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Is the ISPS Code still suitable for yacht crew safety?

27 December 2023

PYA Board Director Captain Rod Hatch writes this opinion piece regarding the ISPS Code’s current relevance in relation to the safety of yacht crew.

Safety Management Systems developed with reference to the ISPS Code are not up to the task of providing yacht crew with protection from threats of increasingly aggressive tactics by environmental activists. This applies to potential physical harm which could result from attempting to confront or deter activist actions, and also to potential legal jeopardy arising from physical contact with activists.


The PYA was recently contacted about this issue by The Nautical Institute (NI) and CHIRP (Confidential Human Factors Incident Reporting Programme). The NI focus is on marina security. This is reasonably well covered in marinas which are ISPS compliant, but only from landward attacks, as emphasized in the Onboard Online article. CHIRP sees a change in public perception across the maritime luxury sector, including cruise ships. They advocate sector-wide security protocols to address the risks which are not covered by the ISPS Code (such as from environmentalist activism). They also asked if there is any relevant form of ISPS Code ready for implementation, which there is not. Anecdotally, one security company contacted about this issue reported that when the subject of such activism crops up during Shipboard Security Officer training, then in general crew attitudes are that activists should be met hands-on, which in fact would produce a disastrous outcome. There is a serious gap in crew preparedness which needs to be plugged here. It appears that captains have no clear directives regarding how they and their crew should respond, both during an incident and then during its negative PR aftermath.


The NI and CHIRP are keen to open discussion with the PYA about how to address the twin issues of (i) yachting’s negative image with the wider public, following the oligarch debacle early in 2023, and (ii) the environmentalists’ campaign to “ban superyachts”. We look forward to having our colleagues at Italian Yachtmasters (IYM), Hellenic Yachtmasters’ Club (HYMC), and Groupement des equipages professionels du yachting (GEPY) with us during the discussions with the NI and CHIRP.


A further factor has very recently made it clear that the ISPS Code has stagnated to the point whereby it is partly the Irrelevant Ship and Port Facility Security Code. Defensive measures such as armed guards and creating an onboard citadel, which were relevant and effective when high seas piracy was a daily threat in some areas, are of reduced usefulness in the present situation in the Red Sea. The Houthi group based in North Yemen has used drones and ballistic missiles to attack 12 ships in the Red Sea and adjacent waters in the past month. Only dedicated defensive equipment on warships can detect and counter such attacks. A targeted commercial vessel would receive little or no warning of such an attack, and anyway would have no defensive capability. There would be no time to shoot, and no time to retire to a citadel. Any realistic defence can only come at inter-governmental level with deployment of military assets. This week, on 18th December the formation of a joint naval task force was announced. In response, on the 19th December the Houthis announced their capacity and intent to deliver attacks every 12 hours against shipping. This is all hot news, but outside of shipping circles the general public is so far not stirred up about rockets being fired at bulk carriers or container ships. To the Houthis, yachts may look like small fry, not worth the expenditure of ammunition. But if the connection were to be made about the propaganda value of the destruction of such a despised symbol of plutocrat wealth as a superyacht, then for an indeterminate period it would be game over for a link between Mediterranean yachting and any place East of Suez.


The yachting industry has the resources to deal with its image problem, and to take corrective action in all areas where it is open to valid criticism on environmental grounds (Part 1: SuperyachtNews - Unmanaged risk; Part 2: Unmanaged risk). Effective implementation will require a time frame of several years. In the interim, the PYA and its partner groups representing crew interests will be active in formulating guidelines for crew in handling environmental protests, in conjunction with other industry bodies.


Regarding the new form of maritime threat affecting the Red Sea, we shall provide regular advisories through our contacts with flag states and involved maritime security companies. It is actually very unlikely that any yacht owners would send their vessel on a Red Sea transit at the moment. Calls to maritime insurers, and reports from on-board security providers, indicate: (i) many yacht owners have cancelled their plans to proceed East of Suez for this winter: (ii) a rise in insurance rates is anticipated for those who wish to make the transit: and (iii) notwithstanding its current news dominance, Houthi terrorism has not supplanted piracy as the major risk to shipping in the Red Sea and adjacent waters, but has piled another serious risk on top.


This article was first published on OnboardOnline on the 13th December, 2023.

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