Safety on the High Seas: Who Makes the Rules?

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The disasters involving the cruise ship Costa Concordia in 2012 and the ferries Norman Atlantic and Sewol in 2014 all have one thing in common: they were recent sea disasters in which lives were lost. While the Costa Concordia and the Sewol disasters were caused by human error and the Norman Atlantic is still under review, there is one question that’s looked at very closely anytime a disaster happens on the high seas: was the ship in full compliance with the  Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS)? Read on to learn a basic understanding of SOLAS, what led to its creation, and what else exists in terms of safety for cruise passengers.

What is SOLAS?

SOLAS is a comprehensive set of rules that guide all cruise ships, cargo ships, oil tankers, and even the small boats that sit in marinas around the world. This document, which has been used for more than 100 years in a few different versions, has been generally regarded as the most important of all international treaties concerning the safety of merchant ships; however, SOLAS in its current state is actually a fairly recent product, given that it just entered into force in 1980.

What existed before SOLAS?

Before SOLAS was conceived, nations had rulemaking bodies pertaining to the high seas, though each nation operated independently of others. One of the better known lawmaking bodies was the British Board of Trade. It maintained standards for British shipping with legal updates until the last decade of the nineteenth century. While the technology had improved and the ships had gotten larger, no updating of the rules was undertaken until SOLAS.


The Ill fated R.M.S. Titanic. Image courtesy of Cliff via Flickr

Why the Change?

The main factor in the change to SOLAS was the disaster in which Royal Mail Steamer (RMS) Titanic sank. To explain why it turned into such a disaster, it’s important to know that the British used a very complex set of rules to determine how many lifeboats a ship needed. This formula is as follows: any ship over 10,000 tons must carry 16 lifeboats with a capacity of 5,500 cubic feet of space plus enough rafts and floats to equal 75 percent of the lifeboat capacity. This was based on the assumption that a human being needed ten feet of cubic space.

Now let’s apply this formula to the Titanic. The Titanic weighed in at a massive 46,000 tons, putting her well over the 10,000 ton mark. This meant that to be certified, she needed at least 16 lifeboats. The Titanic was equipped with 16 lifeboats able to carry 65 people each, meaning that she could carry a total of 1,040 people. Titanic’s owner, the White Star Line, showed that they had done better than minimum requirements by adding four collapsible boats, each able to hold 47 people. That gave the Titanic enough space to rescue 1,178 people.

Now let’s take a look at Titanic’s total passenger number. About 700 people survived the sinking, while roughly 1,500 died. That makes a grand total of approximately 2,200 passengers and crew, meaning that even if the rescue boats were filled to capacity, people were going to die. The only way they could have been saved was if another ship was close enough to the Titanic that she could perform a rescue attempt.

That led to the second problem behind the Titanic’s sinking. According to various reports from survivors, they could make out the lights of a ship on the horizon, and data tells us that was correct. That ship was the liner Californian, and she suffered two misfortunes. The first was that her officers misread Titanic’s visual calls and the second was that at 11:30pm, ten minutes before the Titanic hit the iceberg, the Californian’s only wireless operator, shut down the ship’s wireless communications device and went to bed. This meant that the Californian had no clue what was going on with other ships outside of where officers could see from the ship’s bridge.

SOLAS’ Inception

SOLAS was created as a response to issues from the Titanic disaster. The deaths of more than 1,500 passengers and crew raised many questions about the safety standards that were in force at that time. To answer those questions, delegates from Europe and America met to create worldwide standards. The work of these delegates led to the adoption of the first SOLAS convention on January 20, 1914, although it never entered into force due to World War I.

A second edition came out in 1933 in response to a number of ships that were catching on fire. The results lead to some 60 articles on ship construction, lifesaving equipment, fire prevention, and fire fighting, wireless telegraphy equipment, navigation aids, and rules to prevent collisions.

The third, fourth, and current fifth editions were made in response to changes in the shipping industry. The third edition was designed to update the 1933 convention, which had been overtaken by technical developments. The fourth edition was another update, though it also represented a change in leadership. Up until that point, Great Britain had been taking the leading role in the conventions. After this point the creation of SOLAS and all other international sea-related law was put under control of the United Nations through an agency called the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

The current SOLAS regulations were introduced into force in 1980; however, due to the voting process that was implemented with the law, these regulations are more flexible to changes in shipping than any of the previous conventions. It is also predicted that these regulations will not be replaced by newer standards anytime soon, due to a process known as Tacit Acceptance Procedure (TAP).

