SOLAS V. If you and your boat don't comply, you are breaking the law!! It is not a legal requirement for British people to have a ‘license’ to operate a private vessel in either British or International waters, nor are our yachts and motor cruisers required to be put through any kind of inspection process prior to their use at sea.
This leads us to think that we can go to sea without any knowledge of navigation and in any vessel however badly equipped.
This is not in fact true, as we are required to comply with ‘SOLAS’ (Safety of Life at Sea) regulations. These regulations have been put in place by the ‘IMO’ (International Maritime Organization) and were originally introduced as a result of the Titanic disaster in 1914 when 1500 people lost their lives. There have been many updates since then, the most recent being SOLAS Chapter V which came into force on July 1st 2002 and applies to vessels of less than 150 gross tons, this includes privately owned pleasure vessels.
The organisation in Britain that has been given the responsibility to administer and police these regulations is the ‘MCA’ (Maritime and Coastguard Agency).
A précis of the regulations in Chapter V which directly effect motor cruisers and yachts is as follows:
1. Reg: V18.104.22.168. All vessels should if practicable have a radar reflector or similar device to enable detection by ships navigating by radar. If the vessel is larger than 15m the reflector should comply with the relevant IMO performance standard, which means that it should have a radar cross section (RCS) of 10 square metres. If your boat is less than 15m in length you should fit the largest radar reflector (in terms of RCS) that you can. Whatever the size of boat you should fit the reflector as high as possible and correctly. Note: Probably the most effective reflector is the oldest design of all which is the Octahedron type, the majority of which that I see have been fitted incorrectly and as a result will be much less effective. This type of reflector must be fitted in ‘the rain catching mode’.
2. Reg: V29. An illustrated table showing the SOLAS life-saving signals should be displayed on board. The crew of a vessel when communicating with other vessels, lifeboats and aircraft when in a distress situation should use and understand the signals shown in this table. Note: If your boat is too small or too exposed to carry a SOLAS table you should make certain that you have studied the table before you go to sea.
3. Reg: V31. Skippers are required to communicate by radio or telephone to the coastguard information concerning navigational dangers and winds of force 10 or more for which no warning has been received.
4. Reg: V33. Skippers are required to respond to distress messages from any source. Note: This means that if you see a distress flare or hear a Mayday message on your VHF, you are required by law to give assistance unless of course you are 100% certain that sufficient assistance is being given by another vessel.
5. Reg: V34. Skippers should practice safe navigation and avoid dangerous situations. This means that you are expected to make a navigational plan prior to going to sea, which should involve the following: working out a course to steer, checking the weather forecast, check that the tides are suitable for your planned passage, take into consideration the limitations of your vessel, take into account the experience and ability of your crew, check a chart and pilot book to make certain that you are familiar with any navigational dangers en-route. You should have a contingency plan for every conceivable thing that might go wrong, this should involve ‘ports of refuge’, and - taking into account wind and tide - when you can realistically reach them. You must make certain that your navigational plan is not over reliant on GPS and you should at any time during the passage be able to navigate yourself to safety without the help of GPS should it fail.
6. Reg: V35. Distress signals (flares) must not be misused. Note: This means they should not be used as fireworks and this includes the practice of letting off out of date flares at midnight on New Years eve!!
Conforming to these SOLAS regulations is extremely important, in addition to all of them being common sense and good seamanship, people need to be aware that failure to comply is breaking the law. In the event of an incident, if you are found not to have complied, your insurance could well be invalidated and you could be prosecuted by the MCA and if found guilty you would not be the first person to serve a prison sentence for this type of offence.