Skip to main content

Designers disagree on need for license law

Barbers need to be licensed in Florida — so should boat designers, says one naval architect

Barbers need to be licensed in Florida — so should boat designers, says one naval architect

An ad hoc committee of Florida boat, yacht and ship designers is asking the legislature for exemption from a 7-year-old state requirement to license them as professional engineers, but at least one naval architect says he will sue if necessary to ensure that licensing stands.

“In the state of Florida, you have to have a license to be a barber,” says William Murray, partner in Murray & Associates LLC, a large naval architecture and marine engineering firm in Fort Lauderdale. “I would suggest that the danger to the public of cutting someone’s hair is much less than of designing a boat and possibly screwing it up.”

Eric Sponberg, a 33-year veteran of naval architecture who works out of a one-man design shop in St. Augustine, Fla., doesn’t think problems of bad or dangerous boat design are the reason for the crackdown.

“It’s guild protectionism,” he says.

Many workers in small-craft design and marine mechanical, electrical and plumbing don’t have a college degree, so they wouldn’t even be allowed to sit for the licensing exam, Sponberg says. Many of these same workers, however, are certified through the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC), the Westlawn Institute of Marine Technology or Maine’s Landing School of Boatbuilding and Design, and are competent at what they do, he says. Also, standards for small-boat building and design are set and enforced through the Coast Guard, ABYC and classification societies like Lloyd’s Register of Shipping.

“The system we have works just fine in the recreational boating industry without any licensing,” Sponberg says.

He was seeking to introduce a bill exempting the marine industry from licensing for marine engineers in the January legislative session. As of mid-January no bill had materialized, but Sponberg was hopeful that Rep. Mitch Needelman from Melbourne would present the bill later in the session. Without the exemption, any naval architect working independently of a builder and selling his services in Florida without a license could be fined up to $5,000 if a complaint were filed against him, Sponberg says.

A year ago December, Sponberg — a graduate in naval architecture from the University of Michigan and a well-known designer of small craft and authority on the design of freestanding and wing masts — received a cease-and-desist order from the Florida Board of Professional Engineers telling him to stop referring to himself as a marine engineer because he isn’t licensed in Florida. A boat designer for 33 years, he works as both a naval architect (designing hulls) and a marine engineer (drawing up the boats’ mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems).

Murray filed a complaint against him with the Florida board.

Ironically, someone filed a similar complaint against Murray five years ago — before anyone on his staff was licensed. He fought the complaint in court and lost. Now he has a licensed engineer on staff who oversees his 25 engineers. Four more of his engineers are scheduled to sit for the licensing exam this year.

Murray now takes the position that licensing is very much in the public interest. He says the licensing law already exempts boatbuilders. It allows builders to employ unlicensed engineers and naval architects because the builders likely have the financial strength to pay out an award if a customer wins a suit against them for faulty design. He says the law only requires firms that deliver engineering services to the public to employ a licensed staff engineer. He says the rationale is that these firms may not have the resources to cover liability for faulty design. The law enables the state to police bad design work among these firms by taking away their engineers’ license.

“The public is protected,” Murray says.

Several other coastal states, among them Connecticut, Louisiana, Texas and Washington, require licensing of marine engineers. Maine also requires it, but exempts designers of boats under 200 feet. Other coastal states don’t require licensing. Sponberg says no state requires designers of airplanes or cars or motorcycles or dune buggies to have an engineering license. “Why boats?” he asks, and points out that a Florida builder can employ an unlicensed naval architect from Michigan to design a boat, but it can’t employ him because Florida prohibits it — nor can a Michigan builder employ him, also because of the state licensing law. He suggests the licensing law for boat designers is an unconstitutional interference with federally protected interstate commerce.

Sponberg acknowledges there are always a “few bad apples” among designers, but the market usually weeds them out pretty quickly. Murray, however, says shoddy design work is common, and both the boat buyer and others involved in the design and construction of a boat wind up paying for it. “In megayachts, especially, there are so many bad engineers around, they should be regulated,” he says.

Sponberg says only about 10 percent of the 500 naval architects and marine engineers in Florida are licensed engineers. To be licensed, an applicant must take and pass a comprehensive engineering exam. He believes draconian enforcement of the 1999 licensing law would throw many of the unlicensed — including some who do major renovations in repair yards — out of work. Murray counters that the law may affect 20 Florida yacht designers who work in small, one-man shops. He notes that even these still could get work if they were hired on with a boatbuilder, passed the licensing exams or employed a licensed engineer on staff.

Sponberg says a survey of Florida’s marine industry found a deep vein of support for some kind of exemption for the industry, but Murray is unimpressed. If the exemption passes, he says he’ll challenge it in court and do it with the backing of the Florida Engineering Society.

“It’s going to be very hard for them to get this through,” he says.