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Minding the Gap

The American Boat and Yacht Council has been issuing safety standards for more than 60 years — with good reason
The Code of Federal Regulations was aimed at runabouts and other small boats

The Code of Federal Regulations was aimed at runabouts and other small boats

It was a typical summer scene on Vineyard Sound in Massachusetts. Two anglers were on a 25-foot center console, fishing on a relatively choppy day in a well-trafficked area. Built in 2019, the semicustom boat had been performing well. One angler hooked a fish, so the second individual stepped to the controls to ensure they stayed out of traffic and to mitigate any bouncing around.

The boat operator slid the throttle into neutral and was eyeing her passenger when another boat kicked up a wake, bumping her into the helm station and knocking the throttle into gear. The vessel lurched forward. Luckily, while the fellow with the rod at the stern took a slight tumble, everyone recovered quickly. No harm done. And the fish was landed.

The controls on that boat didn’t have a neutral locking mechanism. Was the boat built to federal regulations? Yes. But was it built to the best standard possible?

Laws, Regulations and Standards

Navigating the laws, regulations and standards surrounding boat construction and repair can be daunting for the uninitiated. First, we need to understand the differences among them.

Laws are mandated by government compliance, such as the U.S. Code enacted by Congress. Regulations are rules adopted by administrative agencies responsible for enforcing the law, such as the Code of Federal Regulations. And standards are defined as specifications for a component or system that ensures it is being installed and used safely and efficiently, such as the ABYC Standards and Technical Information Reports for Small Craft.

The Code of Federal Regulations is a 200-volume publication that codifies everything from finance and education to patents and navigation. It simply cannot address the real-time technological, material and design advancements specific to the marine industry. First published in 1938 and updated in 1971 under the Federal Boat Safety Act, this code was originally written for small vessels. The regulations are limited, with most applying to boats smaller than 20 feet length overall, and to boats with inboard gasoline engines — not the powerboats we see today with multiple outboards, intricate controls and various fuel, electrical and plumbing systems.

ABYC has been addressing the gap between the code and the shifting boating environment for more than 60 years, with its first safety standards available as early as 1955. The first official ABYC Standards and Technical Information Reports for Small Craft, published in 1967, was a booklet pulled together by a committee of industry professionals, government personnel and representatives of the boating public. Today, that framework and the need for standards hasn’t changed much, except that the Project Technical Committees are composed of about 400 volunteers, and the latest standards update was more than 1,200 pages. In 2021, approximately 90 percent of all boats manufactured in the United States were built to ABYC standards.

The ABYC conducts testing on a variety of models.

The ABYC conducts testing on a variety of models.

ABYC standards are an essential complement to regulations. Case in point: As of Aug. 1, 2022, ABYC’s P-28: Electric/Electronic Control Systems for Propulsion and Steering will require a neutral hold for certain top-mount controls. While a neutral hold on side-mounted controls has been an ABYC requirement for decades, the standards regarding top-mounted controls needed to be addressed and updated so as to avoid, say, an angler toppling overboard because the boat operator got knocked into the helm in rough water.

“Some people think ABYC staff write the standards alone in some ivory tower,” says Brian Goodwin, technical director for ABYC. “That is simply not the case. Our process is open and consensus-based. We rely on the expertise of those involved, and it is critical that we have a broad range of people involved with the project technical committees, from surveyors to boatbuilders.”

There’s a Standard for That

ABYC’s technical department meets throughout the year with its project technical committees to revisit, revise, review and update the Standards and Technical Information Reports for Small Craft. If there is no regulation or an inadequate regulation, there is likely an ABYC standard to provide the essential requirements on safety, testing and operation.

For instance, when the Code of Federal Regulations was created, and even when the Federal Boat Safety Act was implemented, people weren’t overly concerned with the effects of high speeds and rough conditions on recreational vessels. Boats in our daily lives simply did not go that fast. Runabouts didn’t have upper decks (H-5: Boat Load Capacity, 7/21). Kids scrambling over outboards and boats lurching forward at the dock were incidents we chalked up to lessons learned. Now these potential safety issues are covered in ABYC H-41: Reboarding Means, Ladders, Handholds, Rails and Lifelines and the aforementioned P-28.

Many of us of a certain age likely grew up without swim ladders. Some of us were taught to use the lower unit on the outboard as a step to hoist ourselves over the transom, primarily on ski boats and engines built in the 1960s. Thanks to the above-mentioned Reboarding Means, Ladders, Handholds, Rails and Lifelines, first published in 1973 as A-18 (now H-41), swim ladders became an increasingly common sight — less of an accessory and more of a necessity.

But even with swim ladders, people still tended to step on the sterndrive. H-41 has been revised multiple times, most recently to include “the top surface of the lowest step of a reboarding ladder … shall be at least 22 inches below the waterline with the boat in the static floating position.” Why? Because humans are not inherently contortionists, and many of us don’t have the core strength to heave ourselves up with such a short lead. ABYC conducted a study on how people reboarded boats, and many were instinctively stabilizing themselves by stepping on the sterndrive. When the ladder extends from the original ABYC Standard of 12 inches to 22 inches below the waterline, a person’s chance of coming into contact with the propeller is greatly reduced.

Read any boating community forum, and you’re likely to stumble across discussions about seat pedestals. “Why isn’t there a regulation for it?” people ask. These discussions stemmed from incidents in the late 1980s and early ’90s when pedestal seats on older boats were literally falling over. Once a plywood deck got wet and began to rot, the screws would pull out because of the forces generated by increasingly aggressive boat movement.

This year, an estimated 90 percent of U.S.-built boats were manufactured according to ABYC standards. 

This year, an estimated 90 percent of U.S.-built boats were manufactured according to ABYC standards. 

For this, ABYC and the Hull and Deck Structures PTC developed and published H-31: Seat Structures, in 1994. The standard offers a guideline on such details as seat design, deck materials, testing conditions and warning labels. Since its initial inception, H-31 has been revised five times — most recently in 2020 — to accommodate changes in the marine environment and advancements within boat manufacturing and repair.

The standards don’t come together in a vacuum, and ABYC’s technical team relies heavily on input from builders, surveyors, legal professionals, marine technicians and manufacturers. In other words, the people who live and breathe within the reality of boating. During the second week in January, ABYC’s project technical committees will be meeting at Standards Week in Charleston, S.C., to revise existing standards or to consider new ones related to warning labels, powering, capacity, power conversion, lithium batteries, fuel and ventilation, control systems and boat-handling skills.

Read more about it at abycstandardsweek.com and join the conversation if you aren’t already involved. 

Sarah Devlin is director of content for the American Boat and Yacht Council.

This article was originally published in the December 2021 issue.

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