The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) is an international maritime safety treaty. It ensures that ships flagged by signatory States comply with minimum safety standards in construction, equipment and operation. The SOLAS Convention in its successive forms is generally regarded as the most important of all international treaties concerning the safety of merchant ships.
The first version of the treaty was passed in 1914 in response to the sinking of the RMS Titanic. It prescribed numbers of lifeboats and other emergency equipment along with safety procedures, including continuous radio watches. The 1914 treaty never entered into force due to the outbreak of the First World War.
Newer versions were adopted in 1929 and 1948.
The 1960 Convention – which entered into force on 27 May 1965 – was the first major achievement for International Maritime Organization (IMO) after its creation. The 1960 version represented a major advance in updating commercial shipping regulations and in staying up-to-date with new technology and procedures in the industry.
The intention had been to keep the Convention up to date by periodic amendments, but the procedure to incorporate the amendments proved to be very slow: it could take several years for the amendments to be put into action since countries had to give notice of acceptance to IMO and there was a minimum threshold of countries and tonnage.
As a result, a complete new convention was adopted in 1974 which includes all the agreements and acceptant procedures. Even though the Convention was updated and amended numerous times, the Convention in force today is sometimes referred to as SOLAS, 1974.
The 1974 version simplified the process for amending the treaty. A number of amendments have been adopted since. The latest Convention in 1974 included the "tacit acceptance" procedure whereby amendments enter into force by default unless nations file objections that meet a certain number or tonnage.
In 1975 the assembly of the IMO decided that the 1974 convention should in future use SI units only.
In particular, amendments in 1988 based on amendments of International Radio Regulations in 1987 replaced Morse code with the Global Maritime Distress Safety System (GMDSS) and came into force beginning 1 February 1992. An idea of the range of issues covered by the treaty can be gained from the list of sections (below).
The up-to-date list of amendments to SOLAS is maintained by the IMO. As of April 2013, the most recent amendment dates from May 2011.[dated info]
Regions of international water
SOLAS divides international waters into regions; see the map provided by the IMO ocean atlas. Also, see the status of these regions along with technical descriptions. Also, see a list of SAR topics.
Sections of the treaty
The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), 1974, requires flag States to ensure that their ships comply with minimum safety standards in construction, equipment and operation. It includes articles setting out general obligations, etcetera, followed by an annexe divided into twelve chapters. Of these, chapter five (often called 'SOLAS V') is the only one that applies to all vessels on the sea, including private yachts and small craft on local trips as well as to commercial vessels on international passages. Many countries have turned these international requirements into national laws so that anybody on the sea who is in breach of SOLAS V requirements may find themselves subject to legal proceedings.
Chapter I – General Provisions
Surveying the various types of ships and certifying that they meet the requirements of the convention.
Chapter II-1 – Construction – Subdivision and stability, machinery and electrical installations
The subdivision of passenger ships into watertight compartments so that after damage to its hull, a vessel will remain afloat and stable.
Chapter II-2 – Fire protection, fire detection and fire extinction
Fire safety provisions for all ships with detailed measures for passenger ships, cargo ships and tankers.
Chapter III – Life-saving appliances and arrangements
Life-saving appliances and arrangements, including requirements for life boats, rescue boats and life jackets according to type of ship.
This chapter requires governments to ensure that all vessels are sufficiently and efficiently manned from a safety point of view. It places requirements on all vessels regarding voyage and passage planning, expecting a careful assessment of any proposed voyages by all who put to sea. Every mariner must take account of all potential dangers to navigation, weather forecasts, tidal predictions, the competence of the crew, and all other relevant factors. It also adds an obligation for all vessels' masters to offer assistance to those in distress and controls the use of lifesaving signals with specific requirements regarding danger and distress messages. It is different from the other chapters, which apply to certain classes of commercial shipping, in that these requirements apply to all vessels and their crews, including yachts and private craft, on all voyages and trips including local ones.
Chapter VI – Carriage of Cargoes
Requirements for the stowage and securing of all types of cargo and cargo containers except liquids and gases in bulk.
Makes mandatory the International Code of Safety for High-speed craft (HSC Code).
Chapter XI-1 – Special measures to enhance maritime safety
Requirements relating to organisations responsible for carrying out surveys and inspections, enhanced surveys, the ship identification number scheme, and operational requirements.
Chapter XI-2 – Special measures to enhance maritime security
Includes the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS Code). Confirms that the role of the Master in maintaining the security of the ship is not, and cannot be, constrained by the Company, the charterer or any other person. Port facilities must carry out security assessments and develop, implement and review port facility security plans. Controls the delay, detention, restriction, or expulsion of a ship from a port. Requires that ships must have a ship security alert system, as well as detailing other measures and requirements.
Chapter XII – Additional safety measures for bulk carriers
Specific structural requirements for bulk carriers over 150 metres in length.
The SOLAS Convention has 159 contracting States, which flag about 99% of merchant ships around the world in terms of gross tonnage.