Ship Registration: Law and Practice

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25.1 Vanuatu consists of a group of islands in the South Pacific, situated approximately 1,500 miles north-east of Sydney, Australia and 500 miles due west of Fiji. Captain Cook sailed through the islands in 1774, naming them the New Hebrides, after the group of islands off the north-west coast of Scotland. There is a population of some 283,000. From 1906 onwards, the islands were administered jointly by Britain and France as a condominium, the only one of its kind in the world. In 1980 the country became an independent republic and a member of the Commonwealth. The legislature consists of a single chamber of 50 elected members, with a general election being held every four years. Executive power is vested in the Prime Minister and a Council of Ministers who are responsible to Parliament. The head of State is the President who is elected for a term of five years. The capital is Port Vila on the island of Efate. Agriculture is the principal economic activity, followed by tourism. 25.2 Since gaining independence, Vanuatu has established itself as an offshore financial and shipping centre. The model of registry structure and organisation which has been adopted is outsourced and decentralised – similar to that of Liberia and the Marshall Islands. Vanuatu Maritime Services Ltd (‘VMSL’) is a privately owned Vanuatu company, which acts as Maritime Administrator on behalf of the Vanuatu Government and operates the Vanuatu Ship Registry from its operational office in New York. The functions of VMSL are supported by a global network of appointed Deputy Commissioners and special agents in major ports and cities. The legal tender in Vanuatu is the Vatu (VUV), but all fees payable to VMSL are payable in US dollars. By 2017, Vanuatu was estimated to be within the top 25 registries in the world by value, if not by dead-weight tonnage.1

Sources of law

25.3 Vanuatu’s former condominium status has resulted in a legal system containing elements of both common law and the French Napoleonic Code. Registration of ships under the Vanuatu flag is governed by the Maritime Act (Cap. 131) which was introduced in 1981. This statute, and its subordinate Maritime Regulations, are based on US maritime law and will be familiar to legal practitioners used to US and Liberian legislation. The Maritime Act (Cap. 131) (as amended) and the Maritime Regulations Order No. 25 of 1990 (as amended) will in this chapter be referred to as ‘the Act’ and ‘the Regulations’,

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respectively. Unless otherwise stated, references in this chapter to sections are references to sections of the Act.

Vessel eligibility

Vessel type

25.4 Any sea-going vessel engaged in foreign trade and any yacht or other vessel used exclusively for pleasure of 50 net tons or over may be registered as a Vanuatu vessel, subject to the age limits, ownership and condition of the vessel as referred to below (s.17(1)).

Age limits

25.5 As a general rule, a vessel will not be eligible to be registered under the Vanuatu flag if it is more than 20 years old on 1 January in the year in which registration is sought, the 20-year period being computed from completion of first construction. However, the 20-year age limit may be waived by the Commissioner or Deputy Commissioner of Maritime Affairs and the vessel registered in exceptional cases where it is demonstrated to the satisfaction of the Commissioner or Deputy Commissioner that:
  • (1) the vessel meets all other requirements for registration; and
  • (2) the vessel meets the highest classification requirements of one of the classification societies authorised by the Act or any order made thereunder.

An application form for a waiver of the age requirement may be made on Form A20.

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