Small Vessel Regulations

The Merchant Shipping (National Small Vessel Safety) regulations, 2007, provide the basic rules for boating on inland waters and at sea. They form part of the greater regulatory regime which covers maritime matters, specifically in this case the Merchant Shipping Act, 57 of 1951. Municipalities and other local authorities may make additional requirements for boating.

The regulations are applicable to boats used solely for sport or recreation (pleasure) and also to licensed (commercial) vessel operations. Licenced (commercial) vessels include all boats not used solely for sport or recreation. Examples of commercial vessels include boats and personal watercraft (jet skis) being hired out to or used for tourism; floating rafts and house boats that are hired out and/or used for tourism activities; normal commercial operations like fishing or transport; law enforcement and police vessels; rescue boats operated by NSRI etc.

The regulations apply to sport and recreation boats and licenced vessels of all sizes operating on inland waters. Seagoing pleasure boats of less than 100 gross tonnes (approximately 24 meters in length) and licenced vessels of less than 25 gross tonnes (approximately 14 meters in length) operating at sea are also required to comply with the regulations.Owners of licenced (commercial) vessels must apply for licencing and submit their vessels for a survey to the nearest SAMSA office.

Owners and/or skippers of pleasure boats can obtain the required numbers and inspections from either SAMSA appointed small boat surveyors or Authorised Agency safety officers. Inland waters mean all rivers and dams legally accessible to the public for boating. Whereas Category R includes the waters contained within ports, fishing harbours, lagoons, tidal rivers and inland waters.

National Small Vessel Safety Regulations 2007

Buoyancy of Small Vessels

Life Rafts and Buoyancy for Small Vessels

Crew and passengers should not have to rely on their lifejackets for survival if their boats are flooded, swamped or capsized. Life rafts are required for small vessels, however, built-in buoyancy may replace a liferaft when operating within 40 nautical miles from shore (category B, C, D and E) or on sheltered waters (category R).

Seagoing boats (category B, C, D, and D) must be fitted with sufficient buoyancy to provide a ‘level platform’ when capsized. Survivors must be able to secure themselves out of the water while awaiting rescue. Boats operating on sheltered water (category R) must have sufficient buoyancy to simply remain afloat when flooded, swamped or capsized.

Survivors must be able to hold on/cling on to it in the water while assessing their situation/awaiting rescue.

Types of built-in buoyancy

Built-in buoyancy must consist of either approved foam or approved plastic bottles. Built-in buoyancy may not be adversely affected by oil or oil products when located under decks.

Amount of buoyancy to be provided

It is not possible to regulate a standard volume of buoyancy to be installed since boats are not all constructed the same and even similar looking boats may not be constructed with the same materials. Various materials such as steel, aluminium and various glass reinforced plastics (GRP) are used in boat construction. Hull lay-ups may include buoyant foam sandwich layers which also contribute to the built-in buoyancy. An individual calculation has to be made in every case to ensure the boat achieves the desired compliance for the area of operation. An industry norm has been developed whereby the percentage of additional buoyancy required to be provided in a boat to ensure the required buoyancy in the event of it becoming flooded, swamped or capsized. The method is based on the boat category, primary material of construction of a boat and its total weight. The amount of additional buoyancy required can be summarised as follows:

Inflatable boats

Inflatable boats must be provided with at least 3 separate chambers. Compliance is achieved when the boat can support the crew while staying afloat with the largest two chambers being deflated. The buoyancy of a rigid hull is only taken into account if the hull is filled with built-in buoyancy. Extreme uses of inflatable vessels for commercial use such as cargo carrying or the like may require additional buoyancy to the satisfaction of SAMSA, by way of foam filled hulls or additional compartments.

Documenting buoyancy

Owners are expected to demonstrate to a surveyor, safety officer or any enforcement officer that their vessel complies with the buoyancy standards. Buyers of vessels are ill advised to purchase vessels from sellers unable or unwilling to underwrite and certify their vessels by producing a proper buoyancy certificate. It is illegal for any seller to sell a vessel that does not comply unless the seller makes a full declaration of the non-compliance. Buoyancy certificates are required to be provided for the majority of small vessels not fitted with life rafts so that the buoyancy arrangement of a vessel can be maintained and checked by owners/surveyors.Further information and details regarding buoyancy standards, calculation methods and approved buoyancy materials can be found in Marine Notice 8 of 2012.

