Friday, May 23, 2008

Rules for U.S. Vessels Visiting Foreign Ports and Passing Through the Panama Canal

International conventions and their associated regula­tions establish a uniform international set of standards. Such direction allows vessels to trade from nation to nation on a single set of certificates issued by a vessel's nation of registry that are honored by the other nations in whose ports the vessel will call. As a safeguard, the international conventions do allow the officials of a foreign port to conduct cursory verification exam­inations on board arriving foreign vessels under a port state control (PSC) clause.
Unless the PSC examination uncovers conditions that establish clear grounds to believe the ship does not comply, in some respect, with the international regula­tions, the certificates issued by the ship's country of reg­istry are honored by the port state. This system of international regulations prevents the certain chaos that would come from each individual nation developing and enforcing its own unique regulations for ships in­tended to travel from port to port around the world. This principal of "reciprocity," whereby one nation honors the certificates of another, helps facilitate trade and commerce while maintaining safety, security, and environmental protection.

Complying With Regulations for International Voy­ages
Once upon a time in the not-too-distant past, most U.S. vessel operators that had routes to other nations could generally assume that compliance with U.S. regulations met or exceeded the requirements of the international regulations. By simply asking the local Coast Guard in­spection office (or one of our authorized vessel classifi­cation societies), we would issue international certificates as a complement to our own certificate of inspection, which still doubles as an international safe manning certificate. But with the passage of time, the world community has taken a much more active role in crafting comprehensive and more detailed rules for vessels on international voyages.
In some cases, these international rules have departed from the direction that the U.S. had previously decided to take in a particular area. Also, the process of convert­ing international conventions into new U.S. laws and regulations strains Coast Guard resources to keep up due to the increased volume and frequency of changes at the international level. Extensive analysis and public comment are required as part of the process of convert­ing international regulations into U.S. regulations.
The Coast Guard reached the conclusion that a U.S. reg­ulation already in place achieves the same result as a proposed new international regulation, but the inter­national community had taken a slightly different tech­nical approach. In some of these instances, we elected to file notice with the International Maritime Organi­zation and its member nations of our intention to issue an international convention certificate to U.S. vessels compliant with the equivalent U.S. regulation. In addi­tion, we may choose to reserve our position on inter­national conventions and regulations that conflict with U.S. law or regulation. This process acknowledges that we will honor evidence of compliance with interna­tional regulations when foreign ships call in U.S. ports while also eliminating the Coast Guard's obligation to apply these international regulations on U.S. ships that comply with U.S. laws.

Smaller Vessel Operators Take Note
Most operators of large oceangoing vessels are well aware of the requirements of the international regula­tions that apply to their ships when visiting foreign ports. What is less well known or appreciated is that many small-to-medium-size vessels may be subject to these international rules even if there is no correspon­ding regulation in the United States. This latter situa­tion has become increasingly common as smaller U.S. vessels become subject to international regulations due to differences between U.S. tonnage calculations and the often significantly higher numbers resulting from international tonnage calculations.
Even vessel categories traditionally exempted from do­mestic trade (that only occasionally venture beyond the U.S.) are sometimes surprised and baffled that compli­ance with our U.S. laws and regulations does not trans­late into full compliance with international regulations, and that a vessel that is under the tonnage threshold do­mestically is well above it for the international tonnage.
Some regulations may not even apply internationally depending on the vessel category, such as barges, yachts, and commercial fishing vessels. One unwary operator of a small U.S. fishing vessel found this out when he made port in an Asian nation. The interna­tional regulations regarding having navigational equip­ment and up-to-date charts on board applies to virtually all self-propelled vessels on international voy­ages-regardless of size or category. To avoid being de­tained by foreign port authorities, it is best to work with your local Coast Guard inspection office well before a planned voyage to ensure that you are aware of all the applicable international requirements and that you have ample time to work up to compliance.

Noncompliance Detention
Being detained in a foreign port for noncompliance hurts not only your vessel, but all United States vessels that trade internationally. Virtually every nation now belongs to an organization known as a port state memorandum of understanding (MOU) that collects and distributes in­formation on regulatory infractions by foreign ships on a regional basis. These MOU s tabulate information about habitually noncompliant foreign ships visiting their ports. A negative ranking is assigned if a pattern of below-average levels of compliance emerges for:

1. One particular ship
2. The ships of a particular ship owner, operator, or charterer.
3. The ships flying the flag of a particular country.
4. Ships inspected by a particular classification society.

