to its interests. Like the ABYC, it’s interested in safe systems, not in rating recreational boats for various wind and weather conditions.

The Offshore Racing Council (ORC) has established certain requirements for yachts to compete in certain sanctioned races. Some of these deal with safety equipment, but the more interesting ones to prospective boatbuyers have to do with features like cockpit volume, portlight size, and lifeline height. You can get a copy from US Sailing (www.ussailing.org).

Some gear installed in boats probably will have been tested and/or certified by other more industrial outfits like the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM International), a voluntary standards organization, and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which is a “private, non-profit organization (501(c)3) that administers and coordinates the U.S. voluntary standardization and conformity assessment system. The Institute’s mission is to enhance both the global competitiveness of U.S. business and the U.S. quality of life by promoting and facilitating voluntary consensus standards and conformity assessment systems, and safeguarding their integrity.”

Gear that would be standardized according to ANSI might include anything from a sink drain to a screw to a switch. ANSI is, for example, the group that makes sure all household lightbulbs have the same thread.

Then there’s Underwriters Laboratories (UL)—but it doesn’t develop scan’tlings for pleasure boats either.

This brings us to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The easiest way to present this organization is to quote from its own self-explanation, which actually makes pretty interesting reading:


The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is a worldwide federation of national standards bodies from some 140 countries, one from each country.

ISO is a non-governmental organization established in 1947. The mission of ISO is to promote the development of standardization and related activities in the world with a view to facilitating the international exchange of goods and services, and to developing cooperation in the spheres of intellectual, scientific, technological, and economic activity.

ISO’s work results in international agreements which are published as International Standards.

The ISO Name: Many people will have noticed a seeming lack of correspondence between the official title when used in full, International Organization for Standardization, and the short form, ISO. Shouldn’t the acronym be “IOS”? Yes, if it were an acronym — which it is not.

In fact, “ISO” is a word, derived from the Greek isos, meaning “equal,” which is the root of the prefix “iso-” that occurs in a host of terms, such as “isometric” (of equal measure or dimensions) and “isonomy” (equality of laws, or of people before the law)…

Why is international standardization needed? The existence of non-harmonized standards for similar technologies in different countries or regions can contribute to so-called “technical barriers to trade.” Export-minded industries have long sensed the need to agree on world standards to help rationalize the international trading process. This was the origin of the establishment of ISO.


ISO goes on to list the main reasons for its existence: worldwide progress in trade liberalization; inter-penetration of sectors; worldwide communications systems; global standards for emerging technologies; and developing countries that benefit from a standardized infrastructure.


ISO 9000 and ISO 14000 in plain language: Both “ISO 9000” and “ISO 14000” are actually families of standards which are referred to under these generic titles for convenience. Both families consist of standards and guidelines relating to management systems, and related supporting standards on terminology and specific tools, such as auditing (the process of checking that the management system conforms to the standard).

ISO 9000 is primarily concerned with “quality management.” Like “beauty,” everyone may have his or her idea of what “quality” is. In plain language, the standardized definition of “quality” in ISO 9000 refers to all those features of a product (or service) which are required by the customer. “Quality management” means what the organization does to ensure that its products conform to the customer’s requirements.

ISO 14000 is primarily concerned with “environmental management.” In plain language, this means what the organization does to minimize harmful effects on the environment caused by its activities.

Both ISO 9000 and ISO 14000 concern the way an organization goes about its work, and not directly the result of this work. In other words, they both concern processes, and not products — at least, not directly.


As bureaucratic autobiographies go, this one at least makes an attempt to be clear. Unfortunately, the manner in which ISO standards actually impact boatbuilding practices is anything but straightforward, and this seems to be due to the myriad complicated economic relationships between European countries.

Certifications and Ratings: What’s the Deal?

Let’s start with the European Economic Area (EEA), which is composed of 15 countries—Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom; as well as three of four members of the European Free Trade Association: Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein.

The EEA countries, as well as Switzerland, Tunisia, and Turkey, adopted something called the Recreational Craft Directive (RCD), which basically says that some set of standards must be met and provides a mechanism for making sure that boatbuilders and equipment manufacturers comply.

