The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Seven Skills We DON’T Need to Go Cruising

We have some friends who live near us here in Nova Scotia who were fulltime live-aboard voyagers for several decades. Some time ago we were having dinner together and the conversation turned to the skills we need to have fun and safe cruises.

And during that interesting and wide-ranging wine-fueled conversation they told the story of a couple they met some years ago who were just getting ready to cast the lines off and go cruising. Our friends really enjoyed that couple’s company and so agreed that they would buddy-boat coastal cruise with them for a few days.

On the first day of the cruise, the two boats set off in company for a not particularly challenging daysail. At first there was little wind, both boats motored, and all went well, but later in the day the breeze came up and, as our friends first set sail and then tucked in a reef as the sea breeze built, it became obvious that all was not well on the other boat:

Flailing sheets and a crashing boom that went on for an eternity during the hoist. Inability to get the boat settled and up to speed. Muffed tacks. Way too much sail up and no attempt to reef. Clearly their new-found friends were struggling mightily.

Since our friends knew that this couple had been preparing themselves and their boat for fulltime cruising for several years, they wondered how things could be going so badly. And then it dawned on them: despite having owned their sailboat for years, they had never learned to sail her.

And, while this story is an extreme example, it’s not that rare. Phyllis and I have seen plenty of new cruisers having a terrible struggle, and worst of all not having any fun, because they set off without basic skills, like how to handle or anchor their boats.

Now it’s easy for those of us with experience to write these newbies off as fools, but I don’t think that’s fair and, in fact, I think that many of us with tens of thousands of miles in our wakes are at least partially to blame for situations like the one I relate above because we deluge those who aspire to cruise with a bewildering list of skills we say they just must learn.

And I guess that’s just human nature at work. We all naturally want to encourage others to gain skills that we have mastered and are proud of. But what we experienced cruisers sometimes forget is that we learned those skills over decades and also started the process in a simpler time.

By the way, I would be the first to admit that I have been guilty of just this mistake. In fact, it was my realization that in the first draft of my 500-mb weather post I had, without really thinking about it, suggested a huge amount of study that wasn’t necessary and, worse still, study of knowledge that I don’t even use myself, at least these days, that inspired me to write this post.

(I also went back and rewrote the 500-mb post, not just once but three times, to, I hope, help readers get the maximum benefit for a reasonable and worthwhile amount of effort, and I’m committed to doing better in this regard in the future.)

I digress, let’s talk about a fix.

So what can aspiring cruisers do to prevent us experienced types from driving you crazy?

Learn the skills you really need first because no matter how hard you work at preparing, you will never have the time to learn every possible offshore-voyaging-related skill.
Furthermore, the basics of cruising are not that hard to master, at least to a level at which you can make safe and fun voyages and cruises to less challenging destinations.
And once you actually get out there, mastering the more advanced skills required to cruise more challenging places is far easier and more quickly accomplished than when sitting in the marina—the key to success is a step-by-step learning approach with lots of real experience mixed in.

Now at this point I can hear you aspiring cruisers say:

Sounds good John, but how the hell do I, with limited experience, decide whether or not I really need to learn a skill that some salty dog is trying to pound down my throat?

Glad you asked. Here’s my solution, in two parts:

  • A list of examples of skills that, which I have often heard promoted as vital, aren’t.
  • And even more important, the selection criteria I used to mark a skill as not required that will provide all voyagers, regardless of experience, with a filter we can use to decide where not to waste our energies.

Let’s start with the list:

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David Wright

Spot on. Thanks for your honest thoughts, as always.

richard s

beyond excellent…will put many over the hurdle of trying to figure out whether or not to go cruising and into the realm of actually doing it, and successfully so…among your best posts ever

Dan Robert


Thanks, I can finally stop feeling inferior because I can’t do a splice or navigate by the stars! It’s posts like these that make yours the only blog I consider worth paying for. I recommend it all the time.


Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
Your thoughts emerge from a valuable headset for all who go on the water regardless of experience level: regularly evaluate what is important to the well-being of persons and boat in the light of your anticipated sailing plans. And filter all outside input through that gauze. Nicely put.
I have occasionally struggled in my writings to throw light on the flip side of your article: what skills/experience “should” one have for, say, day sailing or passage making: a slippery slope if ever there was one. I have found it quite difficult to satisfactorily nail down.
As a template, I thought to develop a list of skills/experiences helpful to each category and then suggest (in the interest of being realistic) that a certain percentage be attained before embarking. Examples of the kinds of (say offshore) skills/experiences that might be on the list could include: heaving-to, determining CPA, night time sailing, some medical training, and/or bleeding an engine.
At another date in a future article, it might be fun and instructive to have yourself and the AAC readership try to list the skills/experience helpful to have under one’s belt as one advances from day sailing to coastal cruising to over-nights to passage making.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy


Maybe the list should be in 3 parts:

1) Essential skills. Don’t even think of blue water cruising without these. Boat handling, anchoring, navigation, weather, safety, 5 most useful knots, bureaucracy of checking in/out, basic maintenance.

2) Useful skills. Attain these skills before you leave if you have time, otherwise plan to learn them as you go. Advanced weather, advanced trip planning, provisioning, optimizing performance, sail repair, etc.

3) fun skills. Stuff you can learn when & if you want: Fancy knots, splicing, whipping, celestial, photography.


Hi John,
just simply true, as usual 😉

My top list goes here:
-) be able to read a chart
-) know where you are
-) know the Colregs
-) be able to reef, and know when to reef (yes, when you first think about it)
-) know how to steer to avoid chinese gybes
-) be able to balance your boat
-) and, possibly most important, know your limits – they’re most certainly lower than your boats limits

Nice to have:
-) be able to read radar and apply some sort of plotting
-) fix broken things such as ripped sails


Absolutely true, forgot to mention. Actually I bugged my charter company this summer for some blocks and long lines and rigged a preventer a la MC to our boat – which proved invaluable in 2-3m seas following 😉

Richard Dykiel

Spot on!! Let’s go cruising!

I’d be curious to see a debriefing of the 2 ladies that erred in the Pacific for 5 months before being rescued; I know their engine went down early on, but were they able to sail? How come they could not make landfall? What went amiss?

Marc Dacey

That story smells fishier than the sharks that reportedly swarmed their boat, and they looked freshly bathed…but I digress.

One of the problems of a multi-year refit, even after the boat is capable of sailing, is that there’s always something to do dockside and one’s sailing skills can erode. That’s why I do the occasional delivery or just hop on someone else’s boat, to actually just do some sailing miles. That said, I agree it possible to “go down the rabbit hole of broad competency” and attempt to become Ye Olde Mariner without putting in the necessary “how do I sail this thing” hours.

It’s one of the reasons we will cast off without actually finishing the boat, so the St. Lawrence and the Maritimes can (in our own currency) *tell* us what we need to do and to learn without referencing some mythical marine accomplishments list. Although it’s a steel boat, so welding is actually something I want to improve at!

