The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Q&A—Which Courses To Take?


You mention the International Certificate of Competence and the Yacht Master Offshore course. I’m at the beginning of my journey and started with an ASA course. Are the Yacht Master courses going to be the best overall to begin working towards?

Member, Michael


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Tom Borgstrom

I’ve received US Sailing certifications up to Coastal Passage Making, and am taking the Offshore Passage Making certification later this year. I also have my OUPV certification from USCG and ~20 years sailing experience (mainly inshore/coastal racing in/around SF Bay). I’m wondering what a MCA-recognized certification would buy me at this point as I’m looking to do more long-distance ocean passages. Is it mainly about the learning, or about ability to get insurance or charter a boat?

Alastair Currie

I have been an RYA Yachtmaster Offshore since 1983, and have had the commercial and instruction endorsements since 1985. I was tested at sea in many practical applications, and was interviewed to defend my knowledge as demonstrated at the practical. My original certificate was DTp (UK Department of Transport) approved and looked identical to my father’s DTp Engineering certificates of competency, for Steam and Electric. During WW2 many mariners supported the war effort, and coastal trade, tugs, coal lighters, fishing, were seriously short of skilled labour. Post WW2, the DTp and RYA worked out a scheme that leisure sailors could become competent by examination up to 350 GRT, (now 150 GRT). The objective, if war ever came again, was to have a pool of people to service the coastal trade. That’s the origin story and today the MCA is owner of the process and approves syllabi, standards of examination and competence. The IYT has their scheme approved by the MCA as well, or part of it, at least they did in the past. This resulted in the RYA protecting the term Yachtmaster.
The RYA scheme consists of theory courses and practical courses power or sail) and arranges for persons to be examined for Certificates of Competence (CoC) There are three CoCs: Yachtmaster Coastal, Yachtmaster Offshore and Yachtmaster Ocean. Examiners are endorsed by MCA and are independent of RYA sailing schools, or Recognized Training Centers (RTC). You can be examined on your own boat, it does not have to be through an RTC boat. This is to ensure that there is separation between the RTC and the examining body. Both theory and practical courses are run through an RTC that will issue a course completion certificate, if all of the syllabus gets covered to the required standard. The scheme works and in general produces knowledgeable sailors. My advise would be to do both the theory and practical courses, at the level you think is weakest. Theory can be done as distance learning. The biggest mistake students make is signing up for a more advanced course than their capabilities demonstrate. A good RTC will not issue a completion certificate if you don’t know the previous courses knowledge, but some may issue anyway. Coastal sailing is where experience and competency is built, not on a transatlantic, for example, almost anyone can sail in a straight line. I see a lot of long distance sailors who have the time and miles, good sea legs, but have very poor seamanship skills. Dinghy sailing experience I would suggest is a must, as it teaches a solid appreciation of sail setting, wind, balance and trim, better than a larger yacht, but that is not a hard and fast rule. The RYA via the MCA keeps the syllabus relevant and very likely paper navigation will be dropped; but not yet, nor anytime soon. There are surveys and working committees underway looking at this. The RYA, in association with other organizations has convinced the UK Hydrographic Office to delay the cancelation of paper charts. Unlike the USA the UKHO was not even going to have a print on demand service. Anyway, the point is, that the syllabus remains current.
Other European countries have similar schemes. There is work afoot within the EU to develop a harmonization process that recognizes equivalency of other state systems for leisure sailing competency, again early days.
It is always worth researching the RTC that you want use, boat type, size, sailing area and your objectives. For example, many UK south coast marina based schools, marina hop for overnight stays on a week voyage, many West Coast of Scotland schools anchor overnight, on a week voyage. All must deliver the syllabus though.

Matt Marsh

In North America, most on-the-water schools at the *entry level* stage are going to teach either the Sail Canada or ASA curriculum. This is fine; they’re excellent courses and are very well thought out. I’ve seen no evidence of a significant difference in course content or rigour between these and any other widely-recognized curriculum, up to the intermediate level (Sail Canada Intermediate Cruising; ASA 103/104/105; RYA Day Skipper).

Where the RYA & MCA advantage, history, and international recognition starts to kick in is at the higher levels. Given a choice between Sail Canada Advanced Cruising, ASA 104, and RYA Coastal Skipper, I’d recommend the RYA version. And, if considering any training beyond that level, I’d limit my search to those on the MCA accredited path.

