There is probably no nautical topic where more myth, fable and outright misrepresentation exists than in the "classification" of yachts. You've probably seen the advertisements that proudly state that a yacht is "Lloyd's +100A1" or "ABS-classed," but even the owners of these yachts often don't fully understand what it all means.

Lloyd's (Lloyd's Register of Shipping) and ABS (American Bureau of Shipping) are two of the most prominent of the dozen classification societies in the world. In essence, these societies are independent technical organizations that establish and administer standards for the design, construction and periodic re-survey of ships and other marine structures as diverse as oil rigs and bridges.

To fully understand what these societies provide and how they operate, you must understand that the terminology in this field is exacting, and not always what it may seem. First of all, classification of a yacht warrants that it has met all the standards of a society, both before, during and after construction as well as passed rigorous ongoing surveys during the life of the vessel. Other levels of approval are called certification, which involve fewer areas that are examined, or do not include ongoing surveys. Classification continues throughout the life of the yacht (unless it fails a survey), while certification attests to the condition only at the time of delivery.

Lloyd's Register of Shipping is the oldest classification society in the world and, because it is usually referred to simply as Lloyd's, is often confused with Lloyd's of London or a variety of other financial institutions bearing the name Lloyd's. It does share a common starting point with these others, however: the 18th century London coffeehouse owned by Edward Lloyd that became a gathering place for businessmen and shipowners who would arrange to independently insure cargoes and vessels against loss on the high seas. From these beginnings came the Lloyd's of London insurance operation, but an entirely separate entity was Lloyd's Register of Shipping, a classification society that set standards for ship construction to aid in the insurance process.

Founded in 1862, the American Bureau of Shipping is no newcomer and, though also founded to reassure insurance companies, it was originally intended only to promote "a high degree of efficiency and character" among the masters and officers of sailing ships. To that end, tests were developed and "commissions of competency" were issued by what was then called the American Shipmasters' Association. Within a few years, however, the Association had adopted a system for rating, surveying and registering vessels to assure that they were structurally sound and mechanically fit to safely carry crew and cargo.

A classification society is, in essence, a professional third party that assures the owner or buyer of a yacht that the vessel is built to an accepted standard. Everyone else — seller, builder, designer, broker — has something to gain from the construction or sale of the yacht and, therefore, is not to be entirely trusted, particularly when it comes to betting your life at sea. "Regardless of the intended purpose for the yacht," says Bill Crawford of ABS, "we review the plans and survey the yacht with the 100-year-storm in mind."

Let's look at classifications first, since these top ratings tend to be fairly similar regardless of the society, while the various certifications vary widely. A Lloyd's classified yacht is said to be Maltese 100A1, which is usually written +100A1, while ABS offers two separate designations. An ABS-classified sailing yacht is ABS Maltese A1 (+A1) while a motoryacht is termed Maltese A1-AMS (+A1-AMS), the difference being the surveying of the main propulsion system on the motoryacht, or annual machinery survey (AMS).

Each of these classifications requires that a full set of plans be submitted for review and approval, and a surveyor is present during most of the construction process as well as for the sea trials. All material used in the boat is tested and, in the case of aluminum or steel yachts, each plate must have a society approval stamp and each welder must pass rigorous tests. During construction, samples of random welds will be X-rayed and, if a weld does not meet society approval, the plate is removed and a replacement is done correctly. For fiberglass yachts, the surveyor takes careful note of material storage methods, lay-up procedures, curing times, and then performs hardness tests on sample sections.

To keep a yacht "in classification," it must be inspected on a regular basis, usually annually, or whenever changes or damage to the yacht might affect the classification. For the yacht owner, it is a continuing assurance of compliance to standards and it serves as an independent check on his captain and crew, but it is not an inexpensive undertaking.

For owners who simply want to assure themselves that the yacht was properly designed and constructed, most societies offer lesser ratings.

The Lloyd's "Building Certificate" and "Hull Construction Certificate" do not involve ongoing classification surveys. ABS, on the other hand, offers a "Hull Certificate" in which they duplicate the classification process up to the point of delivery, at which time ABS involvement ends. Unlike Lloyd's, ABS also offers a "Plan Review" that takes the same hard look at the hull design and construction plans that they use for a full classification, but no construction surveys are performed and machinery systems are not included. All Sabre yachts have undergone ABS plan review, and several other builders have had plan review on selected production boats.