Dick Stevenson

Hi Richard,
I think it is fuzzy as yet what went amiss after their departure, but I had written some thoughts (for another forum) on what may have gone amiss prior to their departure which I include below.
Hi all,
There has been some recent writing of 2 mariners being rescued after 5 months drifting around on their sailboat. I know little of the actual facts of this incident, but found myself interested in responding in a general way and using it to put some thoughts together on what I see as our personal and community responsibility to our completely voluntary recreational sport.
We are largely un-regulated and I wish to keep it that way. It is my take that regulations/authorities appear as a reaction to abuse/excess/problems.
I believe, from what I have discerned to date, that these 2 mariners should have been told, by their sailing community, that their plans were un-wise in a multitude of ways and strongly discouraged from leaving. I would want to suggest that every experienced sailor who knew of their plans had some community responsibility to actively and strongly discouraged them from departing.
I say this for multiple reasons:
1. They were lucky not to have died and it was predictably likely they would get in trouble.
2. People who need rescuing at best incur great expense on the part of the SAR people and at worst put them in danger.
3. If we do not police/supervise our sport, I worry others will move in and do so. (Could you picture a bureaucratically administered “offshore license” necessary to sail to Bermuda from the US? Or to the Azores from the UK?)
4. Ours is a sport best learned in a “guild/apprenticeship” like manner: where those with knowledge and experience pass their knowledge along. Book knowledge and self-taught skills can only take you so far. This entails a willingness on the part of those learning to actively search out mentors in areas where they need more knowledge/experience. Concomitantly, those with experience/expertise need to be available, even forthcoming, and maybe even a bit forceful in educating others, especially when observing potentially dangerous practices or intentions.
I am not suggesting this to produce a cadre of supervisors/police-people, but rather to facilitate a caring community who recognizes the adventurous nature of our sport and the inter-dependence necessary to ensure that cruising widely on small sailboats thrives.
To my mind we carry a large responsibility when we venture offshore. This is particularly and especially the case if you carry an EPIRB, or radio or satphone etc. with the intention of calling for help if you get into trouble. This responsibility becomes even more magnified with crew/wife/guests on board who believe that the proposed trip makes sense and is safe, but who also have no ability to question the experience/preparations of the skipper.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy


One other skill that should be left ashore:
The ability to self-promote to get someone else to pay for your adventure. Hanging out on the beach for a few months with your girlfriend before being rescued at sea and subsequently writing a book and movie about your harrowing voyage shouldn’t be a path to fame and riches!

Eric Klem

Hi John,

I agree completely with your list. A few items you mention I am familiar with but on a hobby or money saving basis and not as something that I feel I need to know.

In general, I think that people focus too much on skills suited to specific tasks as opposed to focusing on general suites of skills that can then be applied to a specific task using adaptable and critical thinking. Things are never the same and so focusing on a specific formula means you are often ill-equipped if the situation presents itself slightly differently. Simple skills like how much torque to apply to a fastener or how to feel when something is starting to gall are often where the job goes from a simple fix to a complicated fix and that applies equally to an engine, watermaker or rigging turnbuckle. When it comes to items like docking, people are often looking for a formula for how to do it but for mechanically minded people, understanding how the forces act on the boat makes you far more adaptable and applies not only to docking but towing, warping, undocking and many other situations. This approach doesn’t work well for everyone but many people (myself included) benefit from understanding the situation and only then learning task specific tricks from others.

I think that this is somewhat related to how some people have the ability to come into an unknown situation and figure out what to do while others will get completely stuck because they haven’t been in it before.



Hi John,

I agree with everyone else here, this is an excellent viewpoint from a fresh angle, and I thank you for that analysis. Understanding what is essential and helping others start with the essentials will eliminate a lot of white noise and make people safer on the water. We all need a very complex set of skills to sail across oceans, but none of us cover all completely, therefore we are all insufficient in some area or another. Once we realize that, it all depends how we approach these gaps in knowledge or skill, and attitude is everything. I for one am neither technically talented nor do I have these magic hands some people have. It was the vision of reaching another continent on my own boat that inspired me, the idea of finding a remote island in the middle of the largest ocean on Earth, and the poetry of it all. Of course I had to learn all the other stuff in the process, like diesel engines, rigging, navigation, first aid, fiberglass, psychology, electronics and sewing sails, but I did it all just to fulfill my dreams. I tell people that, despite having sailed tens of thousands of miles, I am not a real sailor, I just chose to travel the world this way, by sail, that I am a backpacker on a sailboat.
Another thing I found is that some people are boat builders, and some are sailors, and very rarely they are both. Some people are very talented at building and fixing, and they spend decades to build a boat, others buy whatever they can afford and leave because they want to see the world. So we all have different motivations, different sets of skills and knowledge, different drivers that sets this process in motion. Some want to escape, others want to embrace this beautiful blue planet by sail. One remarkable thing about this “nation” (as Moitessier put it,) we belong to is that we, cruisers, always offer help without expecting anything in return and when we miss skills in one area there is always someone willing to help. As long as we know enough to be safe, self-reliant, and as long as we don’t engage government rescue agencies to come and get us out of trouble because of our own incompetence, then that is enough really. then years of doing this and encountering all sorts of situations will add to that competence level.
On the flip side, with social media and the commercialization of circumnavigations we might see many more cases like this:
I see people online talking about circumnavigating the globe as though it’s an all-inclusive to Cuba, just hop-on and live the dream. Stuff like that worries me a little, because again, it’s all about attitude. If you respect the ocean and have mentors that put the right school of thought in you from the very beginning, then you are a fortunate pupil. If you just want your youtube channel and want to get going right after you’ve sold your RV, I think there is a risk things might not turn out for the best.
Sorry for the long rant, I’m just spontaneously responding to a great article. I’m a big fan and hope to bump into you in some anchorage in Nova Scotia. Not literally of course…I choose the less expensive boats for that.

Drew Frye

Good points. A few more.

Not needed:
* How to wax and polish.

* Contingency skills must be practiced in real conditions, not just read about or practiced on a nice day. MOB. Rigging drogues or sea anchor if applicable. Never ask for a tow if there is a contingency skill you can practice (kedging off, steering with a drogue, jury rigs of all sorts). All of these must be idiot-proofed, since the conditions will be bad.
* How not to install things wrong. Better to have someone else install hardware, if you cannot wire correctly, bed fasteners in cored decks, engineer strength requirements, or size backing plates. The boat will be safe and more reliable and the next owner will thank you.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Drew,
Also not needed: skills in varnishing.
Good advice. The latter “installation” advice is similar to the splicing advice John gives: basically where skill is involved it is often better to let experts do it (and I would add: look over their shoulder).
Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Marc Dacey

Wise words. One of the reasons I installed my own diesel was to learn the basics. Another was the appalling reputation of the mechanic/diesel seller who vended it. My logic was and remains that in some distant lagoon, I will be the mechanic, not some guy who did well in shop class in 1978. So I feel I’ve had to know the beast. Prior to this, I had a couple of Atomic 4s rebuilt with hands-on participation in both rebuilds. I feel I’ve gotten to to point at the very least where I can tell when I’m dealing with a service tech or mechanic or boatyard person who isn’t so much more experienced than me that they are worth hiring to do a job I can screw up for free! On the other hand, I’m working with a welder/fabricator I happily pay because I know just enough to see he’s decades better (and tidier) than me and worth every penny. With your background as a rigger, you would be hard to gull on that subject, but most of us have to do with a jack of all trades approach to hiring help.

Marc Dacey

An add to that, which occurred to me today when one club-hired guy suggested one course of action on an engine repair and my fabricatior (a club member) suggested another, more thorough repair… knowing what you’re doing has its own shades of application. Even a modestly good painter will do better than me, and sometimes that’s all I need to know: my own enthusiasm for the task.

Bill Willcox

I’m going to disagree on relegating Ham or HF radio operating skills to the non-essential list, at least for those sailing long distances, unless other means of long distance communication are available.

Lack of a means of long distance communication in an emergency can result in serious consequences regardless of the level of crew expertise.
The ability to query the cruising community via the party line of Ham radio can reduce the probability of mishaps.
While a Ham license is not required to obtain a Marine station license, wouldn’t it be prudent to at least have some knowledge of which frequencies are more likely to be heard? The number of Hams listening on their frequencies improves the probability of being heard in an emergency.
Yes, satellite communication systems can be substituted for some, but not all, of the functionality of Ham radio.
I like Richard Spindler’s (the retiring publisher of Latitude 38, alas) approach to the required communication means for the Baja Ha-Ha Rally. Either HF radio or Satellite communication is required. Better yet, why not both?