A negative ranking results in the recommendation of increased inspections in the noncompliant categories for the vessel or vessels in that category. To date, all but a few U.S.-flagged ships have maintained superior records of compliance. Regretfully, a small number of U.S. vessels are detained each year in foreign ports for various reasons. Over half of the vessels detained are small-to-medium-sized vessels that were simply igno­rant of the international requirements and, in many cases, were not required to be inspected by the Coast Guard for domestic operation. They mistakenly be­lieved that this would be the case when they ventured outside of the U.S., as well.
These detentions hurt all U.S. ship operators by affect­ing our overall national record. The total number of U.S. vessels making international voyages is much less than that of that many other nations with large ship registries. Since inspection targeting under the port state control MOUs is based on a percentage calculation of vessels inspected versus vessels detained, it takes only a small number of foreign port state detentions of U.S. vessels to negatively affect the U.S. ratio of com­pliant to noncompliant vessels. The unhappy result is increased U.S. vessel inspections throughout large re­gions of the world, and the resultant delays and costs associated with those increased inspections. As another negative effect, cargo shippers might shun U.S.-flagged ships to avoid delays to the delivery of their cargo. Doing your part to ensure that your ship complies with the international regulations and keeping your ship in good condition will help all U.S. ship operators main­tain a good reputation.

What to Do if You're Detained
The international convention requires that the port state notify the Coast Guard of any U.S. vessel detention, and that we follow up on the vessel to ensure it is in compli­ance. The Coast Guard vigorously investigates all PSC detentions of U.S. vessels and works with foreign PSC authorities. If we feel the detention is justified, the Coast Guard (and/ or our recognized class society if applicable) will act in a swift manner to verify the information with our own inspectors and initiate corrective action.

There have been rare instances where the Coast Guard received notification from a foreign PSC that a U.S. ves­sel was detained for a very minor item that, under Coast Guard policy, would not normally have been considered a detainable item if it was for a foreign ship visiting the United States. Although we do eventually receive notification from foreign PSC authorities of all U.S. vessel detentions, U.S. vessel operators are encour­aged to notify the Coast Guard of any detention in a foreign port. That way, we can discuss the matter with the foreign PSC authorities immediately and provide assistance in resolving the issue and expediting the re­lease of the U.S. ship from that port.

Appeal Procedures
If there is disagreement regarding the seriousness of the deficiency and its status as a detainable item, the vessel owner may appeal the detention. Procedures for appeal are outlined on the home page of each port state control MOU. Below is a listing of some of them:
1. Paris MOU (Europe and Canada) - webpage:
2. Tokyo MOU (Asia and Canada) - webpage:
3. Vina Del Mar Agreement (Central and South America) - e-mail:
4. Mediterranean MOU - webpage:­
5. Indian Ocean MOU - webpage:
6. Caribbean MOU - e-mail: caribmou@
7. Black Sea MOU - e-mail:

Smooth Sailing
When venturing beyond U.S. waters, it is best to as­sume nothing regarding what may or may not apply to your vessel from international regulations. Seek the advice and assistance of your Coast Guard vessel in­spection department at your regional Coast Guard sec­tor command well before your intended voyage.

For vessels that need to make a rare single voyage out­side of the U.S. to complete a transit from one area to another, it may be possible to obtain a one-time exemp­tion certificate from the Coast Guard for international regulations if the vessel is otherwise in compliance with the applicable U.S. regulations. If you are not sure, it is better to ask in advance than to be held by local officials in a foreign port for failure to comply with international regulations.

Here are some helpful tools on the Internet to assit you in keeping up-to-date with changes in the conventions.

The Coast Guard recognizes several class issue certificates for U.S. vessels. All maintain webpages that contain helpful information for vessel operators on understanding international regulations:

1. Germanischer Lloyd (GL), a U.S. Coast Guard-recognized class society, provides a free annual summary of IMO rule changes. GL's "IMO pilot" is available as a download from the GL Home page at ­ under "client support," "down­load center," "IMO pilot."

2. The American Bureau of Shipping provides information under "regulatory information" at

3. Lloyd's Register of Shipping offers "Reducing the Risk of Port State Control" under "docu­ment finder" at

4. Det Norske Veritas has helpful information at Search under "Port State Control".

5. Bureau Veritashas information under "on­line services," then "Veristar," at<> .

6. Information on obtaining International Mar­itime Organization regulations is available at the IMO home page at