As yachts travel the world, they necessarily cross the jurisdiction and legal system of different states. This exposes the owner, captain and operators to a complex nexus of laws and regulations, depending on geographical position, country of registration of the ship and the various nationalities of the crew and guests.
A vessel is subject to the legal jurisdiction of the country and assumes that country’s nationality. Likewise, the individuals on the yacht are governed by their nationality, regardless of the nationality of the yacht. The legal framework that defines the complex relationships between nations is comprised of the customary laws and international conventions that have been enacted into the legislation of individual nations.
The International Maritime Organisation facilitates many of such international conventions such as:
• International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) • International Convention on Load Lines (LL) • International Regulations for Preventing Collision at Sea (COLREG)
• International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) 1978 – now known as STCW 95
• International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL)
A state can both take action against a yacht that is in breach of a convention and report it to the yacht’s national authorities who are committed to taking action under the terms of the convention. Even if a nation has not signed up to a particular convention, its vessels may be deemed to be subject to a particular convention as a condition of being granted access to that nation’s waters.
Pleasure not gain
Yachts operated for pleasure, and not for profit, are not subject to all conventions. A yacht on charter is judged to be involved in trade. The Passenger Yacht code applies to all yachts with 12 or more passengers.
Under maritime law, what happens onboard is governed by the laws of the country where the ship is registered. These tend to be small tax havens, known as Flags of Convenience (FOC) states, such as Panama or Bermuda, which have very lax employment protection laws.
If there is any suspected criminality on board, once you have sailed 12 miles away from the shoreline, you are no longer protected by the police force of the nearest country to you. Instead, it is the responsibility of the FOC nation the ship flies the flag of.