Michael GreyAs Lloyd’s Register neared the end of its 250th year Michael Grey was asked to reflect on a quarter of a millennium of class, here we reproduce the article with kind permission of the author and Lloyd’s Register.

What exactly do you mean when you talk about a ‘classification society’?” From the other side of his microphone, in the BBC’s Bush House studio, the presenter fixed me with his beady eye. Of course I knew what a classification society was, and what it did, but do you think I could explain it in language sufficiently simple to satisfy my interrogator. Thank goodness the programme was not being broadcast live, as we went over and over the subject. “Yes, but what does class do’ And why is it a ‘society?” It was not, I reflected, one of my best broadcasts.

That embarrassing interview was several years ago, but it still comes back to haunt me, as we read some popular misconception of what the public, or some pontificating politician, or some deluded member of the media, thinks of classification societies, usually after some maritime accident, which tends to be the only time they address the subject. If people like me had been rather clearer when the opportunity was presented to them, maybe silly ideas about class and what it did would have been squashed at birth. But then if you had almost grown up with classification societies, accepting them as part of the fabric of the maritime industry you had worked in all your life, it probably did not occur to you to actually analyse them.

Lloyds Building

And we are reminded by Lloyd’s Register’s significant birthday, that class has been around for a very long time indeed, predating what we think of as the start of the Industrial Revolution by a whole century. You would think that by now, its functions would be perhaps better known and comprehended. But, there again, it is something that we in the industry take for granted, like propeller-excited cavitation, or barnacles on an unprotected hull.

A quarter of a millennium is not a bad age to be. It demonstrates that you have done something right, and that you continue to offer a useful service, despite the world changing dramatically around you in your 250-year life. And, of course, it indicates that you have changed with the world, to remain relevant and viable. That’s the story of Lloyd’s Register, the most venerable of all classification societies.

Adma Enterprise

If you had to invent classification all over again, why would you wish to construct it differently? That is not to be smug or complacent, but a reminder that there remains a sensible logic to class that has come to us down the centuries. If you are to insure a ship, it is a prudent precaution to get an expert to look it over first, to assess whether the risk is reasonable and if the ship is in a decent state for the anticipated voyage. It is as valid a requirement in 2011 as it was in 1760, as important with steel ships as it was with vessels fabricated in oak. And in that expertise in such matters as ship-surveying is cumulative, you can be sure of your experts.

It is also a matter of trust. Then and now, an insurer needed an independent, objective, but above all, trustworthy expert to assess the state of a ship.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - June 2011 Issue
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