The Baja Ha-Ha typically includes lots of less experienced cruisers. Those equipped with HF radio generally report an enhanced learning experience and sense of security knowing that more knowlegable members of the fleet are readily available.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Bill,
Firstly, John has always supported the importance of long distance comm, just not hf radio. As a ham (KC2HKW) who quite actively used my radio (both maritime freqs and ham) while in the NW Carib and Eastern Carib over many years, and who generally agree with all you say, I am, sad to say, basically in John’s ball park on whether hf radio is essential. I would urge sat-comm first for offshore wanderings and ham/maritime hf second.
I say this for the reasons John has stated over the years, but also because in 10 years sailing Europe (split between the Med and Northern Europe), even with some effort on my part to get and keep a Med-Net functioning, maritime comm using hf radio was almost (not completely but almost) non-existent. The Carib is by far (to my knowledge) the most robust use of maritime hf radio in the world, (south Pacific perhaps a distant second) and should not be used as an example of the communication ease and community one will find elsewhere.
Also, if you wish to go to higher latitudes hf becomes problematic to count on. Cruising the Carib, both NW and eastern, and crossing the N Atlantic by conventional routes, I could get all weather product I needed by HF radio via Winlink (or Sailmail) or by voice. Not so in Greenland/Iceland where propagation was limited by late sunsets and early sunrises. It was the first time in 15+ years of wandering that I just could not get comm established in any dependable fashionand I was immensely happy to have a satphone with a data hookup.
The above said, I think hf radio can be very helpful (and wonderful) at promoting a feeling of community among our far-flung participants, and where density allows, can promote a sharing of data about safety concerns and very occasionally be helpful/essential to safety*. It is also a wonderful hobby where amateur innovations that have wide ranging ripple effects still occur.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
*I established a “PanPan” type relationship with the Maritime Mobil Service Network (14,300 afternoons and evenings) when off the coast of the Dominican Republic when another boat got concerned/panic-y about some goings on. We established ½ hourly check-in comm after they took the particulars of the concern and our lat/lon. Worked a peach as a pre-caution.

Craig Holberger

I apologize for the rambling and perhaps somewhat off topic thoughts …..
1. splicing double braided rope and for that matter most ropes is just not that hard to master
2. I would like to see some realistic guidelines and discussions about ditch kits. ditch bags and typical lists of equipment and supplies are just too much… how can a normal person haul a 100 lb duffel bag out of the cabin an into a life raft…ditch kits should be much smaller and “personal”
3. other thoughts…MOB and MOB recovery should of course be practiced by all aboard, but MOB and MOB recovery equipment really has to be permanently rigged to be useful in an MOB event.
4. Why didn’t the couple drifting in the pacific ocean for months have an EPIRB ?

Dick Stevenson

Hi Craig,
With respect to splicing double braid, I do a moderate amount of rope work and generally like that kind of challenge. That said, I gave up splicing braid years ago as the results, while functional, were rarely up to an ascetic standard that I could tolerate (too lumpy etc.). I am usually not in cruising areas where a rigger/sailmaker is about, so I turned to using a buntline hitch rather than a splice (an added benefit was that the knot could not be drawn into and stuck in the throat of a sheave). Over 10-15 years of doing this, my halyards seem to have never suffered nor has the halyard had any problem with its strength being compromised by a knot over a splice. The use of a knot also made turning the halyard end to end a no-brainer when needed.
I would be happy to share the contents of my grab bag (abandon ship ditch bag). Mine in no way approaches an unwieldy weight. It should also be remembered that a ditch bag reflects how well your raft is kitted out. I will let John decide how this could best happen: perhaps we could wait till John puts together an article.
I agree with John re MOB thoughts. On Alchemy, we have long operated with the clear thought in mind: if you go overboard you are dead.
As to questions about those 2 mariners at sea for 5 months, there are way too many unanswered questions, yours among them.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
A rope tutorial would be great. I feel like that is one information loop that has eluded me in recent years. Dick

Marc Dacey

They had an EPIRB, evidently. They never chose to use it. Which is probably reinforcing John’s point in terms of “having gear you do not understand properly” as opposed to having seamanship and boat handling skills.

Richard Dykiel

All this story starts to smell like a hoax or publicity stunt…. Or absolute, unfathomable stupidity.

Drew Frye

I can splice, but I’ve always felt that there is not a single splice (other than Amsteel, which does not knot well) on my boat I actually need. Yes, in theory a knot is stronger, but the line almost always fails due to chafe and most are actually sized for stretch, not strength.

Sewn eyes are another option. Easy to remember and just as strong. Long lasting if covered.

So other than 3-strand to chain… nope, can’t think of any I really must have.


Hi John,
Going back to your lead anecdote I have two observations:
1. Any list of skills required to operate a sailboat needs to start with being able to sail; as in knowing how to set the sails and then either sail to the wind or reset the sails to the prevailing wind.
2. In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice they are quite different. (Spend more time practicing than theorizing; it will keep you out of more trouble. See: Perlisism #95)

Peter Tobiasen

Great post thanks. Please consider a followup like – so what DO you consider vital ☺️
Kind regards Peter

William Collinson

Some very good points and well made. I would like to suggest that eye splices in braided line can effectively be replaced by the super simple halliard knot. Yes, some theoretical reduced strength but it requires just a few inches of line, nothing like he amount needed for a splice, can be made in pre-used rope, whereas eye splices require brand new line and tied in any conditions. I use this knot for the Spectra main halliard on my Bestevaer 53 and have never had any failure.
I gave up on my RYA YachtMaster Ocean certificate as the qualification revolves 95% around celestial navigation which I felt was completely irrelevant too. I would dearly like to obtain a similar, but more up to date ticket – any ideas?

Chris Connor

Hello William,
I am qualified to instruct and examine for the RYA Yachtmaster Ocean certificate. I am surprised by your comment that the qualification is 95% celestial navigation.

Using the syllabus and calculating the hours used to teach subjects pertaining only to the earth, time, sextant, sight reduction, etc. it results in about 17 hours of a 40 hour course. The subjects not directly related to celestial include eight hours for meteorology, seven hours for passage planning, etc.

The 2.5 hour exam has a similar break-down whereupon 55 marks out of 100 are related to navigation (celestial) and the remainder are weather, passage planning and electronics.

Several years ago I may have agreed that celestial navigation was becoming irrelevant to offshore sailing. However, now I am not so sure. The US Navy has recommenced teaching the subject to their deck officers and there have been several well advertised and recent examples of spoofing and jamming of GPS signals (see the recent event in August 2017 in the Black Sea). Frankly, given the personalities of several of our world leaders, I do not believe it is beyond the realm of possibility that one of these rogue nations isn’t prepared to take out the GNSS system if they thought an attack was imminent. Unlikely but possible. Regional Jammers and spoofing is more likely to be the issue.

I believe there is a place for celestial navigation. However, if you do not intend to proceed further than say 150 miles offshore then no, you can do without it.

As amateurs, cruisers get of easy – merchant navy officers in Canada are still required to do a 300 hour celestial navigation course.




Hi Chris,
I agree that celestial navigation can be seen as an important toolset/skill for being self sufficient and not depending on externally provided services when being offshore. However navigating “by the stars” will only work out if you are constantly practising, taking a sight as well as using the tables to plot three lines to the intersection. Keeping a sextant well tucked away in the box will not help you, even if you have the current years nautical almanach at hand.
IMHO the actual need to use celestial will be quite abysmal, as long as you keep track of your current position as long as your GPS works. Dead reckoning from the last known position will bring you at least near the next shore if everything else fails you.

Just my 2cents 😉
All the best, Ernest

Chris Connor

Hello Ernest,

I agree, doing a star sight on a small boat can be challenging (or PITA).

Using Ho. 249, Sight Reduction Tables the RYA does teach in the course how to do a morning and evening star positions using stars/planets. This is not difficult to master and comes back after many years of disuse (I know this from experience).

However, the examination for the certificate requires only the minimum of a sun-run-merpass and a compass check carried out using a bearing of the sun, moon, a star OR planet.