How does TAP work?

In short TAP works in the following manner: an amendment shall enter into force on a specified date unless, before that date, objections to the amendment are received from an agreed number of parties. To explain this, here is a hypothetical situation. An amendment has been passed using knowledge learned from the Costa Concordia disaster, stating that cruise ships should not get within 70 feet of any shoreline that is not a port, unless in an emergency situation. The member states of the IMO have a designated period of time to state any objections that they have. IMO currently has 170 member nations and a number needed to stop a motion is agreed upon by the member nations. For this example we will say that only 40 need to state an objection in that amount of time. If that number is reached, the amendment does not pass. If only 30 have issues, the amendment becomes law.

So, who do shipping companies answer to?

Despite the IMO making the rules, they have no direct control over the implementation of them. That role falls on the shoulders of the member governments. Most governments do take this role very seriously and do their best to keep their own companies in line; however, there is another method to keeping another nations’ members in check. Member governments can also put pressure on each other by inspecting foreign ships that visit their ports to ensure that they meet IMO standards. If they do not they can be detained until repairs are carried out. This will cost a company more money than if they do it right in the first place.

Is SOLAS the highest standard in the ship industry?

No, the main objective of the SOLAS Convention is to specify minimum standards for the construction, equipment, and operation of ships; member nations are encouraged to go above and beyond these regulations. Though a prime example is not in service today, there is one example from history that illustrates this point. That ship is the ocean liner S.S. United States, pictured below. Entering into Trans-Atlantic service in 1952, the United States, which was formerly owned by the United States Lines, was built to a high standard of fire proofing, which has yet to be surpassed by any ship. Her designer, William Francis Gibbs, was paranoid about the United States catching on fire due to having witnessed or read about several fires on other ships throughout the course of his life. As a result, the United States was made from materials that would not burn and carried no products made from wood except for a fireproof piano and the breadbox, which was far higher a standard than the SOLAS convention laws in place at the time.


The S.S. United States. Image courtesy of Stewart Clamen via Flickr.

Are there other documents that ships have to follow in addition to SOLAS?

The short answer is yes, because in addition to IMO requirements, every ship operates under the maritime laws of a specific country, referred to as the ship’s flag state. For example, the United States does have other documents that American-owned shipping companies are required to follow and are enforced by the United States Coast Guard. The most recent act is the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010. This added several new passenger rights laws that help in cases of theft and rape on board ship. The laws, however, do not give any directions for what to do in the event of a ship disaster. Some European  nations, such as the Netherlands, on the other hand, follow the code of laws laid out in Lloyd’s Register. Despite the differences the unique law sets are designed to work with each other to help further safety on board for passengers and crew.

So, what happened to the recent boat disasters?

Costa Concordia

The Costa Concordia was a cruise ship that ran aground on an undersea hazard after sailing too close to the coast of Giglio Island near Italy, causing a gash in her hull and the ship to tip over. The Costa Concordia herself did not suffer from any SOLAS violations, other than the debatable issue of crew training; however, what is clear is that this disaster, which claimed 32 lives, was due to human error on the part of her captain. The video below explains how the Costa Concordia was wrecked.


The Sewol was a South Korean Ferry that capsized and sank, taking the lives of 300 people with it. This disaster could have been prevented if the Sewol had not undergone an illegal redesign and was not carrying significantly more cargo than it was designed to accommodate. In addition, the Sewol’s owner skimped on safety features to save money.


SOLAS is a set of laws to help to keep people safe on ships. Through international cooperation these laws are kept up to date and nations are tasked with making sure that everyone is kept safe while traveling on the high seas. While disasters can still happen under these laws–often due to human error–SOLAS seeks to help ensure that there will never be another Titanic disaster situation.




IMO: History of SOLAS

IMO: List of Conventions

US Congress: Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act of 2010

UN: International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea 


David Allen Butler: Unsinkable

Titanic Facts: Titanic Lifeboats 

SS United States: Conservancy

Daily Mail: Titanic Needed 50% More Lifeboats

Chris Schultz
Chris Schultz is a Midwestern country boy who is a graduate of Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa and holds a bachelors degree in History. He is interested in learning about the various ocean liners that have sailed the world’s waters along with a variety of other topics. Contact Chris at



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