What "NMMA-Certified" Really Means

By Michael Vatalaro

When shopping for a new boat, there's one sticker that matters more than the rest. Here's how a boat earns the "NMMA-Certified" logo, and what it means to you.

Photo of inspecting boat engine air intakeNMMA inspector Steve Carrier examines the engine air intake of a boat under construction.

New boats sport a lot of stickers. some warn about the hazards of carbon monoxide, others remind you of the prohibitions on discharging waste or oil. but if you're shopping for a new boat this spring, one to look for says "NMMA-certified using ABYC standards." alphabet soup aside, this means that someone with an enormously deep fund of knowledge about boatbuilding has inspected this model of boat at different times during its building process and deemed it built to standards developed by the industry to ensure a high degree of safety.

This past fall, BoatUS spent time with independent inspector Steve Carrier, who reports to the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), during a visit to Regal Boats in Orlando, Florida, a boatbuilding company that has paid to go through the rigorous process of NMMA certification.

Wait, Aren't Inspections the Coast Guard's Job?

Unlike for cars or airplanes, there are relatively few federal regulations regarding the construction of boats. Sure, the Coast Guard has rules regarding flotation and stability, plus engine-ventilation requirements for gas inboards, but these have little to do with how a boat is built and more to do with meeting minimal safety requirements. As a matter of fact, if your boat measures longer than 20 feet and sports diesel power, there are virtually no federal regulations that apply to its construction.

The federal government doesn't dictate how far away a steering wheel should be from a throttle lever, or how much of the view through a windshield can be obscured by supports, or any of the dozens of other safety considerations. Boatbuilding is largely self-regulated.

To ensure that boating remains safe and enjoyable — and to make it unnecessary for government to step in — the boatbuilders had to come up with an effective way to police them-selves at a high standard.

Standards + Certification

Boats are paradoxical vehicles in that, largely in pursuit of pleasure and at considerable expense, we buy them in order to drive them into a challenging environment. We take for granted that much of the responsibility for getting safely home lies on our shoulders and on our practice of good seamanship, and we put our trust in our vessels that they won't let us down when we need them. The American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) strives to make sure that a boat's construction is not at fault if something does not go according to our plan out there. "It's our industry following the lead of so many other industries, and self-regulating rather than being subject to far-reaching and unchangeable federal regulations," says John Adey, president of ABYC (and one of our own BoatUS Magazine contributing editors).

Photo of examining boat back platesWith the deck cap off, backing plates can be examined for hard-point attachments such as cleats.

Founded in 1954, the ABYC today is made up of more than 400 volunteers who serve on the committees that author the standards, plus a small, dedicated full-time staff. Each committee, known as a technical working group, digs deep into one standard, each of which is reviewed on either a three- or five-year cycle. The groups can be anywhere from 14 to 45 members strong, made up of a balance of boaters, boatbuilders, marine surveyors, government agencies, accessory manufacturers, insurance-industry experts, and some BoatUS staff.

Through these technical working groups, ABYC has written 58 standards, each of which touches on a different aspect of boatbuilding. The overall focus of each standard is safety, regardless of whether it applies to internal fuel tankage or the boat's horn. Collectively, the most recent edition of the standards total 1,152 pages. This phonebook-sized compendium of recommendations is available to all boatbuilders for the cost of ABYC membership, but it is completely optional. It's up to the builder to decide whether or not to follow these standards unless the builder happens to be a member of the NMMA.

In 2003, the NMMA and ABYC joined forces when the NMMA decided to start enforcing ABYC standards through their certification process. Prior to that, the NMMA relied on their own standards, similar to the ABYC's. Now, NMMA's boatbuilder members are required to participate in the certification process. Thanks to their efforts, more than 180 boatbuilders now build to the standards, and NMMA reports that around 85 percent of the boats sold in the U.S. today are certified.

Top To Bottom

The certification process starts with designating someone at the boatbuilding plant as the point person for the venture — a significant role. That person is responsible for knowing all 58 of the standards, inside and out, and for educating the builder's workforce how to comply. The NMMA makes this easier by hosting annual training seminars on the standards, taught by NMMA and ABYC staff, the independent inspectors that travel to each plant, and other industry experts. At the end, there's an open-book test that challenges the builder's rep to apply the standard to real-world boatbuilding examples. "The inspectors have been authoring the exams," says Carrier, an independent inspector hired by the NMMA to inspect boats for certification. "Test takers must dig into the standards and think."