In reality on a yacht, the sun-run-merpas-sun is more than adequate for daily workings. This is not so difficult or onerous and should only take at most an hour or two a day (out of 24). With pre-printed forms (or tables) it can be done very quickly.

If you can fix your position to within two miles or so, then you should be able to close a coast confidently with the intent of picking up an offshore buoy or light prior to running into anything hard.



Charles L Starke

The iPhone app, Celestial, makes celestial navigation including plots and running fixes a breeze! No need for tables or yearly nautical almanac! No need for chronometer either!

Dick Stevenson

Hi Charles,
Thanks for this. I more or less gave up the occasional playing with my sextant as a hobby because of the expense/bother of almanacs etc. I will give the app a look-see.
Another topic for ACC: apps one would not go to sea without!
My best, Dick

Charles L Starke

The Celestial app is also an extremely easy way to keep a DR position.

William Collinson

OK, I was exaggerating with 95%. It felt like it at the time.
There is a body of opinion that would agree with you about spoofing and jamming GPS but I believe that the points made by John on this matter are more realistic. Sailing around in a war zone however, where this might take place would be a very unwise plan.
There are better reasons to learn celestial navigation than to require its use in earnest. It genuinely connects us to our environment and it teaches us respect for our forefathers who worked all this out in the first place. It becomes completely useless however if it is not practiced regularly and if the required tables/instructions/working and calibrated sextant are not available. Oh, and the weather. IMHO these are the biggest impediments in the real world to have celestial navigation as a fall back on a yacht. Again, John’s view on this point is much more realistic.
Do you really mean that every time we venture more than 150 miles offshore we should take a celestial fix?

Chris Connor

Hello William,

Everyone is entitled to an opinion.

Many countries have now begun developing or re-introducing old terrestrial navigation systems. In 2009 President Obama declared the Loran-C system obsolete and it was shut down. In 2014 the House transportation committee reopened the topic.

In 2017 under the Coast Guard Authorization Act the DHS proposed that a back-up E-Loran system be established (using the old Loran-C infrastructure) to provide a complement to, and back-up for, the GPS system to ensure the availability of uncorrupted and non degraded position navigation, and timing signals for military and civilian users in the event that GPS signals are corrupted, degraded, unreliable, or otherwise unavailable. [This comes from the organization that provides the GPS signal].

I use networked and corrected P-Code GPS signals to position oil rigs over well heads. We do not rely on GPS alone.

In the merchant navy, the deck officers maintain their celestial skills by teaching and coaching the officer cadets and apprentices and checking their workings.

Ho. 249 tables can be downloaded for free and put on iPad (keep two if you want redundancy). The sine-cosine formula is simple enough for most to understand and can be calculated using a cheap scientific calculator. This simplifies things greatly.

If you don’t have a GPS signal (a very weak and easily jammed signal) you will be unable to ascertain your position.

In the commercial seagoing world they establish the training and experience requirements and delineate them by voyage limits. For example, The Captain of a large ferry running between NS and NL does not need to have training in celestial navigation. The Master of a ship running out to Sable Island does not require celestial navigation. However, if the vessel steams outside of 120 NM then the master and mates have to study celestial navigation and a port state control inspector may ask to see the sextant and compass record book, etc.

The RYA sets up their courses in this manner –
Day Skipper – mostly day time sailing in known waters
Coastal Skipper – includes a 100 mile voyage and a lot more night sailing
Yachtmaster Coastal – limited to 200 ton vessel no more than 25 NM off
Yachtmaster Offshore – limited to 200 ton vessel no more than 150 NM off
Yachtmaster Ocean – limited to 200 ton vessel unlimited voyage limits.
of course, this is mandatory for commercially endorsed certificates and recommended for the recreational sector however nothing prevents the YM holder in the recreational sector from doing whatever they want.

It is a graduated system (as one gains experience and knowledge by working up through the system).

I believe anyone proceeding offshore more than 150 NM should be able to fix their position at sea using means other than GPS alone.

This is my opinion.

Welding required only if you need to put a new cupholder in.



William Collinson

Thanks for your feedback – yes the whole purpose of these forums is to share experiences and exchange different views. You have made some very fair and valid points, but, I do think that what happens in both the merchant and national navies of the world, and also placing oil rigs as you do is rather different to sailing a yacht for pleasure. There are of course parallels between all of these activities and much to learn from them but I can’t really see many yachts installing Loran-C or using networked and corrected P-Code GPS signals for first line or backup navigation, as one of the main strengths of satellite navigation is its universality, accessibility and that so many of our everyday activities rely on it, which might make it, in my view, less likely to be turned off than these more specialised systems.
I think the element of “my navigation is better than your navigation” which is often the subtext of these discussions is quite off putting and to push the point where someone who can’t or won’t use celestial navigation when offshore in their yacht might be considered less than responsible doesn’t take into account all of the many thousands of successful and happy offshore journeys that have been enjoyed safely without a sextant. You may know of some instances when celestial navigation has been the only way that safety has been maintained on board a modern yacht and I would love to hear about them.

Chris Connor

I am always baffled by the thinking that pervades the boating community when the subject of what learning and experience is required to operate a boat and go cruising.

Welding? I would never have thought that learning to weld is required to go cruising but I have to admit a few years ago a good friend of mine related to me a tale about how while sitting on a mutual acquaintance’s aluminum boat enjoying a few bevvies, he made the comment, “I like the boat but you should have a cup holder right here”. The acquaintance promptly pulled out an aluminum welding rig and installed a basic cupholder in the location indicated and the bevvies continued! Still! I do not think this capability is required to venture offshore in a sailboat (both of these individuals were marine engineers).

However, I am always amazed at the number of people that buy a boat, sometimes very BIG boats and with little or no experience whatsoever go cruising.

I know it is possible to buy a boat and proceed to sea and successfully circumnavigate. I recently examined a candidate for a RYA Yachtmaster certificate that basically bought a boat, drove his car to the wharf, left his keys and signed ownership on the dash, got in his 30 foot long boat and circumnavigated! This without any formal training or experience. I suppose the problem for me is that after 37 or more years working full time on the water or in related industries like Search and Rescue, i have no problem imagining the risk they have exposed themselves to.

Most people would not buy a book and self-teach to drive a car, motorbike or airplane.

Nevertheless, I guess what I am trying to say is that the couple described at the beginning of this post would not have had these problems if they had taken a few days of formal training. They would have exposed themselves to far less risk and the likelihood of damaging their vessel would have been reduced dramatically.


Chris Connor
STCW10 Master Unlimited
RYA Yachtmaster Ocean/Instructor & Examiner (Power & Sail)
RYA Cruising Instructor Trainer.

Chris Connor

Hi John,

Thank you for your comments. It is very difficult to argue against formal training. I examined a young man that had crossed the Atlantic several times, sailed the Greenland coast extensively and completed the NWP East to West in a 30 foot boat (no easy feat as Jimmy Cornell later discovered). This highly competent sailor’s comment about YM Offshore Prep and exam in Mahone Bay: “I’ve crossed the Atlantic, sailed the Greenland Coast, done the NWP and I was humbled by Mahone Bay!”

I contacted the RYA Director of Training and Qualifications to discuss your comment above. Further to what I had stated earlier about the syllabus of the course being about 45% related to celestial navigation (although this could differ from what a school teaches if they do not follow the syllabus) he related that the course was reviewed about six years ago.

The shorebased theory course differs from the exam such that it goes into far more detail about the practical execution of an ocean passage and the planning that accompanies that. Further the exam will look at the workings from a qualifying ocean passage and discuss the learnings arising from the practical application of the concepts learned on the shorebased theory course.

