To hear Jim Watson tell it, classification societies play a pivotal role in the development of new technologies that can revolutionize an industry and transform the ways of the world. “It’s because we work with a cross section of companies that are at the leading edges of research and development,” says Watson, President and Chief Operating Officer of the Americas division of the American Bureau of Shipping – or ABS – one of the world’s leading providers of global marine classification services.  “We are in a unique and privileged position.  We have our fingers on the pulse of all the big issues (and) solutions.”

A case in point is ABS’s recent selection to class the world’s first compressed natural gas-powered carrier. Ordered by a subsidiary of Indonesia’s state-owned power company and designed by a Chinese firm, the 110-metre-long vessel will have a CNG capacity of 2,200 cubic metres and a speed of 14 knots once it is built at a shipyard that remains to be selected. For Watson, the contract is the latest example of his company’s pioneering spirit as well as its global leadership role in the gas ship sector, where the largest share of LNG ships is currently being built according to its classification standards. 

He noted, for example, that ABS classed the world’s first LNG carrier (the aptly-named Methane Pioneer) in 1959. The company also classed the first ten large LNG ships to be built in Chinese shipyards (147,000 to 172,000 m3), and worked on several CNG carrier concepts, providing support through the approval-in-principle process and/or to final approval. “We have a long history in the marine and offshore fields (and) have maintained a strong position,” Watson told Canadian Sailings from the company’s world and divisional headquarters in Houston, Texas. “We’ve been first in just about every market-shifting change to hit the marine industry. Companies that want to be leading edge tend to come to ABS.”

To be sure, ABS is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to the development of technical innovations and services that improve the safety, reliability and performance of companies’ assets and operations in the marine, offshore, onshore oil and gas, power and government sectors. Founded in 1862, it is one of the largest of the roughly 50 marine classification organizations in the world today. Divided into three divisions that span the globe (Europe, Asia, and the Americas), ABS has more 200 port offices in 120 countries, including four in Canada (Vancouver, Quebec, St John’s and Dartmouth). 

The company’s small army of ship surveyors and engineers of all stripes – including mechanical, material, piping, chemical and electrical – are involved primarily in the development and verification of life-, property- and environment-protecting standards and rules for the design, construction and operational maintenance of marine vessels and structures. 

They also provide certification services for countries and companies, using national or international standards to inspect the structural soundness of everything from ships and submarines to oil rigs and marine structures. In Canada, for example, where ABS is recognized by Transport Canada, the society classes about 70 Canadian-flagged vessels – everything from tugs and ferries to freighters and icebreakers. 

Watson says ABS has also met with both Irving and Seaspan regarding the ships they are building under the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy. “We’re very excited about the possibility of being selected [by them],” he says.

In addition to classification and certification services, ABS also conducts research at many of its facilities around the globe. Those efforts are aimed at both improving the effectiveness of its standards and investigating the safety of new ship building innovations. One example is the ABS Harsh Environment Technology Centre at Memorial University in St John’s. Created in 2009, it has carried out about 50 projects in support of the development of technologies for ships and drilling rigs that operate in the icy Hibernia oil field. 

“Hopefully the things we learn (in Newfoundland-Labrador) will apply in other Arctic environments (like) the Beaufort Sea,” says Watson, who is responsible for ABS operations in North, South and Central Americas, as well as the Caribbean.

A U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduate, mechanical engineer and naval architect who rose through the ranks to become Director of the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (, the principal federal funding agency for offshore oil spill response research (a position he left a year ago to join ABS), Watson says dealing with Arctic ice – a growing concern for shippers eager to exploit fast-opening northern sea lanes – is just one of a myriad of hot-button marine transportation safety issues facing world-class classification societies like ABS. “Operations in the marine industry are constantly evolving,” notes Watson. “They are being driven by cargo owners and their clients (who) basically run the global economy.” 

In addition to having to deal with changes in trade patterns due to concerns over global warming and greenhouse gases (notably in regards to energy resources like coal) and geopolitical concerns or development like the planned opening of a new and wider Panama Canal (which has already led to the construction of bigger ships capable of carrying record loads of emerging export products like shale gas and oil), Watson says marine companies are also being squeezed by both social environmental concerns and rising fuel costs.

“They are under pressure to go to lower cost fuels that are as effective and as clean, like CNG, LNG and LPG,” he adds. “But those fuels require substantial engine modifications or new engines, (and) ways to protect ships and crews from the dangers from (the use of) those fuels. Those technologies are here. But the industry is on the fence over whether to invest in them or not.”

When it comes to the use of CNG as fuel, however, Watson says ABS’s long experience suggests it will prove popular now that the society has classed the first ship.  “We are hopeful that many more will follow (and) history has shown that will happen,” he says. “ABS remains committed to being on the leading edge of that technical evolution, supporting industry and regulators as they navigate through the challenges.”