A recent experience dealing with life-saving appliances prompted Tania Nicholls to think about why regulations are so varied when it comes to something as clear-cut as safety.

For some years, I have been employed on a private MCA-registered, 43m sailing yacht. The crew worked hard to maintain the yacht and its safety systems to the level laid out in the Large Yacht Code and always within the MCA rules for private yachts. More recently, I have done a stint on another private Red Ensign-flagged yacht – not MCA – and I was a little shocked at what I found.

The owner of the non-MCA yacht is new to yacht ownership and we were looking at the Life-Saving Appliance (LSA) code. When I tried to refer to the flag state for directions on LSA and crew qualifications, I found there were none for private yachts under 500gt, other than a strong recommendation to follow the MCA Large Yacht Code. I contacted the registry which confirmed there were no enforceable requirements, just a general duty of care under health and safety.

The MCA works quite differently. Crew-qualification notices MSN 1858 and MSN 1859 explain that they form an alternative arrangement to the full STCW convention. A private yacht can choose to either comply with the lesser requirements of the marine notice or the higher requirements of the STCW convention. Regarding safety and firefighting equipment, MGN 538 offers guidance on the regulations and exemptions applicable to pleasure vessels, including those over 24m. Again, an owner can choose to apply the lesser requirements of the MGN, or the full SOLAS requirements. Carrying nothing is not considered an option.

I do not understand why there is a difference in approach. Why does one registry advise there are no applicable rules and the MCA advises that you may, if you wish, apply its notices, or otherwise refer to international conventions?

"I often advise younger colleagues to listen to their gut feeling – if it doesn’t feel safe it probably isn’t."

Nor can I fathom why higher safety requirements apply only to commercial vessels when private vessels also employ professionals. Crew working on private yachts are just as exposed to workplace risks and the dangers of working at sea as crew on those yachts with paying guests. Surely we should receive the same protection in law.
I often read articles bemoaning the legislation that governs safety on yachts because of the paperwork and systems it imposes, but without it you are relying entirely on the good sense, goodwill and forward-thinking of individuals to provide a level of safely in an environment in which they may have no prior experience. When it comes to yacht ownership, there are no qualifications; an owner doesn’t have to appreciate the dangers before purchasing a yacht and employing crew.

About half of my time on yachts has been on private vessels, and for the most part I have been lucky – the owners really meant it when they agreed safety was paramount. Just occasionally, I’ve been on yachts where owners say the words but do not follow them up with action or investment.

This leaves safety-minded crew who have tried unsuccessfully to influence a yacht owner towards safer practices in employing crew, purchase of LSA, reliable systems and having crew who know how to use equipment just one option – and that is to leave. Sadly, this does not protect those who come afterwards, but without support from the registry and the legislation, what other choice is there?

As crew, it puts the onus of safety on us as individuals. I often advise younger colleagues to listen to their gut feeling – if it doesn’t feel safe it probably isn’t. Don’t be fooled into sticking with a situation because someone else says it’s okay. Have the courage of your convictions and be prepared to walk away.

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