The other thing to remember is that the RYA Yachtmaster certificate can be endorsed as a Certificate of Competency for use in commercial workboats and superyachts and must meet the requirements of the Marine & Coast Guard Agency (MCA) and ultimately the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

RYA has questioned the MCA whether celestial should be taught and after discussions in detail the IMO’s position is that we should retain astro navigation based on feedback from those nations which are responsible for GPS and other satellite based position fixing systems, i.e. the USA, Russia and others do not believe it is a good idea to rely solely on space based satellite systems. It might be unwise to ignore them since they own and operate the systems.

The only recent tragedy that we are aware of involving a RYA Yachtmaster Ocean qualified Master is the CHEEKI RAFIKI. The RYA followed the case very closely and was involved in both the MAIB investigation and present at some of the trial. There has never been any suggestion whatsoever that the skipper, his experience or his training contributed in any way towards that incident. The MAIB did look at that as part of the investigation and came up with nothing that caused any concern.

Can you enlighten us to other tragedies? RYA’s number one concern is safety at sea. CHEEKI RAFIKI has been discussed at length at RYA conferences for instructors and on most courses run at the higher levels. We would be very interested in learning of other tragedies.

Again, thank you for the comments and opportunity to post on your site.


Chris Connor
RYA Yachtmaster Offshore/Ocean Instructor & Examiner
RYA Cruising Instructor Trainer
Principal of In Slocum’s Wake Sailing

George L

Fully agree with Chris and his comments are well worth considering.

George L

We have decided to get the RYA ocean with the extras for the commercial endorsement as a QA of our own skills. Our rationale was, that we shouldn’t treat ourselves any worse than we would have to treat paying guests. Do we like everything about the RYA progam? No of course not. Its a bit anal for our taste at times and a number of things like these silly artificial charts (rather than using the Solent charts) should have never been created in the first place.

But generally, we are very impressed; the curriculum condenses the experience and knowledge of hundreds if not thousands of successful mariners. Combined with a lot of lake sailing and crewing on races in the Eastern UK and between France and the Netherlands, and a few deliveries and cruises, we have become very comfortable on yachts, whether as skipper or as crew. All in a few years despite the delays due to the Corona shutdowns.

Celestial navigation was fun and in the 600 mile passage we came in within 6 miles of the projected point. Not difficult at all. Should it turn out to be never needed, it will connect a novice to the sky like few others things will.

Marc Dacey

This has been my and my wife’s experience of RYA. Doing the courses both consolidates and amplifies our existing experience at sea.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Chris,
And I would add: they would have been far less likely to have have exposed SAR groups to expense and possible danger. Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Bill Attwood

One point that I have not seen mentioned (maybe I have missed it?) wrt hf/mf radio, is the benefit provided by DSC. I read that all Solas ships are required to carry, inter alia, an mf/hf DSC watchkeeping receiver. This means that a DSC alert will sound a bridge alarm on every vessel receiving the signal. Am I correct in assuming that an Iridium phone of the sort discussed does not form part of the GDMSS system? The Icom M802 is a DSC ensbled SSB transceiver which is affordable, and which I was able to successfully install myself, and I am no expert. The benefit of direct contact over GMDSS with vessels able to offer assistance made it a worthwhile investment for me. The benefits of contact with other yachts comes on top.

Charles L Starke

I also feel that the ability to call other boats on SSB via DSC calling makes a SSB on board invaluable.
Individual boats can be called by MMSI just like a personal telephone, by instituting the Icom M802 calling and scanning frequency changes championed by John, KA4WJA, on s/v Annie Laurie, and by Terry Sparks.
(For reference, see Terry Sparks book on the Icom M802.)
All CG ships, 03669999, or CG shore stations, 003669999, can be called by using their group MMSI‘s.
A wide ranging call to all local ships can be made by using the geographic MMSI. For example, USA group call for the East Coast is 036904000. There is an geographic area MMSI for all areas of the world.
All this applies to a routine, standard, pan pan, safety or distress call. The utility of having a working SSB DSC radio on board can be greatly extended for routine and safety use, way beyond the commonly accepted limitations.
Best wishes,
Charles L Starke MD
s/v Dawnpiper

Chris Connor

I am a designated examiner for CPS for the VHF-DSC. You would be shocked at how many people have a VHF-DSC capable receiver installed in their boat without connections to the GPS system for automatic input of lat/lon. So now, in an emergency you have to transfer the position manually from your GPS to the radio!

Usually by the end of the one day course, the participants are amazed at what can be done with that simple radio using DSC. They usually commit to connecting their GPS to the radio as well.

I do not have a SSB but there are times when I have considered installing a receiver.



Charles L Starke

Hi Chris
The DSC SSB possibilities are even larger than those you found with VHF! It does require slightly more work than VHF to accomplish these goals, but the end capabilities are very extensive.
Please see my comments above for a start. Terry Sparks books help to understand the path to accomplish these benefits. I recommend that you look into installing an Icom M802 DSC SSB instead of a simple receiver.

Chris Connor

You are correct. The iridium phone/iridium go will not activate a GMDSS Distress message. Instead it will activate an alarm at a control centre in the Southern USA. They in turn contact the relative SAR centre to activate the EGC, etc.

You have to register with the GEOS Emergency Monitoring through Travel Safety Group Ltd.

I have an Iridium Go and the Delorme InReach. They work as above.

I also have an EPIRB. The EPIRB must be registered with the respective national government. The registry is online in Canada.

I would not sail without my EPIRB. I was working in the SAR centre in Halifax when the mission control centre in Trenton received the first EPIRB 406MHz Bn hit. We resolved it as a false alarm within minutes. A tanker anchored off Nanisivik in the Arctic.

If anyone has any doubts about investing in an EPIRB – read the TSB report into the sinking of the Concordia.



Chris Connor

Hello William,
I apologize if I have miscommunicated. I did not mean to infer that my kind of sailing with a sextant is better than sailing without a sextant or that sailors should install high end survey quality GPS receivers or eLoran (when it becomes available), etc. I use these examples only to show that professionals are leery about relying solely on GPS and that that feeling is growing with every new notice that we receive about spoofing, jamming, infected systems by virus’, etc. It has reached the point where national governments are developing or reintroducing terrestrial based eNav systems as back-ups, etc.

You are correct: the GPS system will never be intentionally turned off by the US government.

It is said the only period in time when they might have benefitted from turning the GPS system off was for Iraq War I and they actually removed selective availability and increased the accuracy of the system!

The issue is the relatively weak satellite signal Vs. a potentially more powerful jamming signal sent on the same frequency making the system inoperative or a signal with incorrect timing which would give false positions, etc.

It can be done; has been done – just recently (August 2017) in the Black Sea.

I cannot comment on the ‘what aboutism’ of the thousands of successful voyages made without the use of a sextant but let me ask though, how many of those voyages would have been unsuccessful without the use of GPS? In my books, having a sextant (even a cheap plastic sextant) onboard a yacht with an almanac and tables (which can be downloaded for free to an iPad or tablet) and the twenty hours or so required to learn the basic sun-run-merpass or sun-run-sun is cheap insurance on a yacht voyaging offshore.

Will we see a massive failure of the GPS system in our lifetimes? I don’t know. I know there are a number of unfriendly nations with the ability to shoot down satellites and they have active cyber warfare capabilities that would target the GPS ground based infrastructure. Why do you think the US Navy is reintroducing celestial nav to their deck officers?

This thread was started with comments about a couple that went to sea without the knowledge and skill to shorten sail only to discover that they had done celestial nav courses along with welding and ham radio courses. A celestial course and sextant, welding training and MF/HF radios were the last thing this couple needed at this point in their development.

I have two sextants on my Gozzard 37 cutter because I teach the RYA Oceans course. They don’t take up that much room and I think I may be slightly masochistic as well.

Nevertheless, the question pertaining to the relevance of celestial navigation in the modern world always elicits strong opinions. At this point, I would suggest that we agree to disagree.



Richard Dykiel

While I agree with John’s original argument, in that it presents a more realistic and ‘attainable’ skill set for cruising, cruisers may make different choices on safety based on their personal thoughts and research.

