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The international maritime treaty known as SOLAS, which stands for Safety of Life at Seas, is a convention laying out the minimum standards of safety for the operation, construction and equipment of merchant ships. Flag states are required to become signatories of the convention and ships sailing under these flags are required to comply with at least these minimum safety standards. The current version of the convention came into force in 1980 but was initially drafted in 1974, so is therefore known as SOLAS 1974.

SOLAS forms an integral part of the Polar Code, which establishes regulations for merchant shipping in the polar regions of the world, particularly in relation to ship design and ice navigation capability. More information about the Polar Code can be found in the short video attachment to this post.

Russia’s Minster of Transport Victor Olerskiy presented at the Arctic Circle Assembly in 2015 on the topic of polar shipping routes in the Arctic region. Approximately 99% of the world’s merchant ships in terms of gross tonnage are signatories of the SOLAS convention.

Origins and History

The origins of the SOLAS convention date back to the infamous sinking of the HMS Titanic which happened in 1912. The PDF attachment explores this disaster in more detail.

In response to the tragedy, an early version of SOLAS was passed in 1914. However, due to the outbreak of World War I, this original treaty was never entered into force.

Later versions of the treaty were adopted in 1929 and in 1948 following World War II. These treaties prescribed continuous radio watches and other safety procedures, along with measures such as minimum emergency equipment and numbers of lifeboats.

The fourth SOLAS convention was adopted in 1960 and came into force in 1965, modernising regulations and adapting to keep abreast of new technologies.

SOLAS 1974

SOLAS 1974 was a completely new version of the convention, designed to speed up the process by which amendments could be implemented. Under earlier versions of the treaty, signatories were required to give notice to the International Maritime Organisation of their acceptance of these amendments, which could not be implemented until minimum levels of countries and tonnage had done so. This meant that amendments could take years to come into force.

Under the terms of SOLAS 1974, a policy of tacit agreement was introduced. This meant that countries were assumed to be in agreement unless they specifically raised objections, allowing amendments to be fully implemented unless a specified number of countries objected within the pre-determined timeframe. There have been many amendments implemented into SOLAS 1974 designed to keep the treaty up to date.

Major Amendments to SOLAS

Some of the most major amendments to SOLAS 1974 include introducing GMDSS, or the Global Maritime Distress Safety System, which replaced Morse Code under International Radio Regulation amendments in 1987. This entered into force as part of SOLAS in 1992.

The Container Weight Verification Regulation VI/2 was implemented in 2015, requiring ships to obtain the full weight of loaded containers prior to them being loaded aboard an ocean vessel. To help communicate weight values effectively, a new EDI, or Electronic Data Interchange, protocol was introduced, known as either VERMAS (Verification of Mass) or VGM (Verified Gross Mass). This new communication protocol calls for increased cooperation among stakeholders including EDI providers, freight forwarders, ocean carriers and exporters.

Treaties such as SOLAS are essential as approximately 90% of all the world’s trade is currently transported via ships. A large proportion of this is via the container shipping industry. You can view some more statistics about this in the embedded infographic.