If you are doing the Sail Canada or ASA route, taking all the courses in sequence is unnecessary. There is a lot of overlap between them. It’s often better to get some individual and crew experience and skip a level or two before doing a higher course the next year, rather than doing all the courses.

For North American residents who are new to boating, I highly recommend slipping in a few Power & Sail Squadron courses (they’re under the America’s Boating Club brand in the US, and CanBoat / NautiSavoir in Canada) during the winter. These are volunteer organizations and the courses are taught as online self-study with video conference seminars/discussions, so the dollar cost is minimal – they charge just enough to keep the organization afloat. These credentials are not widely recognized on their own, but they do give you an excellent look at everything you need to know in your first few years as a boater. And taking them early will make the theory, navigation, law, and chartwork of the higher officially-recognized courses a breeze, allowing you to focus more of your energy on the on-water exercises. (Disclosure: I like these courses enough that I volunteer to teach and administer a couple of them each year.)

There is an important difference between RYA Yachtmaster *provided and examined via the RYA* and Yachtmaster via affiliated institutions (eg. IYT Yachtmaster). The RYA version has a path to commercial endorsement. The IYT version is strictly recreational and cannot be upgraded. North American candidates going via an IYT or other non-RYA path, and who medically qualify, should strongly consider a Master of Yachts instead; it’s substantially the same MCA-recognized credential but is valid for commercial use as well.

It’s rare to see ICC offered standalone around here, and some charter companies won’t recognize it standalone without a Sail Canada, ASA, RYA, or other intermediate credential. More often, ICC is done as an add-on to SC Intermediate Cruising or ASA 103. There’s about 95% overlap between ICC and those course curricula, so it’s just one extra exam and some processing fees tacked on to an already-excellent practical course.

Matt Marsh

While there’s a huge amount of room for variation depending on individual needs and desires, the path that I most often recommend (in Canada) for getting from minimal/zero experience to fully qualified globally is:

   CanBoat PCOC Online   CanBoat Basic Navigation & Boat Handling Online (winter)   Sail Canada Start Keelboat (start here if you think you might hate it and need to bail!) or Basic Cruising (which you can jump straight to if you know you want to commit)   A year or two of crewing on other people’s boats and skippering rented dinghies   CanBoat Near Shore Marine Navigation Online (winter)   Sail Canada Intermediate Cruising plus ICC   RYA Coastal Skipper practical (or Sail Canada Advanced / ASA 106 if no RYA school is available)   RYA Yachtmaster Coastal or IYT MCA Master of Yachts Coastal   RYA Yachtmaster Offshore or IYT MCA Master of Yachts Limited   Master of Yachts Unlimited

Dick Stevenson

Hi all,
With respect to training, I would concentrate pretty much solely on the training that you determine is necessary as a sailor/cruiser to accomplish your goals safely and not worry overly about credentials or certificates.
In widely wandering where we have visited approaching 70 countries on Alchemy and where we have been boarded numerous times by various forms of officialdom, I have never been asked to document any level of competency.
I did complete my Captain’s license thinking it might be useful in some way or might help with insurance. The only area where this may be the case is in Canada’s waters (we are in the North Channel region of the Great Lakes presently) where talking with the marine police they confirmed my Captains License covers my using power boats and powered dinghies.
As someone who is basically self-taught, my only retrospective regret is that I basically did not start sailing till an adult and especially, did not small boat race as a youth.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dick Stevenson

Hi John and all,
In support of your suggestion that if you can sail UK waters, you can sail anywhere: when in the UK I happened to be with someone who had circumnavigated and someone who had recently “circumnavigated” the UK. The UK CN’er was waxing enthusiastic about the achievements of the World CN’er and I commented that the UK CN’er may have encountered more challenges to navigation, to weather forecasting, to heavy weather sailing, and to dealing with currents and piloting that the world CN’er. The latter weighed in quickly and graciously confirmed my comment saying that his CN was largely a wonderful cake run while his time learning sailing in the UK was far more challenging.
Having sailed the UK area for ~~5 years or so, I can’t think of a better training ground for learning cruising and dealing with its myriad challenges.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Matt Marsh

Yeah, the UK really is the crucible for this kind of thing. Almost everywhere else that has people is easier to sail; almost everywhere else that’s harder to sail is so remote and difficult as to be sparsely populated (if it even has people at all). Add the historical inertia of a colonial power that was utterly dependent on naval superiority for centiries. It’s no wonder that British sailors continue to be disproportionately dominant in training, racing, and cutting-edge yacht design, relative to the country’s size and power.

