Flag And Class: Forging A New Digital Partnership

“The first role of the flag is to be responsible for ships operating in a safe, secure and environmentally friendly manner,” states John Ramage, Chief Operating Officer of International Registries, Inc. and its affiliates (IRI), which provide administrative and technical support to the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) Maritime and Corporate Registries.

“We have over 400 employees in 28 offices around the world who provide local service. The registry is growing, which means we have to look at how we can maintain good client relations, and digital services will be a big part of solutions for the future.”

Flag and class better together

The RMI Registry’s role includes helping to develop regulations together with the other IMO member states, and ensuring that ships in their registry are following regulations, says Ramage. “There are several ways in which we do this. We visit all the ships in our fleet at least once a year and delegate statutory tasks to DNV GL and other class societies. Class oversight is important in helping us do our job.”

While the Marshall Islands Registry liaises with all 12 IACS members, DNV GL classes roughly 25 per cent of their fleet. “Class is seen as a key resource on technical issues, but the flag also has technical and operational expertise,” says Simon Bonnett, IRI’s Senior Vice President, Technical. “Part of our responsibility is to have expertise on each vessel in our fleet. We are also responsible for rules governing seafarers’ qualifications, among other things for determining the minimum safe manning.”

Recognized Organizations (ROs) are a great resource for technical expertise, says Bonnett. “But the flag must also have enough technical capabilities to be able to understand what class is talking about. We have cultivated a great relationship with DNV GL, and we feel we can carry on a meaningful dialogue towards our shared goal of using digital technology to streamline class and flag processes.”

Digital support of the human element

Aidan O’Donnell, IRI’s Senior Vice President, Information Technology, sees the digital shift benefitting both seafarers and their employers: “We set the regulations that the vessel must meet for certification under the Marshall Islands flag. But we also support seafarers in a more complex world. They have a huge amount of paperwork to deal with every day, and increased automation simplifies many of the processes. This gives them more time to attend to more important tasks. A seafarer is worth more when their eyes are on the water than when they are filling out forms.”

O’Donnell notes that the RMI Registry already issues all vessel certificates electronically. “We joined a DNV GL pilot some years ago, and we also had a parallel programme for electronic vessel documents and certificates. We started with electronic signatures and moved from there to electronic vessel certification. It became very popular right away.” In addition, he notes that the electronic application system for seafarers was the RMI Registry’s first electronic documentation initiative.

With responsibility for the digitalization of flag services for the RMI, O’Donnell sees additional benefits of the digital shift: “It gives us increased ability to use the data that operators are generating to improve the quality of our service to them. Access to data allows new ways of working, also together with class. But whether we are talking about machine learning, predictive maintenance or other emerging technologies, the role of the flag is to make sure that quality is maintained.”
Digital class not yet universal

John Ramage notes that a few remaining Port State Control offices have been reluctant to accept e-certificates. “IMO would have to mandate their use in order for all stakeholders to comply, but some states simply lack digital infrastructure in all their ports. Until this is resolved, ships will be dependent on paper in these ports.”

Another factor hindering the universal implementation of electronic certificates, he says, is corruption. “It is basically institutionalized in some places, and the transparency of electronic certificates threatens that way of doing business. With electronic certificates, there is nowhere to hide illegal activities, so certain individuals are reluctant to take them into use. Eventually the Maritime Anti-Corruption Network will make all transactions transparent, but there are other challenges as well. We will need to align our formats across the board and ensure the integrity of both data and transactions.”

Seen from an objective perspective, the benefits of the digital shift are many. “But our clients also see some challenges,” Ramage notes. “There are many offerings on the market, but they need a clear plan for what they want to get out of the move to digital services and operations. The main objective should be to reduce the workload and save money, while ensuring safety and integrity.”