Marine Notice 8 of 2012

Skippers Certificates

National Examination System

SAMSA has in place a standardised national level of training and examination of all grades of skippers. Successful candidates are issued with small vessel certificates of competency (CoC). Marine Notice 13 documents the national standard for skipper training. The Code consists of various modules, which set out the syllabi and standards for small vessel training, certification and examinations.

There are two ways of obtaining a national certificate of competence. 1. Examination by a SAMSA appointed examiner (whether a SAMSA officer of a SAMSA appointed examiner from an authorised agency) or; 2. Training and examination by a SAMSA accredited institution.

Additionally, certain national bodies and government department have their own recognised skipper training programmes eg DWA and NSRI.

All small vessel certificates of competence for vessels shorter than 9m may be used on either commercial or pleasure vessels. Small vessel certificates of competency for vessels longer than 9m issued by an authorised agency are only valid for pleasure vessel operations.

SAMSA are the only examination authority allowed to examine candidates for skipper certification on commercial vessels longer than 9m. Persons already holding a recreational certificate for vessels longer than 9m obtained from an agency must be examined by SAMSA to establish competency regarding commercial operations.
Marine Notice No. 13 of 2011

SAMSA issued Skipper CoCs

Day Skipper – Local waters (restricted)

Skipper – Inland waters (restricted)

Skipper – Inland waters (Category R)

Day Skipper – Category E

Day Skipper – Category C

Day Skipper – Category B

Coastal Skipper (Category B – Day and Night operations)

Skipper Offshore

Endorsements to national certification

Dive Skipper

Passenger vessel < 25GT

Commercial Night operation (only available to commercial fishermen)

Sailing (SA Sailing examination is required)

Surf Launching

Details of the examination system and flowcharts describing the experiential training and entry requirements for each qualification are available in Marine Notice 13 of 2011.

General Requirements for Pleasure Vessels

  1. Power driven boats of 15hp or less, sailing vessels of 9 metres or less in length and vessels propelled by human power, along are self-regulated and are not subject to statutory surveys, but must still carry the regulated safety equipment.
  2. Skippers of pleasure vessels being sailing vessels of more than 9 meters in overall length or power driven vessels of more than 15hp require a Small Vessel Certificate of Competence.
  3. Power-driven vessels with engines greater than 15hp and sailing vessels of greater than 9 metres in length must be marked with an ‘approved marking’. These boats must be inspected annually for compliance and the issue of a Certificate of Fitness.
  4. All vessels must carry the appropriate and relevant safety equipment according to the vessel category and type.
  5. All vessels must have sufficient buoyancy.
  6. Pleasure boat skippers and owners are required to report certain incidents and accidents to the nearest SAMSA office.

Category of Operation

A – Any distance from shore

B – Less than 40 nautical miles from shore

C – Less than 15 nautical miles from shore

D – Less than 5 nautical miles from shore

E – No more than one nautical mile from shore and 15 nautical miles from an approved launch site

R – Operating solely on sheltered (inland) waters

Additional Requirements for Commercial Vessels

Commercial Operations

A ‘commercial’ vessel is any vessel used for any purpose other than sport or recreation, for example, charter and passenger operations, floating restaurants, ferries, commercial fishing vessels, NSRI vessels, SAPS vessels etc. Commercial vessels are either ‘licensed’ or ‘registered’ to establish their ownership and intended operations. Commercial vessels are numbered by SAMSA. Compliance surveys are conducted annually by SAMSA for the issue of a Local General Safety Certificate. Regardless of the category, type or size of commercial vessels the skipper or operator must be over the age of 18 and hold a suitably endorsed Certificate of Competence. The vessel must, in addition, be otherwise suitably manned for the particular operation.

Approval of Commercial Vessels

Commercial vessels shorter than 9m do not generally require plans to be approved before building commence. The provision of built-in buoyancy is important to SAMSA and proper proof of the quantity and placement needs to be provided. When commercial vessels longer than 9m are built, plans are required to be approved by SAMSA before building is commenced.

Passenger Vessels

Passenger vessels (defined as those carrying more than 12 passengers) have strict requirements regarding the approval of plans – regardless of the size of the vessel. No vessels may be accepted as passenger vessels by SAMSA if not of an approved design and built under survey. There are restrictions regarding the amount of petrol carried aboard as well as need to comply with minimum stability criteria.

