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Tech Talk
with Mike Telleria

This month’s topic: ABYC, CE, ABS??? – Making Sense of Boat-Building Standards

One of the interesting challenges of building luxury yachts for the world market is getting a handle on all the different boat building standards, rules and regulations that are out there. Most countries subscribe to some published set of guidelines, codes or laws that a boat builder must follow in order to sell a boat in that country. Some of the most familiar to Nordhavn owners are USCG, ABYC, CE, AS/NZS and ABS – and all of these will be discussed in some detail.

Thankfully there is a great deal of parity between many of the different international regulatory bodies that create these standards, so in most cases there are more similarities than differences. However, there still are many differences a builder has to be aware of depending on where in the world a boat is going. While it might seem simpler to just build every boat to satisfy every different international standard there is, one doesn’t have to wade too deep into the details to quickly learn how foolish such an approach would be. The more pragmatic approach – and the one Nordhavn uses – is to offer the ability to build to any published standard there is. After building yachts for the world market for more than 30 years, Nordhavn has gained an enormous wealth of experience in this area.

Before taking a look at some of the more familiar standards organizations, it’s important to understand there are some notable differences between building boats that are labeled “in compliance,” “certified,” or “classified.” In some cases, like in the U.S., it’s mostly up to the builder to voluntarily comply with the published guidance – which is certainly in a builder’s interest to do. In other cases, like in the European Union, by law a boat has to be inspected, documented and certified that it meets the published guidance. This understandably adds to the cost of the boat in terms of hiring outside inspectors and creating documentation. Then there is a whole additional level of scrutiny for any boat where a pleasure yacht or commercial charter yacht classification is desired, which typically involves ongoing inspections throughout the build, extensive documentation and the use of materials and equipment that is held to a higher standard.

In the States

In the U.S. there are a few laws within the Code of Federal Regulations (CFRs) with regard to the construction of recreational boats. However, these requirements are mostly limited to small boats less than 20-feet in length with gasoline engines. There are also requirements for fire extinguishers, lifejackets, navigation lights and visual distress signals (click here to see the Federal Requirements Brochure www.uscgboating.org/fedreqs/default.html). For the most part, however, the government in the U.S. has left it up to private industry to create a body of guidance for building safe recreational boats.

Enter the American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC - www.abycinc.org), which was formed in the ‘50s in response to the emerging recreational boating market. Its focus was, and continues to be, on developing safety standards for the design, construction, repair and maintenance of recreational boats. Its first book of standards, published in 1956, only included guidelines for life saving equipment and battery chargers. The current book includes more than 65 different standards covering nearly every aspect of boat construction.

Nordhavn, and many others, voluntarily build boats to comply with ABYC standards. And ABYC is very clear about what it considers necessary. In its standards it uses “a builder shall” for anything that is a must-do to be in compliance with a specific rule, and “a builder should” for recommendations that are not considered items for compliance. The standards themselves are in a continuous state of evolution and are revised and updated at regular intervals to keep pace with changing technology and improved building practices.

There is no such thing as an “ABYC Certified” boat – and ABYC does not employ boat inspectors who verify that builders are following its standards. It is up to the individual builders to ensure they understand and follow the standards if they want to be in compliance. What ABYC does do is offer education courses where builders can have their engineers and technicians certified. These folks can then use that knowledge to ensure their boats are in compliance with all the latest ABYC standards. Nordhavn keeps its boats current by sending its people to these courses and ensuring the latest standards are adhered to. The benefits of building a boat to ABYC standards include greatly enhanced safety for the owner and a very high measure of liability protection for the builder.

An additional benefit of building a boat to ABYC standards is that doing so covers the majority of requirements for most other countries. In fact, some countries have simply incorporated the language of the ABYC standards into their own book of rules or codes. And, in some of these countries, they have built these standards into their actual law books – so they obviously have a very high degree of confidence in the guidance ABYC is putting out there.

Across the Pond

In 1996 countries in the European Union adopted the Recreational Craft Directive (RCD), which is a single set of “harmonized” essential requirements for boats sold in any member country. Unlike the ABYC standards in the U.S., compliance with the RCD is required by law in the European Union member countries – and third-party inspections and certifications are required as part of the process. The boat is given a CE mark at the end of the process, which confirms that is has passed muster and is legally valid for sale in the European Union. In house we typically refer to these as “CE boats.”

There are at least 60 standards that have been developed to support the requirements of the RCD, and each points to a specific International Organization for Standardization (ISO) document that contains the detailed requirements for that particular standard (such as ISO 10088: 2009 Small Craft – Permanently Installed Fuel Systems). Like ABYC, these standards are revised and updated at regular intervals.

The good news for builders like Nordhavn is there is little real difference between the RCD standards and the ABYC standards. The biggest difference is actually all the documentation and inspections that are required for building a CE boat. At Nordhavn we use special software that basically creates a massive checklist of items that must be confirmed for RCD compliance. In each case we note how we satisfy the specific requirement, and once complete the software compiles a large technical file that is given to the inspector. The inspector reviews the file, inspects the boat and makes note of any additional actions that are necessary for compliance. Once he’s satisfied that all the requirements of the RCD are met, he issues a certification that the boat is worthy of a CE mark.

A Type Certification can be issued for production boats that do not change from boat to boat, and Nordhavn typically does this for its smaller CE boats – that way only the first boat has to be inspected. The larger Nordhavs, which typically change a substantial amount from boat to boat, require individual inspections and certifications for each CE boat.