I learned celestial for fun and now it has morphed in an interest in astronomy. I could never imagine going out to sea for coastal cruising without a compass, hand bearing compass, and a set of large scale paper charts. Likewise if I went offshore I’d want a celestial fallback: in my case it would be geared towards being able to fix a position with medium precision, using a plastic emergency sextant (Davis Mark III), using nautical almanach with NAO tables (1 book all self-contained, no need for additional tables), and no electronics.

The argument about lack of practice being true, I would also take with me my excellent textbook from StarPath 🙂

But first things first, cruising skills require focus on essentials of boat handling, anchoring, and navigation.

Lisa Rowell

What a great article! I especially like the understanding that somethings we do just because it’s a hobby and how that can me confused with a must have skill. For me, knowing knots and being able to braid is important, but not because I need it to cruise, but because I really enjoy it.

Bill Attwood

Hi John
I think that the comment on SSB DSC “assuming that someone is listening” is unjustified, or at least too strong. Since all Solas vessels are required to have a dedicated mf/hf DSC watchkeeping receiver, see my earlier post, the only reason that no-one would be listening would be if no-one received the signal. In view of how DSC works, this is unlikely. We both have different views on the relevance of mf/hf radio communication, and I respect your view, but I think that it is a pity not to give the full picture on both sides. I think my post was the first time anyone commented on DSC capability for mf/hf radio, and it was because of my frustration that this seemed to be being ignored that prompted me to write it. Most people understand and appreciate the value of DSC for VHF comms, how difficult is it to see the same advantages for mf/hf comms? I’m not seeking to change your mind, rather to add a pro to the long list of pros and cons already covered on this and other posts.
Yours aye

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
In following up on your comment somewhere on having emergency numbers programmed on your sat-phone, and being back on this side of the pond., I would appreciate the number(s) you have found for Canada’s SAR (we will be in Newfoundland and the Canadian Maritimes for the next season) and for the east coast of the US.
Thanks, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dick Stevenson

Hi Bill, Charles and all,
Regarding DSC, Bill, you say most people understand and appreciate the value of DSC for VHF comms. I, for one, am a little fuzzy on this. As for mf/hf, I run an old 710 without DSC capability and an IC7000 for ham mf/hf, also no DSC. I think they could be retrofitted, but have never even considered it as there are, to my mind, far better ways to get a distress signal out.
But let’s stay with VHF DSC for now:
Every year or two I spend an increasing amount of time (I am getting older each time) re-learning DSC and how it operates. And then promptly forget it as I never use it. And I have covered a fair number of miles and a lot of countries and use my VHF quite a bit and am at a loss as to any problems that could be solved were I to use DSC or how life could be easier.
I am aware that my radio will send out a distress call with our GPS coordinates if I press the red button and I appreciate that as an advance in getting out a distress call. I also bought my AIS to wed with my VHF so at the push of a button I can ping the bridge of a ship I wish to communicate with: a nice feature. In 5 years of being near lots of ships, I have never used it (and yes, I probably have forgotten how it works as well). This is in part because I talk to far fewer vessels now that I tx AIS and when I do, I just hail them on ch 16 which has always worked.
I know some use DSC for privacy when traveling together, but the few times I have traveled with others, we just call each other on ch 16. Not a problem.
I understand that some CG’s have announced intentions to only respond to DSC calls, but have yet to come across any.
Thanks for your thoughts,
Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Bill Attwood

Hi Dick.
Thanks for your response to the comments. I was particularly interested in your ability to interface your VHF to the AIS. That sounds to be a really cool feature. Without wishing to hammer the nail out of sight, I should like to make a few comments based on your reply. You rightly point out the benefit of a “one button push” distress call on VHF, surely the same benefit applies to mf/hf? Secondly, the ability to call and talk directly to another ship without cluttering Ch. 16 must be an advantage, even without the cool interface? I have found DSC on VHF on ocean voyages to be useful. Non-DSC calls on Ch. 16 require someone on bridge watch to be listening, alert, and prepared to respond, whereas a DSC alarm (ok, ring-tone!) has a better effect. The VLB(ulk)C plying between Australia and China have crews who´s first language isn´t English, and I had no success in getting a response from them on Ch. 16.
In the UK, and most European countries, use of a marine radio requires an Operator´s Licence, Short Range Certificate for VHF, and Long Range Certificate for mf/hf. Since all VHF radios now sold come with DSC as standard, this is covered in the relevant courses and exams. SSB radio is somewhat more difficult, as thanks to the Eurocrats, there is no longer an SSB certified for use within EU waters, at least at a price which anyone other than a superyacht owner can afford. The Icom M-802 is NOT approved for use within EU waters. I wouldn´t consider installing an SSB without DSC.
I am sympathetic to John´s opinion that SSB is a more expensive solution in terms of money and investment of time than a satellite phone. When and if, as John believes, the Iridium phone becomes part of the GMDSS, then SSB will definitely become something for hams and enthusiasts. But it must be remembered that mf/hf comms remain a legal requirement for all Solas ships, and that mf/hf DSC watchkeeping receivers are part of the standard equipment of MRCC´s (and Coast Radio Stations?).
I don´t intend to convert anybody, but to try and even up the balance of pros and cons for people looking to make a decision.
I hereby commit to no further comments on this topic!

Dick Stevenson

Hi Bill,
I guess I was mostly curious whether DSC could be useful in everyday cruising life, which is likely the only way I will remember how to use it.
And, yes, the interface of the radio and the AIS is a cool feature which could be valuable in the case of a vessel not responding: so far not the case.
In Central America, in particular, Ginger (read: female voice) would sometimes, to her frustration and annoyance, fail to get a response from a commercial vessel. Since AIS, where you can call a vessel by name, neither of us have failed to get a response just calling over ch 16. Once in a rare while, on the third hale, I might say “This Alchemy, Alchemy, Alchemy on high power, high power, calling for the third time the vessel XXX, XXX, XXX”. The realization that all within range were listening and may be monitoring the interaction has yet to fail to get a response. That said, I can’t remember when I last needed to do this.
As for ch 16 being crowded/cluttered, my take was that it was far less crowded with the proliferation of cell phones: even the Solent was workable on a nice Sat. afternoon By far the most traffic is with the very patient CG radio operators answering the very many calls for radio checks. That said, most cruising I am not in waters where you hear much of anything on ch 16 all day.
As for emergencies/distress, I have thankfully little experience, but all my understanding leads me to turn to EPIRB first (duly registered), satphone second (pre-programmed with the appropriate phone number) and I will hit my companionway red DSC alarm radio button on the way out for any vessels close at hand (the radio is always on and always on ch 16 high power). When money permitted and we started doing ocean passages, I bought a second EPIRB.
So, the long and short of it is that I have found that nothing in my cruising life that nudges me to learn and use DSC. I suspect that may change in the future, but now I see it as something which complicates my radio and makes it more expensive. (And annoys me– and the anchorage– when I row back to the boat after an outing listening to the alarm which had been activated while I was away.)
Having spent the last 10+ years in and around European waters, I sympathize with your comments about the licenses required for various levels of radio usage. Casual talking with friends, I found many of the requirements absurd and prohibitively expensive. As for learning DSC in the courses you mentioned, I have learned DSC a number of times and, suggest, that those who learned in class, will forget as fast as I if DSC does not find regular usage in everyday cruising life.
Right now, I am unhappy to report, I would not be sure how to respond to a DSC emergency/distress call if it came in to my radio on Alchemy without opening the instruction book.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Charles L Starke

