Last Thursday’s LLOYD’S LIST carried a piece at the bottom of page four entitled, “UK flag suffers dip in fortunes with low customer satisfaction rating.”
The piece opened with the observation that, “Nearly one in five users of the UK Ship Register say they are unhappy with the service provided by the UK flag,” as observed in the annual report of the UK’s own Maritime and Coast Guard Agency or “MCA” to the nautical cognoscenti. The actual score was apparently 81%.
The MCA’s new Chief Executive comes from a charity background with little if any maritime experience. The report says the MCA says spent more than £130 million (US$208 million) with only £18 million coming from commercial activities, which, come to think of it, sounds a bit like a charity, doesn’t it? The Chief Executive observed that it had been a “’particularly challenging’ year” (which repeated 24 and 48 hour strikes had presumably done little to help).
In fact most superyachts fly a British Flag, as a casual walk up and down the piers of Ft Lauderdale or Antibes will confirm. Other flags in common use for yachts are Luxembourg, the Marshall Islands and Italy.
Flags are a big issue for superyachts for a whole host of reasons and one, and admittedly perhaps the biggest one, of the reasons to chose a flag for a yacht is customer service.
Curiously, although most superyacht owners are thought to be American, there are comparatively few US Flagged yachts. Most people might think it’s because US Flag means expensive US Crew. Ironically though, while yachts are all about impeccable service - and even the Brits accept that Americans know how to do customer service - the problem seems more to do with a propensity to litigate.
Anyway, there are British Flags and there are British Flags or Red Ensigns.
Most British yachts actually are registered in the Cayman Islands which, like the Isle of Man, is a Red Ensign and both in the superyacht flag stakes actually compete with the MCA. The Cayman Island's yacht register numbers in the thousands.
In superyachts, one reason often given for the success of one flag over another as measured by the number of yachts flying that flag is the responsiveness of the Flag’s staff and their ability and willingness to understand yachts.
This boils down to seemingly little things - the difference between pragmatism and pedantical - and although yachts are getting as big as ships there are significant differences.
At my first Monaco Yacht Show I remember standing at the stern of a superyacht.
The representative of her British Flag – not MCA – was standing beside me. I asked him why that particular yacht registerd with him and not the MCA. Isn't a British Flag a Britih Flag?
“Simple really, look at her stern light; we let her go with only one light fitting and the MCA would not; they would strictly be correct because the rules say two so that if one bulb burns out the other can be used until the faulty one can safely be replaced; but as you see, that fitting on this yacht is in a sheltered bulkhead and can be changed anytime; on a merchant ship you might have to make climb in a howling gale," he said, “And what’s any more ugly than a huge black running light?”
He went on to emphasise that this was not the only superyacht nuance his flag understood. His flag apparently answered the phone 24/7 and had surveyors on standby to go anywhere.
Sounds like good old, “bog-standard” as the Brits would say, customer service.
There are other ways to impress your customer of course.
At Fort Lauderdale someone told me that he had overheard the Marshall Island Registry saying, “Best of all, you can put ‘Bikini’ on your transom.”