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BoatUS And ABYC: Setting The Standards For Safety


BoatUS collaborates with boatbuilders, manufacturers, and others to create safety standards so you can have a better, safer boat.

Boat industry stakeholders, including BoatUS representatives, gathered to discuss how to improve manufacturing standards to make boats safer. | Photo: Courtesy, ABYC

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Earlier this year, hundreds of boat and accessory manufacturers, government agency representatives, and others involved in building, repairing, and surveying boats gathered in Seattle during a rainy week. This was no glitzy boat show or entertaining convention, but five days of serious work for the purpose of making boats and boating safer.

Each year, the American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC) invites particular parties to come together to help establish the standards that boatbuilders and other related companies use. While much of the work goes on year-round, for a week people gather in meeting rooms to nail down the issues, dot the i’s, cross the t’s, and look to the future. The participants volunteer their time and pay their own way to the conference with the sole purpose of making sure ABYC standards continue contributing to a significant reduction in the number of boating accidents. Changes in boating, new technology, and new data are reviewed specific to fuel systems, AC and DC electrical systems, engine control systems, and more.

This is where the real work of setting boat safety standards is done – and BoatUS is right there at the table representing our Members. Our role is critical because while all the participants want safer and better boats, BoatUS looks at the standards from a consumer point of view, bringing the boat-owner perspective to the table.

Sharing in the standards-making process helps us to help our Members in other ways, too. Our participation gives us in-depth knowledge and expertise, so when you see a DIY or technical article in BoatUS Magazine, you can be sure that it conforms to all current safety standards. Participating also allows us to give our Members a heads-up on new standards coming down the pike (see “The Winds Of Change” below).

Fast Facts About ABYC

  • The American Boat & Yacht Council was formed by members of the Motorboat and Yacht Advisory Panel of the U.S. Coast Guard Merchant Marine Council in 1954 as a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) corporation. BoatUS has been a member since 1981.
  • 90% of new boats on the water are built to ABYC standards, and more than 3,000 technicians have been trained and certified by ABYC.
  • There are 16 project technical committees working on dozens of standards. The standards cover a broad range of topics and incorporate all U.S. federal requirements.
  • Transport Canada is now adopting ABYC standards, and the harmonization will lead to one set of safety standards for the design, construction, and repair of boats in Canada that mirrors those in the U.S.
  • Unlike federal regulations for cars, ABYC guidelines are voluntary and considered minimum standards. But while not laws, in product liability lawsuits, ABYC standards are the authoritative reference for evaluating issues of design, construction, maintenance, and product performance.
  • In the long term, ABYC, CE (European), and ISO (worldwide) standards are gradually being harmonized. Boats are built by global manufacturers, and each country has its own standards. Consistent standards across the world makes boats safer no matter where they’re used.

— C.F.

The Winds Of Change

Knowing which products conform to ABYC standards is sometimes hard.

Manufacturers could say their products meet the standards, but in the past there was no way to know for sure because ABYC didn’t verify that they did. But that’s changing, and soon there will be ABYC-certified products that manufacturers will have to prove meet the standards. Members will be more easily able to find things like thru-hulls, electrical connectors, and propane stoves that meet ABYC standards. If a manufacturer claims its product is certified but it’s found that the product didn’t go through the testing process to meet the standards, ABYC will take steps, up to and including legal action, to stop it.

While boats have had high-voltage AC shore power systems for years, most DC (battery-driven) circuits have been 12-volt, which, while still able to start a fire, is not dangerous if a person accidentally contacts the positive and negative leads. But new high-horsepower electric motors are changing that with the recent arrival of high-capacity lithium-ion batteries. These systems can have up to hundreds of volts DC, making them every bit as dangerous as AC shore power, so a new standard for high-voltage DC systems is in the works.

Boat propulsion systems are getting more complex with the advent of joystick controls and someday will likely even include self-docking. It’s important to make sure new boats with these products are designed with the safety of the boat and crew in mind. An ABYC Control Systems Project Technical Committee (PTC) is creating a new standard to address wireless controls, dynamic positioning, and joystick controls.

LED lights are becoming mainstream for most uses aboard, but they work differently than the old incandescent lamps with which we’re all familiar. The Navigation Lights and Sound Signals PTC is working on updating the navigation lights standard to better address LED technology. They’ve also been tasked with addressing the challenge with the growing popularity of accent lights, which could conflict or be confused with navigation lights.

Charles Fort

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine