These governing bodies have designed a series of courses that enable people to obtain internationally recognised qualifications. The courses are rarely run by the national body itself. Private companies can apply to run the courses to national associations/federations and if approved they can then offer recognised courses to people wanting to learn to sail.
Courses are available both on the water (practical) and shore based (theory) for sailboats, power and motor boats, dinghies as well as supplementary courses such as sea survival and diesel engine maintenance. This article will look only at courses for sailing boats and the structure of courses within the United Kingdom.
The the number of people carried on board for the practical courses will vary but normally will not exceed an instructor and 5 students. I completed my own Day Skipper Practical with just one fellow student and the instructor. The higher the student/instructor ratio, the less one to one time everybody gets with the instructor but the cost per person is reduced. It is also preferable, I think, to have a mix of people taking different courses. 5 people taking the Coastal Skipper Practical Course aboard the same boat will have a reduced amount of time in their role as skipper.
Getting started – The first course we’ll look at is called Start Yachting, no previous experience is required and over two days participants will be shown how to steer a yacht, how to handle the sails, a little ropework and an insight into safety on board. The Competant Crew course is again aimed at complete beginners, no previous experience is required. This course last five days and in addition to steering and sail handling participants will be shown how to keep a lookout and row a dinghy.
The first shorebased course is called Day Skipper Theory. A little on the water experience is desirable. The course requires 40 hours and two written exams are taken at the conclusion. Primarily about the basics of navigation, seamanship and the weather, when completed you should be able to navigate a boat in familiar waters in daylight.
The Day Skipper Practical follows and can be completed in 5 days or over 3 weekends. This can be undertaken in either tidal or non-tidal waters and the certificate issued at completion recognizes the distinction. Experience is required, participants should have spent five days at sea with 4 hours night sailing and have logged 100 miles. The course covers boat handling, seamanship and navigation and pilotage. When finished you should be able to skipper a yacht in familiar waters in daylight.
The Watchleader Practical course, as the name suggests, teaches the responsibilitiesof a watchleader, navigation seamanship, safety and collision avoidance. Experience is required, participants should have have logged 100 miles and spent five days at sea with 4 hours night sailing. After the 5 day course you should be able to take the watch on a sail traing vessel.
The second shorebased course is called Coastal Skipper/Yachtmaster Offshore Theory. This course is in part a preparation for the Coastal Skipper and Yachtmaster Offshore practical examinations. It continues on from the Day Skipper theory course looking again at navigation and meteorology and also considers safety, collision avoidance and passage planning. Some practical experience is necessary and you should understand theory of navigation to the level of the pervious Day Skipper theory course. The course takes 40 hours and concludes with three examination papers. When completed you should understand the theory of navigation required to undertake coastal and offshore passages.
The Coastal Skipper Practical Course follows the theory. Again this can be taken in tidal or non-tidal waters and again the certificate issued at completion recognizes the distinction. This course is aimed at skippers wishing to make coastal passages by both day and night. It assumes you will have spent 15 days at sea with 2 of them as skipper and have 8 night hours. You should have logged 300 miles. You should have practical skills equivalent to the Day Skipper Theory Course and theoretical navigation to Coastal Skipper/Yachtmaster Offshore Theory. The course lasts 5 days and deals with boat handling, safety and emergency situations, pilotage by day and night and passage planning. You will be expected to plan and skipper a short passage.Upon completion you should be able to skipper a yacht on coastal passages by day and night.
You can follow this up with the Coastal Skipper Sailing Practical Examination. More experience is required, 30 days at sea with 2 days as skipper and 12 night hours and you should have logged 800 miles. You are also required to hold a First Aid Certificate and a VHF SRC Radio Operator’s Certificate. You should undertand theory to the level of the Coastal Skipper/Yachtmaster shorebased course. Course content includes boat handling and seamanship, collision avoidance, safety, passage making and navigation, meteorology and ability as skipper. Upon completion you should be capable of skippering a yacht on coastal passages by day and night and with the additional of a commercial endorsement you can skipper commercial vessels under 24 metres in length up to 20 miles from a safe haven. For one person you should expect the exam to take between 6 – 10 hours, if two people are taking the exam this will increase to between 8 -14 hours.
The next level is the Yachtmaster Offshore Sailing Practical Examination. Canditates are required to have spent 50 days at sea with 5 days as skipper you should have logged 2,500 miles. You should have made 5 passages in excess of 60 miles including 2 overnight and 2 as skipper. Again you are required to hold a First Aid Certificate and a VHF SRC Radio Operator’s Certificate. You should undertand theory to the level of the Coastal Skipper/Yachtmaster shorebased course. You will be expected to demonstrate your ability as the skipper of an offshore sailing yacht, including questions on collision avoidance, navigation, pilotage, meteorology and boat handling. After a sucsessful completion you should be able to skipper an offshore sailing yacht by day or night. For one person you should expect the exam to take between 8 – 12 hours, if two people are taking the exam this will increase to between 10 -18 hours.
Back on shore for the Yachtmaster Ocean Theory Course. This provides the knowledge required for those wishing to sail long distances. It covers ocean passage making and astro navigation including the use of a sextant. I’m sure the purists will disagree but personally I’m not convinced of the relevance of astro navigation and the sextant. I once crewed across the Atlantic for a couple who were making a circumnavigation. Seeing the sextant on board I asked the skipper if he could give me a demonstration of it’s use. He pointed me in the direction of the book that went with it saying he’d relied upon GPS for the last 12 years. “What happens if the GPS packs up?” I asked. “We use the spare one” he told me. The course lasts 40 hours and when completed you should understand how to plan and navigate on an ocean passage.
Finally the Yachtmaster Ocean Sailing Oral Examination on passage details and sun sight information. You must have successfully completed the Yachtmaster Offshore practical exam. You should have made a 600 mile passage as either mate or skipper and be able to take sun-run-sun sights and compass check by azumuth. You will receive questions on the techniques and problems of ocean passage making, including navigation, passage planning and ocean meteorology.The exam lasts a minimum of 1 and 1/2 hours and upon sucsessful completion you should be able to skipper a sailing yacht on an ocean passage.