Dear John, Dick, & Bill,
I agree that an Epirb is the easiest and first step to take in a true life threatening emergency. Every boat should carry one. We also carry personal Epirbs. The need for these is exemplified by the Rambler keel loss in which multiple personal Epirb signals called attention to the need for assistance. There was no time for the boats Epirb to be activated. Personal epirbs might have helped the crew of Cheeki Rafiki.
Not many have SSB DSC experience so that there is much misunderstanding. An Icom M802 on DSC watch quietly listens and cycles with two separate receivers automatically not only both on the six emergency channels and but also on the six simplex frequencies recommended by Terry Sparks and others. These frequencies are on the 2, 4, 6, 8, 12 and 16 MHz bands. The SSB is quiet and rings in an emergency or on incoming DSC calls just like a telephone. Your MMSI is your yacht telephone number. So the radio is quiet for all off watch except for an incoming call. A DSC SSB call to your vessel has a very good chance of getting through to you if you left your radio in the quiet DSC watch mode, ringing like a telephone, and automatically switching to a corresponding voice channel in the same band that the digital signal reached you. This ensures that a DSC call will have successfull propagation for a good voice conversation.
The radio listens and cycles through multiple bands to account for changing conditions of distance and propagation. 2 MHz is not very useful so there is talk of replacing this frequency with one on 22 MHz.
If the red emergency button is activated by holding for five seconds, the radio calls distress on only 8 MHz. (Not 2 MHz). This is a better frequency than 2 MHz for day or night propagation. If you take a few seconds to program an emergency alert and then activate the red button, the ssb automatically cycles through all six emergency frequencies on six bands. This would increase reception of your emergency status.
A good way to learn more about SSB is watching the videos on YouTube:
And reading a SSB by Terry Sparks.
SSB is definitely harder to install than a vhf, satphone or Epirb. It needs two antennas and constant GPS input of position. But misunderstandings inhibit its use. I hope information will propagate further use.
Best wishes,
Charles L Starke MD
s/v Dawnpiper

Dick Stevenson

Hi Charles,
That really fills out my knowledge of SSB DSC in a way that had eluded me. Thanks.
I am especially glad that a SSB DSC outputs to the freqs you listed, I assume that they correspond to the freqs that our (USA) CG monitors 24/7 (changing freqs according to propagation).
As an FYI, when last sailing US/Carib/Central America waters I would periodically test one of those CG monitored channels and always got a response. This was heartening as sometimes there are Pan Pans (or Pan Pan like concerns) that you want to get out so as someone knows where you are and what is going on that fall well short of distress.
Thanks again, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Charles L Starke

Dear Dick
Thanks! It’s nice to hear that was helpful. Yes, the secondary emergency receiver constantly scans and monitors all six of the world wide DSC emergency channels full time even when the radio is not in DSC watch mode. So it scans all emergency frequencies independent of propagation so a call can get through all the time.
The Icom M802 comes pre-programmed with one simplex on 2 MHz and five duplex channels on the DSC watch receiver. The five duplex channels are chosen to reach shore stations which are predominately out of service at present. Terry Sparks and others recommend reprogramming the Icom M802 DSC watch and calling frequencies to simplex frequencies which allow and ease ship to ship calling.
I have a main backstay antenna, the secondary antenna and a dedicated Garmin GPS Receiver 19x HVS installed underdeck to allow constant DSC SSB function.
Extensive discussion of SSB DSC and it’s value in areas of the world poorly served by vhf is published on Brunei Bay radio website.

Thanks again and best wishes,
Charles L Starke MD
s/v Dawnpiper

Marc Dacey

The use of pilotage and sextant skills have a secondary function of making one aware (due to the consequences of a bad or missing fix or the failure to keep DR/running fixes) of the consequences of inattention in navigation. GPS may or may not be ultra-reliable, but navigation should be based in deduction and observation, not taking the gadget’s word for it. I have noticed, in addition to the seemingly endemic incidents of flawed watchkeeping aboard U.S. Navy destroyers, a number of seemingly avoidable issues during ocean racing (see While I understand the need to make up every second in a race, when fast-moving hulls are torn by locally known and charted hazards, “prudent offing” seems to go out the window. Would a traditional user of CN make such an elemental error? Maybe, but a certain amount of caution and cynicism regarding her own navigational perfection would discourage that. Would a GPS-only screen-glazed navigator do it? Perhaps that prudence has not been cultivated for those who decide to look at the screen over using the eyeballs. A recent discussion with a fellow boater revealed this because he sets his autopilot to sail to waypoints, irrespective of how wind changes and currents might affect his sail set and course. I set mine on a course that goes to an arbitrary point; my distance on or off said point gives me information about set, drift and current. It also keeps me on deck, tweaking and looking around. Pilotage and analog navigational tools, even if I don’t take noon sights that often, have trained me to observe reality in a way a plotter (which I happily use as “one more tool”) doesn’t quite manage.

Neil McCubbin

Great article, John.
Interesting how many of the posts focus on radios.
While learning how to rebuild an engine is superfluous, I think those leaving shore need a bit more diesel skill than you suggest, replace impellers, filters and belts at least)
Also some elementary electrical knowledge (How to use a multimeter, understand amps, volts, amp hours etc)
Some “mechanic practice” is important, if you have no feel for how hard to torque bolts etc.
Finally carry Nigel Calder’s “Boatowners Mechanical and Electrical Manual ” about $50, and read at least the more elementary chapterd

Marc Dacey

Simply replacing fluids and filters and adjusting tensions of belts or giving quarter-turns to hose clamps, checking levels, corrosion on wires, etc. and keeping the diesel clean will go a long way to avoiding catastrophic failures. Thirty years ago, car owners of less reliable construction knew this and tended to service their own engines. In the absence of drive-in service bays and mechanics, the prudent boat owner needs to resurrect this mindset and set of practices. It’s like reefing, really: if you think something requires tending, it’s probably time to do it.

Chuck B

This is so great, thank you John – and dovetails nicely with The Big Five (, which have been so influential on my own thinking, and is perhaps a generalized form of the ideas on this page.

One thing I love about sailing is that there IS such a breadth of topics that one can learn about, to any level of depth desired. I find it enjoyable to “taste” a little bit of everything as much as possible/practical. I took a splicing class, and as a side effect learned not only about how knots and splices affect rope strength, but also that I enjoyed the somewhat meditative quality of the work and resulting sense of personal satisfaction. (This places it into the hobby category for me!)

I agree basic sailing skills are more practical (and prudent!) than splicing. And exploring all the many facets that sailing has to offer is so life-enriching. It’s fantastic to see all the reflections of that passion in the individuals here.

With warm wishes,



Can you recommend the ASA sequence of courses for the person who is intrigued by passage-making, but whose total sailing experience to date was with a tiny Sunfish on a small lake during the teen years?

Kevin B

Hi Richard,
I believe the ASA sequence is pretty self explanatory, starting at 101 and going up. With a background in Canadian sailing (CSA) and power squadron courses I was able to “challenge” the initial certifications and participate in a week long 106 course that included course planning, navigation, and a gulf stream crossing from Fort Lauderdale to Bimini and back. One of the best “learning vacations” I have ever taken!

Kevin B

Hi John,
I do not know the answer to your question. I can say that the ASA program has been accepted by bareboat charter firms in the Caribbean, Eastern Mediterranean, and South Pacific. The MCA certification is certainly different; that said, I cannot imagine that participation in the ASA program would hurt anyone working toward it.

Bob McDowell

Short answer: IT’S COMPLICATED!
The ASA is not the MCA and its courses are not recognized by the USCG (the MCA in the US) but in the US you can sit for the OUPV and or Masters NC tests with Sea time and STCW’s.
So to answer the question, take the courses, go sailing a lot to get sea time and then sit the tests. Although this leads to the OUPV/Master Near Coastal (Master of Ocean requires sea time on vessels over 50 ton)

Bob McDowell

I assumed (I know…) the person was from the US. The RYA ticket is not much good on a US flagged boat, what with the jones act and all, so if the person wants a OUPV or such then USCG is where it is at. There is no federal requirement for recreational boating no matter the waters, and the state requirements are cheesy. So if someone from the US wants to learn to sail and go sailing anywhere in the world on there own boat, funny enough he only needs a radio license. If the user is concerned with learning to sail then the ASA program is excellent, it rivals the RYA programs with a more granular approach. I have taught the ASA courses as I am a longstanding ASA instructor and will soon be instructing the RYA courses after attending an RYA CI clinic in the spring.