Iain Dell

Just to add that sailing UK waters allows you to practice a unique form of navigation. I love real ale (‘proper’ beer) and when I see Speckled Hen giving way to 6X which gives way to Doom Bar then Tribute in pubs, it’s a sure sign I’m moving west.

Michael McCranie

Excellent answer. Thank you so much!

Eric Klem

Hi John,

I think your recommendation for MCA based licensing makes a lot of sense. When I was helping US based crewmembers figure out what to do for the size vessels I was on, I always recommended USCG licensing if staying in the US and otherwise the Yachtmaster. At the time, a common way to get the Yachtmaster was to do it in the Caribbean over the winter where they would often be working anyways, I have no idea what is the best way now.  

The other advantage beyond having the actual piece of paper with the Yachtmaster is that getting it is usually great training so you don’t need to completely separate training and licensing like you would with some other licenses. It might not be the only training you need but all this stuff takes a ton of time so it is nice to consolidate.

One thing that people should keep in mind is what are the requirements to maintain any level of licensing. I found that once I stopped using my USCG license a lot, the STCW requirements became a huge financial and time burden. In my case, the solution was to downgrade to a 100GRT license and that only blocks me from a little bit of work that I would otherwise do now and since I sail under my license so rarely at this point it is a good tradeoff.


Alastair Currie

The tidal endorsement aspect has been removed from the practical course completion certificates and non tidal was never a choice in the Certificates of Competence, irrespective of location of examination. The examiner would likely ask pointed tidal questions in a non tidal zone as all aspects of the overall syllabus are to be know. he point now is that tidal is part of the theory and practical syllabus anyway (height calculations and course to steer), so having different course completion certificates was fairly pointless.

The RYA managed CoCs, on behalf of MCA require first aid, medical and VHF licence to be valid and in addition the Professional Practises course for commercial endorsement. Over 65 I think the medical becomes annual, first aid is 3 x years with my UK certificate, and VHF licence is for life, as is the Professional Practises.

Alastair Currie

Indeed the UK has more than its fair share of tidal gates, there are 4 around my marina. The power boat guys just blast over the water, but sailing yachts do need to account for them. There can be differing times between pilot guides, plotters and tidal atlases, so care is needed on the reference source. I only use the Admiralty Tidal Atlases and UKHO chart Tidal Diamonds, they are accurate. Much of the confusion is that the standard port, which the time is referenced to, is not consistent across all publications. Easy to miss calculate times. Also the direction and speed times are mid point, with the tidal hour being 30 minutes either side of the stated time in the atlas or diamond; that’s not intuitive or easily identified from the publications and can contribute to an error. You learn to live with them, but they can be a bit of a limitation for weekend sailing destination options, or a great boon to SOG for further afield destinations.

Max Goldman

I’ve done some really good ASA courses up to 104 at the Maryland School of sailing and seamanship, but i did RYA courses in Greece up to coastal (where i own a boat and cruise in the summer. I live in landlocked Ohio).

I had a sabbatical from work and decided to use it to do a fast-track to yachtmaster offshore course in the solent. It was intense and i learned a lot in a short amount of time. The south coast of the UK is a great place to sail and to learn.

It is worth, I think, investigating the school and the locations to get the most out of the experience.

Matt McCarroll

Thanks for this article and all the great comments. Perfect timing for me as I’ve just reached the qualifications to consider testing for yachtmaster offshore. Pardon the puns, but it is rather tricky to navigate the sea of options out there for testing and/or training for yacht master coastal/offshore in the U.S.

Does anyone have advice on the best way to find RYA endorsed centers or instructors in the states? I’m currently sitting less than an hour from two options in Ft. Lauderdale that do not offer sail endorsement. Am I missing something?

Alastair Currie

Contact the RYA directly. The exams for certificate of competence are independent of sailing schools.

James Pokorski

Matt, there is a RYA training center in Kingston, Ontario. Otherwise, your closest option will be in the Caribbean. Two schools in Antigua, and I believe there are a few others. While the Caribbean does not have tidal conditions, you do have to document significant experience in tidal waters to qualify for the exam, and you’ll become very familiar with Reeds in the theory course. Also note that you can complete the theory courses on line, then do the prep course in person. Depending on your experience level, that could be an option.