Summary of Pleasure Vessel regulations available in new Marine Guidance Note

Marine Guidance Note (MGN) 538.


MGN 538 provides an overview of the Merchant Shipping Legislation that applies to Pleasure Vessels, together with some best practice guidance.

For Pleasure Vessels of less than 13.7 metres in length there are no mandatory requirements for safety equipment other than those required under SOLAS V. However, it is essential that you are properly equipped before going on the water.

In the late 1990s Merchant Shipping Legislation was developed which made some safety equipment mandatory for Pleasure Vessels of 13.7 metres in length and over.

Following the prosecution of the owner of a privately owned motor cruiser for non-compliance with this legislation, it became apparent that the requirements under this legislation were impractical. The RYA and British Marine worked with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) to develop alternative equivalent standards for Class XII vessels (these are pleasure vessels of 13.7m (approximately 45ft) in length and over). 

Since 2002, owners of Class XII vessels have had a choice:

  • to comply with the Merchant Shipping (Fire Protection: Small Craft) Regulations 1998 or the General Exemptions in relation to Fire Protection on Class XII vessels; and
  • to comply with the Merchant Shipping (Life-Saving Appliances For Ships Other Than Ships Of Class III To VI (A)) Regulations 1999 or  the General Exemptions in relation to Life Saving Appliances on Class XII vessels.

The General Exemptions unless cancelled expire after 5 years. They have recently been reviewed and updated and the latest equivalent standards were published in September 2015 in a new Marine Guidance Note – MGN 538.

What has changed?

The Life-Saving Appliances (LSA) Exemption has seen the most changes notably:

Categorised waters

The expired exemption did not deal well with categorised waters (see MSN 1837) - that is waters not regarded as “sea” for the purposes of Merchant Shipping legislation - with the unintentional consequence that narrowboats over 45’ long on canals were required to carry lifejackets, a maritime radio and hand held flares.

The RYA has successfully argued that Class XII vessels operating solely on Category A and B waters (i.e. canals and narrow rivers):

  • should not be required to carry lifejackets for all on board, a maritime radio or hand held flares; and
  • may carry an 18 metre rescue line and quoit instead of a lifebuoy; and
  • will be considered to comply with the minimum firefighting equivalent standards if it is issued with a valid Boat Safety Scheme Certificate.

Parachute rocket flares

The RYA has argued for a long time that recreational craft should not be compelled to carry pyrotechnics for distress signalling given the availability of modern, reliable and effective equipment such as EPIRB, PLB, and VHF DSC for distress alerting and AIS, EVDS and SART for final mile location.

In the latest LSA Exemption the MCA has agreed to omit the requirement for Class XII vessels to carry parachute rocket flares, which are arguably the most dangerous.

For Category C waters and above, vessels should carry a maritime radio (ideally DSC enabled), four red handheld flares, two orange smoke signals, and a third means of distress signalling, preferably either an EPIRB or PLB.

Ultimately the RYA would like the carriage of flares for all recreational craft to become a matter of choice rather than their carriage being mandated. So although this might seem to be a small step, it is important movement in the right direction.

Read MGN 538 - Pleasure Vessels – Guidance and Applicable UK Regulations