"One of our jobs is to help boatbuilders evolve and comply with the standards," says Robert Newsome, NMMA director of engineering standards. "It typically takes 40 to 50 hours annually to study for and take the compliance exam." The next step is to submit a master list of all the boat models the builder plans to make in the coming model year. New models — or if the boatbuilder is just beginning participation in the certification program — must be scrutinized onsite by a certification inspector.

Photo of inspecting boat generator installationCarrier points out key elements of a proper generator installation and an enclosed cable run (in gray) that keeps the engine room neat and the wires protected.

During our inspection demonstration at Regal, Carrier showed us how he inspects a boat for compliance, moving from partially completed boats to finished boats, pointing out areas of interest along the way. The list of items he scrutinized seemed endless. The standards set everything from the minimum distance between supports for wire runs and hoses, to checking for the presence of a charcoal-filled fuel-vent vapor filter, part of the recently adopted fuel-fill and evaporative emissions standards. With the decks still off a cruiser, we could inspect the backing plates for cleats and wiring for shore power, and see the surface area of an engine-ventilation intake. Inside the hull, the back sides of cabinetry was exposed, revealing wire runs, ductwork for air conditioning, and freshwater hoses.

At one point at Regal, we inspected a midsize cruiser without engines installed. The empty engine bay gave Carrier a chance to look at how other systems had been installed including the generator and its exhaust run, which according to the standards should exit the boat as close to the stern as is practical.

A glance at the fuel system told Carrier whether the boat was destined for diesel or gas sterndrives, which further defined the list of items he had to examine. Carrier knew the standards inside and out, and also carried a condensed version in a notebook. When a question arose about the exact placement of a gas fume detector in an engine compartment, he quickly found the answer (a few inches above the high-water alarm level in the bilge).

Throughout the inspection, Carrier gave notes to Dennis Reis, Regal's head of engineering and one of two people at Regal responsible for compliance. In certificationspeak, any deviation from the standard would be a "variance" and trigger a followup. At the end of the inspection, the inspector turns in a written report within a week listing any variances found. The builder then has 30 days to respond to the NMMA with a corrective action plan for each item. For production-based variances — for example insufficient supports on a hose run, or too many wires on a fuse block — educating the worker tasked with the assembly of those components about the correct process might be all that is required.

"The majority of variance issues that turn up are production-based for a builder continuing in the program," says Newsome. For engineering-based variances, where something was designed in a manner inconsistent with the standards, testing or reengineering the part may be required, as well as photo documentation during follow-up.

Complying with these constantly updated standards for each new model seems like a gargantuan task, but there are ways to keep compliance from being overwhelming. For instance, boatbuilders rely on numerous vendors to supply boat parts; everything from cleats and thru-hulls to fuel tanks and horns comes from outside suppliers. Some items are critical components, such as fuel tanks, and require additional scrutiny in the form of standards from other organizations such as Underwriters Laboratory (UL), or the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

The NMMA compiles a list of those that meet the requirements, deems them "type-accepted," and allows builders to use such components without further testing.

Boating Benefits

Builders that are not NMMA members may still build to ABYC standards, but they are not inspected, or certified. Adey says many low-volume builders do their best to comply and build to the standards. Smaller builders do so knowing that the ABYC standards exceed the minimum requirements of the federal government.

Used-boat buyers can look for the "NMMA-Certified using ABYC standards" logo on the capacity plate of boats measuring 26 feet or less, or look for a "Yacht Certified" plate, typically metal and permanently affixed, if the boat is longer than 26 feet. This indicates the boat was certified to the standards in effect at the time of construction; however, any repairs or changes made by a prior owner may or may not have been made according to ABYC recommendations.

Photo of a marine fuel lineSome types of equipment may be approved by standards other than the NMMA's such as those of organizations like the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) or the Coast Guard.

Manufacturers that go to the added trouble and expense to build their boats to ABYC standards and participate in the NMMA certification process are proud of it and view the certification visits as learning opportunities, where they can improve the boatbuilding process and their products. And though building to the standards can increase the cost of doing business — for instance, the recently adopted fuel-fill and evaporative emissions standard effectively raised the cost of a fuel tank by as much as 300 percent — the builders believe the alternative, regulations written by federal agencies, would be far more onerous. 

Michael Vatalaro is BoatUS Magazine executive editor.

— Published: February/March 2014

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