Lloyd's does not offer approvals of any builder's plant, while ABS will certify a builder to be "ABS-quality." Tillotson-Pearson, for example, is ABS certified, although the yachts they produce are still carefully monitored during construction before the ABS +A1 classifications are awarded. Christiensen Yachts is the only U.S. builder of megayachts to ABS classify every yacht (except one that went with Japanese NKK society classification to that country) and they keep a furnished office for the ABS surveyor who is almost constantly on hand. Dave Christiensen estimates that the added cost is about 3 percent of the total, and probably adds 300 to 400 manhours of engineering time to prepare extra drawings and plans.

A relative newcomer on the American yachting scene is Det Norske Veritas, a Norwegian classification society that has an extensive background in small pleasure boats in Scandinavia. Since 1969, the company has issued small craft type certificates, much like those provided by the American Boat & Yacht Council, in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland. These certificates assure that the craft meets certain construction and design standards, as well as the legal requirements of the Scandinavian countries. More than 600,000 small craft have been type certified, involving 1,300 different models from 400 builders.

DNV offers the same full classification as Lloyd's and ABS and, like ABS, they offer an "Approval In Principal" of plans, which is neither a classification or certification, but simply attests that the plans meet the DNV rules, a procedure that is growing popular in Australia.

The differences between the various societies in ships, where insurance is unavailable unless the vessel is classified, usually are minimal and shipowners often select their national society for ease of access and service. In yachts, however, the differences are not so clear and it usually boils down to which society will give you the best service.

One noted naval architect, who asked not to be mentioned by name for obvious reasons, said that ABS is easier to deal with than Lloyd's if you want to try an unusual design or construction process. If you can back up your idea with facts and figures, ABS will approve it while Lloyd's tends to take a more conservative view of any deviation from the norm. Part of this, of course, may be due to the distance involved, since all plans must be approved at the Lloyd's offices in England, while ABS is based in New Jersey.

ABS has also made a concerted effort to reach the yachting market, and ABS representative Bob Curry worked extensively with the Offshore Racing Council's Technical Committee and several naval architects, notably Gary Mull and Olin Stephens, to devise fair and realistic scantling rules for offshore racing yachts. The result is a comprehensive guide, "Building And Classing Offshore Racing Yachts," that is both up-to-date in terms of technology as well as in a simple engineering format for designers to use.

It's obvious that the classification societies exist in the shipping industry for insurance purposes to provide a uniform worldwide standard, but why is this needed in yachts where a normal surveyor could provide much the same service at far lower cost? For one thing, yachts have become small ships with all the myriad systems and complexities that would be beyond the grasp of any single surveyor and, second, with the growing variety of materials and techniques, the societies provide an information service that shares the success of certain methods and remembers the failures of others.

Very few European large yachts are built without classification, simply because yacht buyers abroad are often involved in shipping, so classification is a way of life and they are comfortable with the procedures.

For that same reason, American builders have been slow to encourage the use of classifications because buyers aren't familiar with them and, almost to a man, they all claim to build better boats than required by the societies. Whether that is true or not is just as debatable as whether a buyer would want a boat built to society standards. One well-known builder noted that it is impossible to build the high-speed motoryachts, now so popular, to classification because of the sacrifices necessary to keep the weight to a minimum. The societies, on the other hand, point out that they have been classing high-speed patrol craft and other speed-oriented vessels for many years, and suggest that the builder is probably cutting many corners in search of an extra knot or two.

Does a classification help sell or insure a yacht? Maybe and maybe not, depending upon the circumstances. One Florida yacht broker agreed that having a Lloyd's- or ABS-classified yacht would encourage most insurance companies to offer lower rates but, at the same time, the owner would pay more than he saved in maintaining the classification and having the annual survey so the ultimate out-of-pocket expense would be higher.

At the same time, brokers seem divided on the resale value of a classification. "If I've got a yacht that is classified, then it's a real important feature. But if the yacht I'm selling isn't classified, then it doesn't matter," one confided frankly. Several brokers, however, did point out that it's very difficult to sell a large yacht in Europe without a classification or, at the very least, an original certification.

One area where a classification can be of real value is in a lawsuit or a dispute over insurance settlements. If you lose your yacht and it was classified, the courts tend to listen to the testimony of a centuries-old classification society that has been intimately familiar with the vessel from the plans stage, and which has surveyed it regularly.

Whether you need classification or not on your yacht will depend on your needs and budget. But knowing exactly what classification or certification means will keep you out of deep water, too.