If you have traveled by ship, you've probably heard of SOLAS. What exactly is SOLAS, who manages SOLAS, how did it come into being and what has been the impact on passenger ships?
SOLAS is an acronym that stands for Safety Of Life At Sea. Since 1958, SOLAS has been managed by a division of the United Nations called IMO. IMO is an acronym for International Maritime Organization. To understand the origins of SOLAS and how it became part of the IMO, we need to take a trip back in time.
Our history lesson begins with the most famous accident to ever occur at sea. At 2:20 am on April 15, 1912, Titanic slips below the cold, black waters of the North Atlantic taking 1,517 souls to their eternal grave.
The ensuing publicity brought to light the morbid realization that the Titanic did not have enough lifeboats to accommodate all of her passengers. The safety regulations that applied to her were enacted by the British Board of Trade in 1894. Those regulations were designed for ships of 13,000 tons, approximately 30% of Titanic’s size at 46,328 tons. Even though her safety equipment surpassed the requirements of that time, she was unfortunately ill equipped to safeguard the number of passengers on board.
The sensation caused by Titanic’s disaster was the catalyst for the first Safety Of Life At Sea convention organized by the United Kingdom. As ship designs advanced rapidly over the next decade, a second London conference was held in 1929 and subsequently, after World War II, advances in ship technology necessitated a third London conference in 1948. All of the resulting safety regulations were built upon the original framework created in 1914.
In 1948, the United Nations set out a framework to create the IMCO (Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization) which was renamed in 1982 to IMO (International Maritime Organization). Officially established in 1958, they took over management and direction of SOLAS.
The IMO today consists of 169 countries and 3 associate members. A full assembly meeting is called every 2 years and a council made up of 30 member countries meets in between the bi-annual assembly meetings. The IMO headquarters are in London and it has a permanent staff of around 300. The scope of the IMO covers all aspects of shipping from ship design, construction, navigation, port safety to the end of the life cycle with salvage and ship breaking. Today, IMO policies apply to all vessels over 300 tons.
The 1974 treaty is the convention that is currently in force today with amendments added in each subsequent decade. One key change established in the 1974 agreement, was that all future amendments would be implemented by tacit acceptance. That meant from 1974 onward, all new safety guidelines and regulations would automatically be implemented unless a majority of the membership objects through a formal process. To allow time for compliance to the new standards, the 1974 treaty came into full force in 1980.
The 1974 treaty is broken into 12 distinct chapters. Chapter 2 contains two critical parts that have had a big impact on passenger ships; i) construction (focus on combustible materials), ii) fire protection (specifically sprinkler systems).
Almost all passenger ships constructed after 1974 were built to achieve the standards that would come into force in 1980. An amendment introduced in 1992 required all ships built before 1980 to meet all active SOLAS requirements by October of 2010. This key amendment has resulted in removal from service or scrapping of dozens of pre-1980 passenger ships.
Conversion or Destruction
As part of the new regulations, the majority of all combustible materials must be removed or replaced in addition to having a dedicated fire protection system. If during construction, the combustible materials were installed as part of the vessel’s internal structure, they can be very difficult and costly to remove. Estimates from a leading European shipyard conservatively puts conversion cost between 4 mn and 30 mn Euro. Coupled with typically less efficient power plants, the expensive conversion costs makes older vessels economically nonviable compared to buying or chartering newer ships.
Sadly, very few passenger ships have managed to survive. The table below lists passenger ships built prior to 1970 that are still active in 2016.
Several cruise ships have been retired as a result of the new regulations. After sailing the world for over 95 years, Doulos, ex-Medina was retired and is currently being converted into a floating lifestyle venue in Singapore however this has been postponed many times over the last 5 years. Kristina Regina from 1960, has reverted to her original name Bore, and has been converted into a hotel and restaurant now berthed in Turku. And after years of skirting SOLAS regulations, the 1927 stern paddle wheel Delta Queen, was removed from service with a plan for her to be berthed in Chattanooga as a floating hotel. She is currently in Louisiana awaiting refurbishment.
Many older ships have been laid up or put into a semi-mothball state until they can be chartered, sold to a new buyer or ultimately sent to the scrappers. Securing a longer reprieve from the breakers torch is Queen Elizabeth 2 from 1969. She is currently awaiting conversion into a luxury accommodation ship in Dubai however this is now in doubt. Another stay of execution has also been granted to the Vistafjord (now Oasia) which is being evaluated as a possible luxury hotel in Myanmar however she is still currently laid up in Thailand awaiting action by her owners.
Sadly, many cruise ships have met their demise as result of the SOLAS 2010 requirements coming into force. A few tried to prolong their lives by skirting the boundaries and becoming hotel ships (Black Watch as Ola Esmerelda, Kungsholm as Mona Lisa or currently Vistafjord as Oasia). The passenger shipping industry has not felt a crushing exit of ships like this since the end of World War II.
SOLAS regulations are making the seas a safer place for everyone but accidents do happen. In recent years, several cruise ships have made the news in bringing safety concerns back to the forefront. In 2007, both Sea Diamond (ex-Birka Princess) and Explorer (ex-Lindblad Explorer) sank. Fires have been another significant occurrence on a number of ships such as the Carnival Ecstasy, Carnival Splendor, The Calypso of Louis, Star Princess and Wind Song.
As technology continues to advance, the reality is that older ships will find it tough to stay current with advances in safety requirements. Without a doubt some of the most uniquely designed passenger ships still remaining are closer to their end than the beginning. It has never been a better time to appreciate the legacy of older ships and learn their stories before they too disappear.
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