The RCD strongly urges that builders use ISO above other standards. Moreover, with few exceptions all boats—new and used—sold in Europe (which effectively encompasses all the countries belonging to the EEA) must be marked Conformité Européene (CE).

While builders of smaller boats can self-certify, a company building boats larger than 12 meters (roughly 39 feet) must apply for CE certification by showing its work to a “notified body,” which in the UK would include Lloyd’s Register; in France, Bureau Veritas; in Germany, Germanischer Lloyd; in Italy, Registro Italiano Navale (RINA); in Japan, Nippon Kaiji Kyokai; and in Norway, Det Norske Veritas.

There is also the Brussels, Belgium-based International Marine Certification Institute (IMCI), which was set up in part by the NMMA to aid U.S. builders. IMCI claims to have 60% of the certification business.

All of these outfits are akin to the ABS here in the U.S., and may be loosely called certification societies. This sort of implies that they are non-profit entities one step removed from government. This is not quite the case.

Here’s Germanischer Lloyd’s explanation of its “History and Corporate Form”:


In order to be able to assess ships’ quality and safety independently of outside interests, in 1867 Hanseatic shipowners and underwriters initiated the foundation of a classification society. Germanischer Lloyd was established in the form of a co-operative society. In 1899 the society was transformed into a joint-stock company having the character of a non-profit organization. Now as before, the 800 not freely transferable registered shares are owned by members of the shipping community (shipowners, shipyards, bankers and subcontractors). Subject to the company statutes, the shares may be transferred at par and with the Executive Board’s approval only.

Germanischer Lloyd has since developed from a classification society for ships into an engineering and inspection company operating worldwide. The object of the company is surveillance of safety and quality in the maritime sector.

Germanischer Lloyd is one of the leading classification societies worldwide. As an independent and impartial society GL supervises quality and safety mainly for ships and for maritime installations. Highly qualified engineers are operative worldwide at over 450 locations in more than 135 countries with major markets in Europe, the Americas and Asia.


So, yes, these societies are aggressively marketing themselves, and not to yacht owners, but to shipping magnates. Here’s the pitch from Lloyd’s Register:


We believe that our approach to classification is more dynamic than the traditional prescriptive approach. Applying our market-leading knowledge gained over many years, we can provide a robust framework for a risk-based approach to managing your fleet within the classification context. This enables you to incorporate effective risk management into your day-to-day business.


Lloyd’s Register has a number of standards to which builders can construct a yacht. The higher ratings require a Lloyd’s inspector to observe construction of the yacht at various phases to insure that the builder’s practices meet the rules. The cost of this inspection is inevitably passed along to his customer.

Have a look at the table below, “The Four Categories,” which defines various levels of seaworthiness that a builder can aim for. There are a number of ways in which a boatbuilder may have to get approval. Called “modules,” these range from “Internal production control” to “Conformity to Type” and “EC-type Examination,” which might work like this: Once a builder completes plans and engi neering details, and presumably builds the boat, he asks a “notified body,” such as IMCI, Lloyd’s Register, or Bureau Veritas, to examine his work and certify that the boat is indeed of the class claimed, such as B. OFFSHORE. The notified body determines whether the boat meets the applicable rules and either grants or denies certification. As we learned with the ill-fated attempt of ABS to write rules for small offshore sailboats, the standards applied by a notified body to a given boat may not be stringent or even reasonable. Here’s the RCD phraseology:


1. A notified body ascertains and attests that a specimen, representative of the production envisaged, meets the provisions of the Directive that apply to it.


And what, you may ask, are the applicable provisions? Here’s all the RCD says about structures:


3.1. Structure
The choice and combination of materials and its construction shall ensure that the craft is strong enough in all respects. Special attention shall be paid to the design category according to section 1, and the manufacturer’s maximum recommended load in accordance with section 3.6.

3.2. Stability and freeboard
The craft shall have sufficient stability and freeboard considering its design category according to section 1 and the manufacturer’s maximum recommended load according to section 3.6.


Other requirements pertain to components like “Ignition-protected equipment for inboard and stern drive engines,” and “Steering wheels, steering mechanisms and cable assemblies.”(Interestingly, classification societies do not deal with the mast and rigging or sailplan.)