While I hold both USCG (non-current)and RYA YM OC these tickets are not interchangeable. All that being said the RYA courses, as you state, do lead directly to an MCA approved ticket and have a commercial path.

And just to reiterate, the path to an US Ocean commercial ticket is certainly onerous. So while I agree with entirely for a European sailor, if I were in the US I would take the ASA track, as it is a good training system and more readily available to statesiders, followed by sitting the RYA YM Offshore exam or Ocean if your celestial is adequate.

Bob McDowell

And John, to be clear, my having the different tickets does not convey expertise at all. That is why I read your site diligently and follow the responses from your incredible readers responses. I believe this site is one of the best contemporary information resources available. “Contemporary” because I am not giving up my book shelves of “weighty tomes”. Just last night I was reading “Streets Cruising Guide to the lesser Antilles” (1983 edition) as it has one of the best concise treatises on why not to buy a boat on the US northwest coast for a European client of mine. It is a 2 season trip from Seattle to Italy. Turns out that it is almost easier to go west!


George L

I think it would be pretty difficult to pass a yacht master exam without showing reasonable competence and expertise.

Chuck B

Hi Richard, I’ve gone the ASA route. The course sequence is straightforward, as another responder mentioned. The sequence for ASA 101-108 is described at I recommend taking 118 (Docking Endorsement) and 120 (Radar Endorsement) as well.

If you decide to go with ASA, I suggest limiting yourself to one class per year, so that you have sufficient time to practice what you’ve learned before moving on to the next course.

Best of luck & have fun!



As for me, being European I have the IC/Sail 200nm certificate (translates to Austrian “FB3”), plus the Short Range Cert required for VHF usage. The IC is only needed when chartering as the insurances require it, at least in European waters there is no such thing as a legal certificate requirement. And, astoundingly, some european certs such as the Croatian cert can be gained without ever having set a foot on a boat (I have proof of this, I have met people who wanted to “try sailing” after they got their Croatian cert).

This said I don’t see why I should aspire any “recognized certificate” beyond that as there will certainly be no policeman (or coast guard) stopping me in international waters to ask if I am certified to navigate there. Of course this is only valid if I a roaming with my own little boat…

My humble opinion: stick to basic certificates such as the IC coastal, or YM Coastal, as this will give you the necessary knowledge of Colregs and other necessities, and at least a basic amount of nautical miles done. Then getting out and spending the time aboard than in classroom will give you tons of experience, much more than any instructor can ever convey. See also Johns posts on “old salts” – only miles sailed by you can give you your own experience.

Bob McDowell

I agree with you, “When I was growing up…!” but the reality is that most sailors, and most extreme activities, are driven by the “Instructional” businesses. Sometimes I think this is good, sometimes bad. I appreciate the fact that when a crewmember comes aboard with whatever cert that they will have a clue about something but I have also come across the YM who can’t dock a boat or reef in a breeze. My goal is helping them to learn to sail safely in all conditions. The amazing thing is the breadth of skillsets different RYA, USCG, Canadian, or Croatian certified “Skippers” have. I regularly have them aboard for long trips and the quality of their sailing ability is all over the place. It really depends on where and how they became skippers. Generalizing here! Someone who took and passed their YM exam in the Hamble is a skipper! If they are someone who has learned the ropes starting in dinghies and moved up to driving big boats usually is a good boat driver but may lack leadership skills. Someone who did a Fast Track program in a certain southern European location (not to be named) may be really mucked up.

The secret in my mind to a good skipper is sailing as a skipper as much as possible in any waters and all weathers. Sailing on OPB’s (other people’s boats) without having the responsibility as the sole person in charge seems to make for “challenged” skippers. Of course these days most of my time is spent skippering OPB’s so I may have just damned myself!

Bob McDowell

I earned my OC Master ticket in the early 80’s, the USCG station Commander, who at the time was the “Issuing Authority”, and a crusty old seaman to me at the time (he was probably in his late 30’s! I was a very wet and youngish pup at 21). The great thing is the Commander took me under his wing and sat me down to go over the parts of the written test I had screwed up. He then allowed me to retake the parts I missed and I passed! Then, he invited me to go on a deployment for a few days on the cutter! Man was I in heaven. Of course, looking back I now realise that he was trying to recruit me! If only he had asked. A few months earlier I had left the Air Force and would have jumped at the offer.


Dick Stevenson

Hi all,
It seems, to me, that there are, at least, 2 reasons for earning certificates of competency: one is to expand your personal skills, experience etc. and the other is to document your competence to officials when asked. (Another might be the document your competence for being able to charter.)
I am curious how many have hade certificates of competence asked of them. I have visited a bunch of countries including almost every Mediterranean and Northern European country, been boarded and inspected with a fair degree of regularity and have never been asked for any documentation that I actually know what I am doing as skipper of my boat. Have I just not encountered this question?
If the request for documentation is fairly rare, then the more important question is which organization conveys the skills best.
I suspect that, in the seemingly unlikely event of being asked for documentation, that any formal paper from any of the usual schools with a few official colorful stamps would suffice.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Bob McDowell

Good Morning Dick!
As I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time sailing between France and Gibraltar in the winter and the 3 different navies of the area have nothing better to do, I get boarded a couple times per winter, 7 times in the last 2 years!. And in no case has any boarding party asked for my skippers papers, only the boat documents and passports of the crew. And all of the boarding parties have been very pleasant and professional. No guns drawn, no RIB with a mounted gun. I even got a Portuguese Naval Ensign that was flying from their ship, signed by the crew, that the captain generously traded for our ensign! Luckily, I keep a spare ensign!
So, no in 40 years of sailing through different territorial waters I have never been asked for my skippers papers.

Richard Haaser

Thanks for the many responses guys. My principle goals in seeking any institution’s sailing courses are 1. to test the waters to be sure that sailing is something I want to do, and can tolerate, before committing money for a boat, and 2. to not get myself killed once I have that boat. If I understand the responses correctly, certificates are not yet required and whose certificates I hold is not yet important geographically.

Richard Hudson

Hi Dick,

As a foreign yacht, the only country I’ve ever been asked to show any kind of proof of competency was Argentina. This was part of the check-in process at the Coast Guard office. I think any kind of certificate of any kind of maritime training or licensing would have been adequate for this purpose.


Dick Stevenson

Hi Richard,
Thanks for the feedback. I am always interested in the actual incident rate of those items that catch our anxious attention.
For example, I have been doing some hiking in the parks of southern Arizona and there are warning signs about what to do if you encounter a bear: mostly common sense. My take is that there are few encounters with bears and even fewer where someone gets hurt and that the actual functional outcome of notices like these are to scare some who may enjoy walking farther afield from doing so. Yesterday, I hiked into the back country for 6 hours and did not see anyone except when I was within ¼ mile of the parking lot doing the smaller loops. This is in a fairly crowded park.
A cruising equivalent is the concern I find among skippers in the US with regards to Schengen Visa restrictions: many choosing not to go because of these rules. In 10 years in Europe and talking to many many hundreds of skippers (the rules apply to Canada, Australia and many other countries with lots of cruising boats), I know of no-one who has been fined or sanctioned, although I am sure there are a handful somewhere. The functional effect of all the anxiety is to keep cruising boats from enjoying EU cruising (wonderful, I found) when all likelihood is that dealing with Schengen and its challenges will work out fine.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dick Stevenson

Hi Bob,
Thanks for your field report.
That matches my experience. Like you, we are boarded, on average, a couple times a season and have never been asked for documentation of competency. I am sure it is and has been done, but among cruisers shooting the breeze, this does not come up as an issue and I do not remember reports where this was done.
My best, Dick