When at the end of the 18th century merchant shipping was growing, the shipping community started to feel the need for insurance to protect their growing assets. First this was done on a mutual basis at Lloyds’ in London, afterwards specialised and private insurance companies were founded.

In the 18th century, all involved in shipping gathered at Edward Lloyds’ coffee house in London to gossip and make deals including sharing the risks and rewards of individual voyages. This became known as “underwriting” after the practice of signing ones name to the bottom of a document pledging to make good a portion of the losses if the ship didn’t make it in return for a portion of the profit.25

However the underwriters needed a way to evaluate the risk they were insuring and thus had to find a way to assess the quality of the ships.

At that time, an attempt was made to 'classify' the condition of each ship’s hull and equipment on an annual basis. The condition of the hull was classified A, E, I, O or U, according to the state of its construction and its continuing soundness (or lack thereof).

The purpose of this classification system was not to assess safety, fitness of the construction and its equipment or seaworthiness of the ship. It was to evaluate risk.

In the 19th century, various “Classification Societies” were founded.

A classification society is a non-governmental organization in the shipping industry, often referred to as 'Class'.

Classification of Ships today

As a consequence of a normal evolution, the practice of dividing vessels into different classifications has been replaced. Classification Societies today have drawn up sets of technical requirement (rules and codes) on how ships have to be designed and built to meet minimal standards of technical quality.

These rules and codes as based on international regulation and conventions, standards and codes that they have developed or those developed at the request of the shipping industry.

Today a ship either meets the relevant class society’s rules or it does not. As a consequence it is either 'in' or 'out' of 'class'.

Classification societies do not issue statements or certifications that a vessel is 'fit to sail' or 'unfit to sail', merely that the vessel is in compliance with the required codes.

Obviously, for different types of vessels, different sets of (additional and/or specific) regulation have been developed.

The area of interest of the Classification Societies is not limited to a vessel’s construction, but also involves cranes, pumps, engines, fire fighting installations and other equipment vital to the ship's function.

Classification Societies are not only engaged in the (1) designing and (2) building process of ships, but, even more important, they constantly follow up the condition of vessels and their equipment through (3) periodical inspections (surveys).

At regular intervals, the period depending the specific item to be inspected (yearly, bi-yearly up to every five years), the whole vessel and its equipment is visited by a Class surveyor to confirm the safe and sound condition of the vessel.

If anomalies are established, the “class” can be suspended (worst case scenario). However, as a daily practice, a “condition of Class” or “recommendation” is issued.

This gives then the ship owner time to rectify the technical problem.

As well as providing classification and certification services, the larger societies also conduct research at their own research facilities in order to improve the effectiveness of their rules and to investigate the safety of new innovations in shipbuilding.

Classification Process

Classification Societies set technical rules, confirm that designs and calculations meet these rules and survey ships and structures during the process of construction and commissioning.

After a vessel had been built and the Classification Society involved has confirmed that a vessel meets the technical requirements as stipulated in their rules and regulations, a certificate is issued. The “Classification Certificate”, sometimes split into separate certificates such as “Classification Certificate for Hull” and “Classification Certificate for Machinery”.

Once a vessel is trading its Classification Society periodically surveys the vessel to ensure that it continues to meet the rules.

These periodical surveys are annually, bi-annually and five yearly and by definition, involving critical parts of the vessel. To avoid a vessel having to be stopped to allow these necessary inspections, and delays in the commercial exploitation of the vessel, “Class” societies have introduced the “continuous surveys”.

Continues surveys spread the required inspections over a period of time, allowing the ship owner to call for a specific survey, each time this fits into the commercial schedule of the vessel. However this also means that a vessel is in practice almost constantly under inspection.

Whereas the principal involvement of Classification Societies is the classification of ships, which sets standards of quality and reliability during their design, construction and operation; “Class” does also carrying out statutory inspections for national administrations, to verify the requirements set by international shipping conventions and codes.

                       All maritime nations require that ships and other marine structures flying their flag meet certain technical standards; in most cases these standards are deemed to be met if the ship has the relevant certificate from a member of the IACS or EMSA (see 14.4).

Classification Societies may be authorised to inspect ships, oil rigs, submarines, and other marine structures and issue certificates on behalf of the state under whose flag the ships are registered.

International Association of Classification Societies (IACS)26

The International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) is an association of ten classification societies.

“Dedicated to safe ships and clean seas, IACS makes a unique contribution to maritime safety and regulation through technical support, compliance verification and research and development. More than 90% of the world's cargo carrying tonnage is covered by the classification design, construction and through-life compliance Rules and standards set by the ten Member Societies and one Associate of IACS”.

IACS is a non-governmental organisation who is allowed to develop guidance for the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

The IACS has a consultative status with IMO. It is the only non-governmental organisation with observer status which is able to develop and apply rules. These rules have resulted in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).

The members of IACS are:

ABS   -           American Bureau of Shipping

BV      -           Bureau Veritas

CCS    -           China Classification Society

DNV -           Det Norske Veritas

GL      -           Germanischer Lloyd

KR      -           Korean Register of Shipping

LR      -           Lloyd's Register

NK     -           Nippon Kaiji Kyokai (ClassNK)

RINA             -           Registro Italiano Navale

RS      -           Russian Maritime Register of Shipping