Note that no scan’tlings are specified. Therefore, if a builder claims his boats are A. OCEAN, and a “notified body” agrees that it conforms to applicable standards, then it is, at least according to the RCD and ISO (which is always in the background), a transoceanic-capable boat. But what does that mean? Here’s Hunter Marine’s statement on CE certification:


CE Certified boats are available for purchase in the United States, upon special order and for increased cost. As stated in our owners’ manuals, all CE Certified boats will carry a special CE plate, which will be attached to the boat. Boats that are destined for Europe or countries that require CE Certification will have this plate. Boats intended to be sold in the U. S. and most other areas will not carry the plate even though many aspects of the boat comply with the requirements. All hulls and decks are constructed to the same specifications whether they are to be CE Certified or not. The difference is in add-on accessories and different voltage appliances specified for certain countries.


This is a clear, non-glossy explanation of Hunter’s view of the benefits of CE certification (or lack thereof). It’s possible for builders to run that ball the other way, too, by making a bigger deal out of CE (or any other certification) than might be justified or necessary, simply to dazzle the customer.

ISO 12215
In any case, much of this is about to change. Scan’tlings from ISO are on the way. The standard, known as ISO 12215, is now in draft form and does specify minimum hull thicknesses.

At present there are 20 “harmonized” (meaning ratified by the governments of all countries) ISO standards for many boat systems, including steering, bilge pumps, seacocks, and electrical systems. Many more are in draft form—47 to be exact. These include not only scan’tlings for composites, metal, and wood, but others for stability and buoyancy. These, plus other standards, such as portlights, contain language that relates to the four categories of general seaworthiness mentioned above.

So… What Does It It All Mean?
In the U.S., all that really counts is compliance with the US Coast Guard’s rules and the ABYC’s “Standards and Technical Information Reports for Small Craft.” Compliance may be necessary for insuring the vessel. But compliance should not imply that a given boat is suitable for a given set of conditions—and that’s what a lot of people want to know: Is my boat safe to take offshore?

Most of ABYC’s standards are sensible and should be incorporated in any boat, be it a sheltered-water runabout or round-the-world ketch. Many ISO standards were drawn from the ABYC and USCG and, if not identical, are generally of similar intent.

ABYC, however, does not promulgate scan’tlings such as fiberglass laminate thickness or design elements such as draft, beam-length ratios, etc. You could build a fiberglass tub an inch thick that wouldn’t be seaworthy, or a thin-skinned boat so intelligently conceived and engineered that it could survive falling off monster waves. And what of the skipper and crew? In extreme conditions the survivability of any boat is largely dependent on the skills of its crew. How do you write any of these elements into a rule?

The Bottom Line
A boat that meets ABYC, ISO, or any other set of standards is more than likely a safer boat than one that does not. For the most part, the standards will apply to components such as fuel tanks, exhaust systems, installation of through-hull fittings, etc.

No rule can certify a certain design as “safe” offshore. The ocean can overwhelm any small craft, and the symphony of design, construction, fitting out, and crew skill are too varied and too complex to put on paper as definitions of offshore safety. We would not accept a CE/ISO designation of “A. OCEAN” as any sort of guarantee as to a boat’s suitability for crossing an ocean.

The intent behind ABYC, ISO and other standards is a worthy one—to protect the public from its own ignorance, and from manufacturers who may not have the best interest of their customers at heart.

Even though classification societies are almost inevitably beneficial, Practical Sailor is wary of the business side of certifying boats as ocean or offshore capable, and especially wary of the way in which it’s possible for a builder to “hype” a certification for marketing purposes, since it risks deluding a novice skipper into believing he has a boat that will cover his weaknesses. This is never the case.


Also With This Article
Click here to view “The Four Categories.”

Contacts- ABYC, 3069 Solomons Island Rd., Edgewater, MD 21037; 410/956-1050; www.abycinc.org. International Marine Certification Institute, Rue Abbé Cuypers 3, Brussels B-1040, Belgium; 32-2-741-6836; www.imci.org. US Sailing, 15 Maritime Dr., Portsmouth, RI 02871; 401/683-0800; www.ussailing.org.

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. Darrell is booking speaking engagements in Colorado, Idaho, California, the Pacific Northwest, and British Colombia this summer. You can reach him by email at practicalsailor@belvoir.com.