There’s also the MCA Code of Practice, which is a set of rules that applies only to the UK and other “Red Flag” UK overseas territories (Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Gibraltar, Isle of Man, etc.). MCA is shorthand for the UK Maritime and Coast Guard Agency – and vessels certified by the agency fly the red MCA flag. The MCA Code, which publishes its own set of construction and safety rules, is only for commercial vessels used for sport or pleasure. Even though these are often pleasure yachts, they are crewed working boats and are not considered recreational pleasure boats. The process for building an MCA boat is similar in nature to building a classed boat, which is discussed later in this paper.

The Land Down Under

Nordhavn does a brisk amount of business in Australia and New Zealand, which have published their own set of rules with regard to electrical installations on boats. The most recent version of the Australia/New Zealand standard (AS/NZS 3004.2:2008) was published in 2008 and borrows heavily from ABYC. So again, a builder that is already up to speed with ABYC can easily include the few additional requirements for compliance with the Australia/New Zealand standard.

Compliance with these standards is mandated by law, but there are no special requirements for documentation or inspection like there are for CE boats. It is up to the builder to be familiar with the Australia/New Zealand standards and be prepared to prove that the standards were followed should a regulatory inspector in Australia or New Zealand require evidence of compliance. Nordhavn does this by using internal checklists, noting specific Australia/New Zealand requirements on the electrical schematics and inspecting the boats for compliance as they are built and upon delivery.


Classification of pleasure yachts is a very different animal compared to what has been discussed so far. All the major classification societies, including the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), Lloyd’s Register (LR), Bureau Veritas (BV), RINA, Det Norske Veritas (DNV), etc., are much more involved with commercial shipping than they are with pleasure boats. Classification as a pleasure yacht or commercial charter yacht is normally the target here, with the charter classification being more intensive and expensive. And anything smaller than a mega-yacht or super-yacht is probably not a candidate for classification. ABS, for example, does not classify vessels smaller than 24 meters (79 feet).

When an owner does request a classified boat the classification society gets involved at the very beginning of the design process by reviewing and approving drawings. The classification societies have their own books of standards, which tend to be much more rigorous than ABYC and the others that focus on smaller recreational boats.

In addition to all the documentation and design scrutiny, classed boats receive repeated visits to the factory for ongoing inspections while the boat is being built. All of this will obviously add to the cost of the boat. Nordhavn has built a number of ABS classified N86 yachts, and the additional cost of ABS classification is estimated at more than $300,000 for one of these boats. And once classed, the boats must receive ongoing inspection surveys throughout their lifetime to maintain their status as a classed boat.

What’s It All Mean?

There seems to be this notion that the more acronyms one can attach to a boat, the better it must be. Boating magazines like to try to list as many impressive-sounding endorsements as they can when writing about a boat, but they often miss the mark and create confusion while they’re at it. Here’s one from a boat report written about a 67-foot yacht: Their boats “are certified by ABS and Lloyd’s Register and have achieved the Bureau Veritas ‘unrestricted navigation’ category. This means they also carry a CE Category A ‘ocean’ rating and meet NMMA/ABYC standards.” What?!? ABS is very clear that it doesn’t “certify” boats and does not even look at boats smaller than 79 feet, CE is only for boats going to Europe, and NMMA is not a part of ABYC. We’ve asked magazine editors to be on the lookout for such loose mention of these standards organizations.

The truth is there is little real difference in a boat built to comply with ABYC standards in the U.S., or built to satisfy the RCD requirements for a CE mark so it can be sold in the European Union or built to meet the electrical requirements of Australia/New Zealand. In fact, unity seems to be the current trend in pleasure-boat building standards for boats less than 80 feet in length – with ABYC leading the way in many areas of construction.

For larger boats – we’re talking about mega-yachts and super-yachts like Nordhavn’s N86 and N120 here – it makes more sense to go with one of the classification societies if an endorsement is needed. One can say that classed boats are built to a higher standard than boats built to satisfy CE or ABYC because the classification societies are more-often focused on approving boats for safe commercial usage, which means they have to be ready for years of heavy daily use. Some classification societies do offer non-commercial pleasure boat classifications (like ABS), with the main difference being a much higher level of scrutiny for commercial classed boats.

At Nordhavn the first line of every boat order lists the model of the boat to be built, and the second line notes whether it’s a standard ABYC boat for the U.S. market, a CE boat for Europe, an AS/NZS boat for Australia or New Zealand , an ABS boat for international classification or something else. That way we know from the very beginning what special steps we need to take to make sure we satisfy the particular needs of whatever standard the boat has to be built to.

We can say with easy confidence that every Nordhavn is built to our own high standards of safety and quality, and we’re equally glad to say we have years of experience offering the necessary compliance, certification and classification needed for selling boats to the world market.

Mike Telleria is P.A.E.’s technical writer, responsible for creating the thoroughly detailed, superbly informative and highly coveted Owner’s Manual that accompanies each new boat. Mike holds a degree in marine systems engineering from the U.S. Merchant Marines Academy as well as an unlimited U.S.Coast Guard 3rd Assistant Engineer's license. Prior to joining Nordhavn, Mike served as editor of popular boating magazines such as Lakeland Boating, Go Boating, and Sea magazine.

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