Why the BSS?

Just be­cause a boat was fine four years ago, that doesn’t un­for­tu­nately mean it’s still ‘safe’

Canal Boat - - Back Cabin - WORDS BY: MARK DOUGLAS

Ire­mem­ber some years ago a Fen­land farmer telling me in no un­cer­tain terms that he didn’t think much of the Boat Safety Scheme. He had kept his small cruiser on his farm, took the pre­cau­tion of hav­ing a BSS com­pleted be­fore launch­ing and popped her in the wa­ter – it promptly sank…

In many ways, I think this short story il­lus­trates a mis­con­cep­tion many peo­ple have, pos­si­bly not un­rea­son­ably given its ti­tle, as to what the BSS in­spec­tion is for. For many, a boat pass­ing the BSS means it is ‘safe’ which it isn’t nec­es­sar­ily, par­tic­u­larly if you take the farmer’s view that a boat that floats is safer than one that doesn’t.

The re­al­ity is that a boat hav­ing just passed its BSS is known to be ‘safer’ at that mo­ment in time in a num­ber of spe­cific ar­eas. So, to un­der­stand why the BSS fo­cuses only on cer­tain things let’s just quickly re­flect on the his­tory of the scheme.

The Boat Safety Scheme, as we know it to­day, has its roots way back in 1980. Bri­tish Wa­ter­ways, who were re­spon­si­ble for many of the wa­ter­ways, felt com­pelled to in­tro­duce a set of min­i­mum in­stal­la­tion stan­dards. To be­gin with these were only manda­tory for hire boats as they were li­censed, hence BW had a re­spon­si­bil­ity, and tended to be used by peo­ple who were un­aware of the ‘dan­gers’.

The main dan­gers or risks to the hir­ers, and most im­por­tantly the gen­eral pub­lic, was from fire and ex­plo­sion, not sink­ing, and there­fore rea­son­ably this is what they fo­cused on.

Much later, in 1996, sim­i­lar min­i­mum stan­dards wrapped up in the form of the BSS, as we now know it, be­came manda­tory for pri­vate own­ers too. The ra­tio­nale for mak­ing these min­i­mum stan­dards ap­pli­ca­ble to all re­ally was the same as that for the hire boats. If BW was to li­cense a plea­sure boat to use its waters, it had a re­spon­si­bil­ity to try to en­sure that the ves­sel did not harm in­no­cent boaters, staff or mem­bers of the gen­eral pub­lic.

So, as with the hire boats, the main risks were known and the stated aim of the BSS ‘to help min­imise the risk of pol­lu­tion, fire and ex­plo­sion’ has re­mained the same.

So where does all this back­ground lead us? A num­ber of re­ally good mes­sages come out of it. The scheme has clear aims, the stan­dards are well de­fined and writ­ten, it has been run­ning for a long time and it is clearly im­prov­ing over­all safety.

Prac­ti­cally, for most boat own­ers, the fact that it has been go­ing for so long is help­ful as most boats will be over four years of age and have al­ready been in­spected at least once. There­fore, if a boat has passed be­fore then logic would dic­tate that it is likely to pass again un­less:

‘The boat MoT, as it is some­times called, re­ally isn’t some­thing to be feared or re­sented as I gen­uinely be­lieve that many peo­ple find it a use­ful and in­for­ma­tive ex­er­cise’


This in my ex­pe­ri­ence is the most com­mon rea­son for fail­ure in older boats. Cook­ers may have been changed, electrics added to or bat­ter­ies of dif­fer­ent sizes pro­vided.

Whole sys­tems may have been in­stalled such as heat­ing, hot wa­ter or waste tanks. Given this, a good place for an owner to start when plan­ning for their boat safety in­spec­tion is to write down ev­ery­thing that has changed in the last four years and con­cen­trate on those things.

Some­thing else to con­sider for those who have pur­chased boats that have been fit­ted-out over a pe­riod of time is that Boat Safety In­spec­tors can only in­spect what is there.

For ex­am­ple, even if a boat only has just the one ‘sys­tem’ on board it still has to be in­spected, so, an empty boat with an en­gine, as­so­ci­ated ma­chin­ery, starter bat­tery and tank­age in­stalled, but noth­ing else, would have to be in­spected and may well pass. How­ever, in the sub­se­quent four years the owner may have added, for ex­am­ple, fur­ther 12v/230v electrics and a gas sys­tem, none of which will have been in­spected.


This so of­ten is the cause of frus­tra­tion to own­ers and in­spec­tors alike be­cause it is of­ten sim­ple and ob­vi­ous things that cause fail­ure. For in­stance, sig­nage that has fallen off: re­mem­ber, the lo­ca­tion of gas and diesel iso­la­tion valves and cocks must be la­belled. Fuel fillers must be marked as must the lo­ca­tion of fire ex­tin­guish­ers if they are out of sight, so check all of them be­fore your in­spec­tion.

While you are in check­ing mode, take a look at the pres­sure on your fire ex­tin­guish­ers, and at all the wiring, elec­tri­cal con­nec­tions, fuses, fuel hoses etc for signs of rub­bing, de­te­ri­o­ra­tion, leak­age or cor­ro­sion and take ap­pro­pri­ate steps.

Check solid fuel stoves for cracks, leaks and block­ages to the flue. Gas sys­tems, if you haven’t got a gas leak de­tec­tion (bub­bler) de­vice fit­ted, will need to be checked for tight­ness by the in­spec­tor.


As I men­tioned ear­lier, the stan­dards evolve and de­velop over time but to be honest these changes don’t seem to be huge nowa­days. It is pos­si­ble that a stan­dard has been up­dated be­tween your in­spec­tions and what was a pass for your boat four years ago is now a fail. But if this is the case then I think one has to be philo­soph­i­cal and ac­cept that stan­dards are not up­dated for the sake of it and the lat­est guid­ance will re­flect im­proved safety.


This hap­pens oc­ca­sion­ally and I won’t pre­tend oth­er­wise. How­ever, the im­por­tant thing is that the judge­ment is now cor­rect and for­tu­nately both the owner and the in­spec­tor can re­fer to the ex­act word­ing in the stan­dards and hope­fully agree. If agree­ment can’t be reached, and I have never per­son­ally known this, there is re­course for the owner to re­fer judge­ment to the Boat Safety Of­fice.

Boats that are ap­proach­ing their first in­spec­tion tend to be rel­a­tively new, pro­fes­sion­ally built ones which on the whole tend to be com­pli­ant due to the reg­u­la­tions that gov­ern builders, or ama­teur fit-out and/or sea-go­ing boats. For the lat­ter, I can only ad­vise that own­ers down­load a copy of the Boat Safety Stan­dards from the official web­site and work their way through it. Equally, a num­ber of sur­vey­ors and as­so­ci­a­tions, in­clud­ing a ver­sion on my own web­site, pro­vide sim­ple check­lists that might be of help.

Fi­nally, the boat MoT, as it is some­times called, re­ally isn’t some­thing to be feared or re­sented as I gen­uinely be­lieve that many peo­ple find it a use­ful and in­for­ma­tive ex­er­cise. The scheme is based on sound prin­ci­ples and al­though prob­a­bly not per­fect has shown its very real value in rais­ing safety stan­dards over­all. In my ex­pe­ri­ence, the ma­jor­ity of boats pass and the ones that don’t, frankly shouldn’t and that is a good thing for all of us.

How’s this for a gas drain spigot...

Pipe chaf­ing hap­pens over time

When did you last check the fire ex­tin­guisher?

How are the gas bot­tles?

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