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The RYA Training System - Sail Cruising


A lot of people visiting this site will be working their way through the RYA system, so it is worth looking at it and explaining how it operates in practice.

Of course, full information is available from the RYA itself (and indeed is printed in the Syllabus and Logbook). This section answers some of the questions that I am frequently asked by confused students - and which some instructors are a little reluctant to answer (e.g. because they are keen to tell you that you need to do the course they offer...).

The System

The Royal Yachting Association (RYA) has set up an effective and comprehensive system for training amateur sailors.

The courses are delivered by independent sailing schools, who are monitored by the RYA, and given RYA recognition. It's a sort of franchise system.

Other sailing bodies in the English speaking world have adopted/developed similar systems.

The system works like this:

It is useful to appreciate certain facts about this system.

  1. It is not compulsory, nor is it the only way to learn about seafaring. In the UK it is not necessary to possess any qualification in order to skipper a private pleasure yacht, unless you are being paid, so that is one reason why it is not compulsory.

  2. It was developed for, and is chiefly suited to, amateur sailing. Although the Yachtmaster ® qualification can be 'Commercially Endorsed', it was originally conceived and envisaged as an amateur qualification. (Professional qualification systems demand, for example, far more sea time).

  3. It is a flexible system and you can take from it what you need: i.e. you can do the courses that suit your needs, and most schools (and I) will be happy to advise you. You can, for example, learn everything independently and then successfully pass a Yachmaster Practical Exam.


My own example illustrates this reasonably well.

At the time when I bought Aztec, and then set out on a 12,000 mile North Atlantic Circuit, I had never undertaken a single full Practical or Shorebased course.

I had sailed at weekends, mainly during the winter months, with two or three Solent-based schools, and I had built up enough skill/knowledge/experience for them to 'sign off' all the elements of the practical courses, Day Skipper and Coastal Skipper. My theory knowledge was all pretty well self taught, and came from books and diving experience. I taught myself astro navigation from a book (in the back garden, when I was stuck at home with a broken leg).

Real learning started when I had my own boat, and every passage was a learning experience. (This is not because I'm reckless - you will learn far more on your own boat, if you ever have one, than you can on a 5-day course.)

Before I started Aztec Sailing I needed the Yachtmaster Offshore qualification, so I took the exam after a couple of days' brushing up the essentials with Bulldog Sailing. It was relatively easy, because I was used to doing the things the examiner asked me to do - i.e. it helped that I had sailed about 15,000 miles as skipper at that stage. I went on to do the Yachtmaster Instructor course/assessment, and I was glad to discover a refreshing open-minded attitude within the RYA hierarchy. This encouraged me to apply my own (slightly unusual) skills and experience to teaching others, and was a really good start for Aztec Sailing as a Sailing School with full RYA recognition.

So the RYA system accommodated (and encouraged) someone who by no means followed the 'normal' sequence of courses.

What This Means in Practice

What this means to you, is that you can follow the classic RYA sequence of courses described in the flowchart above - and in most cases that is probably the best way of doing it, and an excellent introduction to sailing. But you don't have to.

For example: if you are good at learning stuff on your own, from books or websites like this one - OR - if you already know the stuff from other sea-faring activities, it's perfectly OK to acquire the necessary knowledge that way, and you don't need to do the shorebased courses. It's the knowledge that matters - not how you acquired it.

The other point is this: there is simply no substitute for experience.

If you do all the courses, and take the Yachtmaster exam with pretty much the minimum sea time / miles, then you may well pass it: you will then be a qualified, and extremely inexperienced, skipper. This is particularly true if you take the 'tidal' courses in places where there is barely any tide and where the weather is nice.

You can collect all the 'badges' but I, for one, would question the point of it.

The worst thing you can possibly do is to 'believe' your own qualifications when, deep down, you know that there are certain things that you have not experienced and are not prepared for. Use your judgement, and there is no shame in avoiding situations that you are not ready for (it's a mark of experience to do that). Don't set off with a Force 9 weather forecast just because a piece of paper says you are a 'Yachtmaster'!

On the other hand, as you gain experience, you can tackle larger challenges and more severe conditions which you judge to be within your capability (not forgetting the capabilities of the yacht and crew - and you generally have a 'plan B' in case you need to bottle out!). You have to learn not to be intimidated by overly cautious advice.

Another point: a huge part of a skipper's responsibility is dealing with things that go wrong with the boat. If you have just done the courses, and never run your own boat, you will probably have missed out on a whole (vitally important) side of skippering.

Yachtmaster Ocean

Shorebased Course

The RYA provides a shorebased course called Yachtmaster Ocean, which I have instruced a number of times.

It includes a lot on Astro Navigation – the official syllabus contains more than the average GPS user, using Astro simply for a back-up, actually needs. (The material in Reeds Ocean Handbook is actually sufficient, because it enables you to do any astro sight.)

The course also covers satellite navigation systems; great circle sailing; meteorology; passage planning; passage making; and communications. It's a bit light on the practical side - for example, it doesn't cover yacht preparation.

On successful conclusion of this course you receive, as with other courses, a Course Completion Certificate (which isn’t a ‘qualification’ or evidence of competence – merely evidence that you have done the course).

YMO Qualification

The RYA has also set up a qualification called Yachtmaster Ocean, which is gained by:

• completing a ‘qualifying passage’ on a yacht, of over 600 miles / 96 hours, at least 50 miles from land for 48 hours or 200 miles; either as skipper, or in a responsible role in the planning, preparation, and during the passage.

• completing work at sea which shows that they have successfully navigated a yacht at sea by astro navigation. Both of the above are assessed by submitting written records to the examiner. The examiner then conducts an oral test.

• In addition you need either a course completion certificate for the Yachtmaster Ocean Shorebased course: or, alternatively, you can take a written exam on astro navigation and meteorology.


Experience comes first

It is important to recognise the over-riding need for experience if you want to improve your sailing ability, and this is never more true than with ocean sailing.

You do not have to possess a Yachtmaster Ocean qualification before you can skipper an ocean passage; on the contrary, you are supposed to skipper at least one ocean passage before you get the qualification. This may be a surprise to some (surely you should gain the qualification before skippering a long passage?) but this is 'grown-up' sailing, and in order to get the qualification you are expected to build up your own experience.

(Perhaps you will be surprised to learn that, in flying training, you are expected to fly around to different airports, on your own, before you get your licence ...)

So in practice, you can go anywhere in the world without a Yachtmaster Ocean qualification, and of course hundreds of sailors have, and are. (It probably won't be long before you have more experience than the average examiner...)