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What is vessel coding and why do I need my boat coded?

How to code your boat
Boats racing under ISAF regulations have no requirement for coding during the race.

To help you get your boat ready for charter, we’ve put together this guide on UK coding.

This is intended only to be a guide to the UK regulations and it is the responsibility of the owner of the boat to ensure compliance with all applicable regulations. Different rules will apply in countries outside the UK.

As an overview, you will need to have:

Coding certification will vary depending on what you want to use your boat for. See below describes the seven possible categories:

Category 0 obviously provides your boat with the highest cover, but with this comes additional costs and responsibilities for providing the very highest level safety equipment. You may want to think about what you use your boat for and which category is consequently most suitable.

A ‘safe haven’ is defined as somewhere you can safely tie up and make repairs.

Using the terminology around coding, people will say “This boat is Cat (3) coded” or “I need to charter a Cat 2 cruising yacht”. This means everyone can be on the same page about what the boat is safely capable of.

Okay, I want to get my boat coded. Where do I start?

How to find a surveyor
Requirements for flares and safety equipment will vary depending on the category to which you code.

Some elements of the process you can start to do yourself, such as getting the safety, medical and life-saving equipment ready prior to inspection. We’ve spoken to Suffolk Marine Safety and Hamble Marine Surveys about what is involved.

The exact equipment needed will depend on your individual vessel and which category you want to get the boat coded for. Everything has to be exactly right to pass the coding inspection, so we recommend having a pre-coding consultancy meeting, unless you already know the regulations inside out – which most of us don’t!

We spoke to marine safety expert Roland Mann about the type of equipment that you need to think about:

How to find a surveyor
Liferafts: Essential when you need them. Hopefully you never will.

Roland suggests this list as an overview, but suppliers such as Suffolk Marine Safety can give you tailored advice on sourcing and maintaining the appropriate equipment according to the exact requirements needed for you and your boat.

For example, if you will never be sailing at night then you don’t need lights on lifejackets. Similarly, the type and capacity of liferafts needed will be dependent on how far from shore you plan to go. (This is of course governed by the 0-6 categories.)

There are no real adjustments to the coding regulations whether you charter bareboat or skippered. If you are interested in the full-length documentation on coding your boat, then the two main documents are Maritime Guidance Notes (MGN) issued by the MCA - MGN 280 and MGN 553 which are available online.

When you are ready to get your boat certified, get in touch with a marine surveyor. They are professionally qualified experts with knowledge and experience of boat coding and will come and speak to you for a couple of hours about what you need, what category your boat should be coded for, and how you can keep your coded status up to date after the initial certification.

How do I go about finding a surveyor, and what does the process involve?

How to find a surveyor

The Department for Transport and Marine Coastguard Agency appoint several certifying authorities, such as the RYA or YDSA, who are responsible for inspecting and awarding coding certificates in the UK.

We interviewed Julian Smith of Hamble Marine Surveys, who is the current chairman of coding surveyors for the RYA. He gave us an overview of the process involved in coding your boat, from pre-coding consultancy to certification and renewal after five years.

  1. Your coding surveyor will be able to advise you on what you need to do before they come to perform the initial compliance examination. It is usually best to use a pre-coding consultancy service so that you can feel confident that your boat is correctly prepared before paying for a surveyor to come and inspect it. Consultancy usually takes about an hour and a half, and leaves you with a specific action plan for getting your boat ready to pass the compliance exam.

  2. At this stage you will also fill out an SCV1 (Small Commercial Vessel 1) form, which lets the certifying authority know that your coding process is underway.

  3. Once you feel that your boat is ready, invite a certified coding surveyor to do a full out-of-water inspection of your vessel. They will do this by cross-checking the MGN 280 guidelines against an SCV2 form. Any shortages or anomalies are noted in a ‘Defects Report’ which is given to the owner and provides simple instructions for amending any mistakes. Depending on the severity A, B or C, there may be a simple solution such as adding an additional life-jacket or changing the signage.

    *People often want to know more about the Stability Test, which is reasonably simple for yachts, but can be more complex for motorboats.

    The maximum number of people and all equipment must be on-board to do an in-water inclination test. To save time, an experienced surveyor can give you guidance as to where your boat is likely to categorise. For example, RIBs are rarely stable enough to reach beyond Category 3.

