Licensing of naval architects

In October 1999, 27 candidates took the first nationally standardized “Principles and Practice” test in naval architecture for licensing as professional engineers. (The next will be in April 2001.) Eleven passed, including some specialists in yacht design. The test was developed by the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME) mainly to meet the needs of commercial designers, though it could affect yacht design. (SNAME only helped develop the test, and is not involved in either actual licensing or in the licensing laws. Each state (or province) has a board for licensing engineer. Previously, naval architecture was only recognized as a specific discipline of engineering in Washington State and Oregon, and only Washington had an exam. However, states that didn’t license naval architecture specifically still regarded it as “practice of engineering” and required licensing.

But what is engineering as opposed to design? There have been suggestions that yacht design versus naval architecture be determined by size or vessel use, but this doesn’t really meet the law. Design is “application of practical and aesthetic principles…” usually by applying only “rules of thumb” or simple codes. For example, anyone can legally design a wood framed building as long as it is covered by certain building codes. Likewise traditional cruising sailboats and similar boats that follow tested, proven practice don’t require calculations or analysis either. Though these will generally be smaller vessels, a complex, high risk vessel such as a passenger-carrying submarine, or a very high speed boat might be relatively small whereas a simple barge yacht might be quite large. More complex vessels require analysis and engineering calculations, and this is “engineering”. The Washington State board has said exactly this in a letter to the Society of Boat and Yacht Designers; hydrostatic, structural and similar calculations are naval architecture and shall be performed by licensees regardless of the type of vessel.

The specifics of qualification also vary from state to state, with numerous exemptions and special cases. In general, a degree from an Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology-accredited college is required (information is available at Next, applicants must pass the Fundamentals of Engineering exam. After six to eight years of experience certified by other licensed engineers, the would-be engineer submits a work record and letters of reference to take the Principles and Practice exam in the given field. The state board reviews this material for about four months, contacts references and then may allow a person to sit the exam. The exam is definitely not the only criteria.

There is certainly an advantage to this process for the consumer. Officially, anyone can call himself a yacht designer. However, an engineering license (designated by “P.E.”) demonstrates that the individual has undergone a formal process of qualification administered by a third party, and can probably do more complex and sophisticated work at lower risk (both with respect to safety and cost). If I wanted a kayak, I would not worry about a license, for example. Past designs would be much more important. For a complex yacht, with significant cost or risk to life, considering a license, as well as good past experience, makes sense. Licensure just gives consumers more information. What they do with it is up to them.

By Ocean Navigator