Additional Requirements for Pontoon Boats

Description of pontoon boats

A Pontoon boat (sometimes also referred to as a raft or a house boat) consists of two or more flotation units to which a deck or decks are attached which persons are able to be supported on. The essential difference between a pontoon boat and a conventional boat is that the deck is not integral to the hull of the boat.

Statutory compliance

Pontoon boats can be used for either commercial operations or solely for sport or recreation. All commercially operated pontoon boats must be licensed by SAMSA and surveyed for compliance and issued a Local General Safety Certificate. Skippers must be correctly certificated. Commercial operations vary greatly and include tourism, construction and other applications. Pontoon boats used solely for sport or recreation and that are powered by engines of greater than 15hp must be surveyed for compliance and issued a Certificate of Fitness. Skippers must also be certificated. When more than 12 passengers are carried on the boat it is considered to be a passenger vessel. It must then be licensed and surveyed as a passenger vessel.

Basic construction requirements

  1. The deck/s of the vessel should not extend beyond the outer edge of the pontoons.
  2. The pontoons must extend at least 500mm forward and aft of the ends of the pontoon deck area/s where persons will be accommodated.
  3. Upper decks, when fitted, should not be too high or wide and only accommodate a minimum number of people.
  4. The distance between the waterline and the top of the pontoon in the fully loaded condition may not be less than 200 mm.
  5. Provisions and arrangements must be in place to allow the condition of the hull/s to be determined prior to operation and/or during operation.
  6. Provision for drainage of hull sections in the event of water ingress must be provided.
  7. Enclosures must be configured so that persons can easily escape from the vessel in the event of capsize while wearing PFDs or lifejackets. The areas of each emergency escape must be at least 2m sq.

Stability test

It is recognised that a safe pontoon vessel can still be constructed while not complying with all of the above principles. Practical heeling tests are carried out when surveyors or safety offices are concerned that the boat does not have sufficient stability or when the basic construction requirements are not achieved. Transverse and longitudinal tests are conducted by crowing the maximum number of people carried on the boat to the extremes of the breadth and length of a boat. The tops of the pontoons should not submerge during tests.

Survivability in the event of damage

Following a damage event, the vessel must at least remain afloat (upright or capsized) with sufficient positive buoyancy to allow the full complement to hold onto it.

Buoyancy Certificates

A buoyancy certificate must be generated and retained on board, clearly indicating the means provided to ensure that the vessel will achieve the ‘minimum survival condition’ in the event of damage.

Kill Switches

Regulation 7 (5) of the National Small Vessel regulations states: “The skipper or person operating any power-driven vessel of more than 15hp and of nine meters or less in length may not get underway unless there is an operational kill switch attached to the operator.

Authorised Agencies

Authorised Agencies are certain water sport bodies that qualify for designation to perform the following functions:

a) Determine the number of persons that a pleasure vessel may carry;
b) recording of voyage details;
c) determining whether a pleasure vessel is sufficiently and efficiently manned;
d) Issuing, suspension or cancellation of Certificates of Competence;
e) conducting of initial and renewal inspections of vessels;
f) the issuing and cancellation of certificates of fitness;
g) approval of controlled events, amongst others.

*The following bodies are currently as Authorised Agencies in terms the Merchant Shipping (National Small Vessel Safety) Regulations 2007 (as amended);

  1. SA Sailing Inspection and certification of all pleasure vessels < 100 GT belonging to affiliated clubs, and examinations of skippers of motor-driven vessels <9m under the national system and recreational SA Sailing certificates of competency for any sailing vessel. They can be contacted on or (021) 531 1860
  2. SADSAA South African Deep Sea Angling Association. Inspection and certification of pleasure vessels <9m, and examinations of skippers of motor driven vessels <9m under the national system. They can be contacted on 083 700 8593 or
  3. SASCA South African Small Craft Association (previously South African Underwater Union). Inspection and certification of pleasure vessels <9m, and examinations of skippers of motor-driven vessels <9m under the national system. They can be contacted at or (021) 856 2254
  4. SAIS South African Institute of Skippers. Inspection and certification of pleasure vessels <9m, and examinations of skippers of motor-driven vessels <9m as well as examinations of skippers for pleasure vessels ≥9m under the national system. Contact details: or (021) 975 3281