    For sailing yachts the process is much simpler and most meet requirements for Category 2. If they are unique race boats they sometimes have poorer stability due to their high-performance design.

    Data generated from your boat’s stability test will go through a computer system and effectively come out as a number, which will tell you which Category your vessel can be coded for.

  4. Once your boat is successfully coded, you will be issued a certificate with immediate effect. This lasts for five years, provided you keep to the yearly self-certification guidelines, maintain your boat well, and keep all time-sensitive equipment in date.

  5. Even if your boat is coded successfully for chartering, you must also check that the skipper is qualified to sail it with paying passengers on board. See our guidance on this for more details.

There are many coding surveyors who will come and do a consultation and a compliance examination.

There are two levels of coding surveyor:

We recommend getting in touch with a few certified surveyors and telling them what you need. Then based on their advice and pricing, you can decide who you would like to work with.

How much is coding my boat likely to cost me?

There are three main costs involved in coding your boat:

  1. Purchasing and maintaining the relevant equipment.

  2. Surveyor’s fees.

  3. Annual renewal and certification fees.

Deciding to use your boat commercially is a big responsibility and requires significant investment. It is incredibly important to have the right equipment and certification to make your boat safe for paying passengers. Just as you would expect a commercial ferry to be highly maintained, structurally sound and with all the appropriate safety equipment onboard, your charter boat should be the same.

Purchasing Equipment

Providing adequate safety equipment will be your main cost, with surveyors fees coming to relatively little in comparison. For this reason it is hard to predict an average cost for getting your boat to coded status, but for your average Category 2 40ft boat you should budget for between £2-5K. Ultimately, the cost of coding your boat depends largely on how well equipped the vessel already is.

Employing a Surveyor

We recommend that it is usually well worth having a pre-coding survey done when preparing your boat for certification. It is unlikely that the average individual boat owner would be able to be able to understand and apply the MGN 280 in practice, as it takes years of industry experience to determine accurately the coding requirements for each individual boat.

It is usually most cost-effective to hire an expert to help with a pre-coding consultancy and then get your compliance examination right first time, rather than risk failing and having to pay to be examined again.

Coding surveyors who do your compliance examination are appointed and paid only to inspect the boat, so cannot spend much time advising you on changes. Most clients at Hamble Marine Surveys understand the benefits of investing in pre-coding consultancy, to save money overall. You would expect survey fees for an average 36ft yacht to be around £600-£700, but the cost will vary between different certifying authorities.

Annual Fees and Renewal

The RYA have a larger upfront fee and a smaller annual fee, whereas other authorities charge less upfront and more annually. As a guideline, the RYA Initial fees are £48/metre LOA, plus £75 certification fee and £40 stability fee. After that, the cost is £130 per year to renew certification, including the midterm inspection at year three.

It is also important to keep in mind the cost of maintenance, as you have the responsibility for maintaining your boat’s high safety standards. For example, engines may need servicing each year.

As an additional tip; liferafts are probably the most expensive equipment you will have on board your boat. Consequently, many boat owners choose to hire rather than buy them. This is highly efficient for charter companies because liferafts must be serviced regularly and hiring on a ‘swap-in, swap-out’ basis negates the need to be without a liferaft whilst yours is serviced. Be careful about the specification of any liferaft that you buy or hire, and ensure that it is sufficient for your desired coding category.

How do I maintain my boat’s coded status?

How to code your boat
Inland waterway regulations can vary by local authority.

Your boat’s Coding Certificate will be valid for five years* from the date of issue, provided you adhere to certain conditions over that period of time:

* There is an exception for Category 0 coded boats, which must be certified every year. This is due to their unrestricted status and consequent higher safety regulations. All other categories last for 5 years with the mid-term inspection and self-certification listed above.

Once you have completed the process of coding your boat, you can list it on the Boatafloat site and start earning. If you have any further questions about the process, get in touch or refer to these information sites about vessel coding:

NOTE: This guidance is for information purposes only. Coding and compliance with applicable regulations is the sole and inescapable responsibility of the owner of the boat in question which is not reduced by reliance on anything contained herein. Boatafloat Limited shall have no liability for any breach by a boat owner of applicable regulations in any circumstances.

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