In the world of shipping, for a ship to change flag is nothing unusual. A change in ownership, bareboat charter, or the change in the area a will ship operate are just some of the many reasons for changing flag. Some of these other reasons may be more dubious than those listed.
According to The Law of the Sea Convention it is quite legal for a ship to change flag, and every country is permitted to set its own conditions for a ship to fly its flag. However, there are few rules in place with regard to a ship changing flag. Under Article 92 of the Law of the Sea Convention it is stated that ships are only permitted to be registered in one country except in exceptional circumstances. It further states that "a ship may not change its flag during a voyage or while in a port of call, save in the case of a real transfer of ownership or change of registry."
However, once a ship starts the process of changing flag, as is stated above, the requirements that they must meet vary from registry to registry. This includes the type of surveys that need to be carried out, the documentation required and the time given to submit the documentation. In some cases, a vessel may be permitted to take up to a year in for it to comply with the requirements outlined by the flag state to achieve full registration.
For example, when a ship transfers to the Singapore Registry; under their rules the ship may be provisionally registered and issued with a Provisional Certificate of Registry which is valid for a maximum period of one year. This means that the owners of the ship have one year to provide the necessary documentation such as evidence of ownership; a copy of a full term class certificate; its safety construction certificate, tonnage certificate, and a variety of other statutory trading certificates.
In contrast, a ship to be registered under the Sierra Leone flag will be issued with a Provisional Certificate of Registry, Provisional Minimum Safe Manning Certificate, and a Provisional Ship Station License each valid for up to six months. A further three month extension may be granted to the owner at the discretion of the Administration.
As well as seeming to have no real legal standing, Provisional Registry must surely be providing a loop hole to unscrupulous owners, and especially to those whose ships trade in areas where there are few if any Port State Control Inspections. Until fairly recently, all flag states set out the survey requirements needed to be undertaken at the time of change of flag in order for a ship to register them.
In an attempt to create more uniform requirements when surveying ships changing flag, IACS issued Procedure No.28 which sets out the "minimum statutory survey/auditing requirements for Societies in case of Change of Flag." As well as outlining the minimum survey requirements a Classification Society should under take, it also prescribes that "this Procedural Requirement does not prevent the Societies from expanding the scope of statutory surveys at their own discretion or upon specific instructions of the relevant Flag State Administration."
This may have helped in part to tighten up the safety of such ships, but of the numerous Classification Societies in existence, only twelve are actually IACS members. This must surely mean that on change of flag there can be a significant difference in the standards a ship meets when does change flag.
In contrast, for ships which transfer class, the IMO has laid out very precise instructions in MSC-MEPC.5/Circ.2. In view of the fact that ships change flag more often than Class, perhaps it is time to look into tightening and standardising the procedures for a ship changing flag.