Sailing Experience and Yachting Qualifications

On this page: Novices | Experience Needed | No Qualifications? | Other Requirements

You don’t need any previous experience or sailing qualification to go on a sailing holiday, but the choices are greater if you or other members of your party have some certificates or verifiable record of previous sailing.

Every yacht needs a skipper and (generally) some crew.  If your are taking a skippered charter, crewed charter or cabin charter you do not need any sailing experience so you can skip this page. If you are taking a sailing course, you will only need previous experience if taking one of the more advanced sailing courses – details of these can be found in the section on Sailing Courses.

Be sensible about certificates - it's for everyone's benefit.

Be sensible about certificates – it’s for everyone’s benefit.

However, for a bareboat charter or flotilla holiday, the skipper is responsible for the boat and it’s crew (yes, even on flotilla) and needs the necessary skills and (usually), some qualifications.   Ideally at least one member of crew should also have sailing experience.

Requirements vary from place to place but all stem from:

    1. The yacht operators and their insurers seeking to protect their yachts (and their customers – they’d like you back in one piece)!
    2. Maritime authorities implementing national or local laws

In some areas, official requirements may be minimal or rarely enforced, but the operators may still want certificates.  Elsewhere, operators and particularly flotilla companies have come up with ways to satisfy officialdom without necessarily following the letter of the  law.  So rules vary from supplier to supplier, and from one area to another, even in the same country.

So whether you’re a novice, have the skills but not the certificates, or aren’t sure which certificates you need, read on – there’s always a solution.


(If you have experience and want to skip this part click here)

There are still places where you can take a boat out without any qualifications (the UK is one of them).  That doesn’t make it a good idea, for the same reasons (hopefully) a non driver wouldn’t hop in a car and drive away:

      • You risk scaring or injuring your crew as well as yourself
      • You risk damage to your yacht, other vessels, the quayside and the environment
      • You risk injuring others afloat or ashore, including those who may be trying to help you out of a mess of your own making.

Yes, there is at least one operator I know that will let absolute beginners out unaccompanied but if nothing else, remember that if you have a problem, the authorities will hold you responsible first and foremost (and if you book with such a company, bear in mind that if the novice clients before you wreck the boat, you might find your holiday plans get changed)!.

If you don’t want a skipper on board throughout your holiday, a better approach is to take an instructor for part of the trip.  This is possible on some flotillas where after three or six days training (depending on any related previous experience such as dinghy sailing)  you should be able to dispense with the instructor and sail yourselves.

Alternatively, either get your qualifications in the UK before you go, or take a skippered, crewed or cabin charter on many of which you’ll still be able to get involved with the  sailing – just make it clear before you book that this is what you want to do.

The Skills and Qualifications You Need

For bareboat charter, the skippers usually need either:

      1. a RYA Day Skipper Practical, or
      2. an International Certificate of Competence (ICC), or
      3. an equivalent national certificate from a recognised body.

If you’ve not got one of these, all is not lost – see the next section.

Navigation isn't hard but some still get lost

Navigation isn’t hard but some still get lost

Navigation certificates are not usually requested – in most charter areas navigation is very straightforward with largely non tidal waters.  A rough bearing, a note of any hazards en route, and a working eye ball are often the most that is required.  However, it is easy to get too relaxed and accidents do happen so if your navigation skills aren’t to the above practical standards, you really should take a professional skipper to make sure your holiday isn’t ruined by becoming one of the unfortunate few.

Flotilla companies were traditionally less demanding than bareboat operators.  There had been a de facto acceptance by the authorities of flotilla clients lacking certificates, or with certificates of dubious status.  This is no longer the case and in Croatia and Greece in particular, flotilla skippers need the same certificates as a bareboat skipper.

If you are unable to produce the necessary paperwork, you may be forced to take a skipper, take an immediate exam, disembark or pay a fine.  And is has happened.  So I would be very wary of booking with any company that suggested I could sail without certificates in such places.  Many have come home none the wiser but officials (and politicians) do change jobs and rules that have been overlooked for years can suddenly be enforced.  Don’t let anyone play fast and loose with your precious holiday.

There are two sorts of certificates that don’t pass muster for chartering a sailing yacht:

      1. Tickets by the likes of the Mediterranean Cruising Association (MCA, no relation to the Marine Coastguard Authority) that some holiday companies issue if you forget or “lose” your proper certificate.  These have now been in circulation so long they are widely recognised by officials.  I recall one employer some years ago giving me a wad of these that all had the same serial number on!
      2. Dinghy or motor sailing qualifications.  These demonstrate you may have some useful skills and will make it easier to gain your skippers certificate but generally aren’t enough in themselves.

Finally, note that yacht suppliers and tour operators almost always provide in their contracts for either forcing a skipper on you, or removing you from the yacht if they deem it necessary. So even if you have the required qualifications, don’t be afraid to hire an instructor for a few days if you think you need time to get your hand in.  For a few hundred pounds, it can make your holiday much more relaxing and less likely to end in tears.

Skilled But No Qualifications

For those that have the experience but lack the qualifications, the options are sadly getting more limited as bureaucracy marches on.

In some areas, such as the Caribbean, some nationalities do not need certificates.  In others such as Greece or Turkey,  a number of companies will accept skippers without certificates, on production of a sailing resume demonstrating adequate experience on similar sized yachts.

"Captain, I know you've done it all but I still need to see your sailing certificate"

“Captain, I know you’ve done it all but I still need to see your sailing certificate”

Such summaries are preferably endorsed by a sailing club or similar, and in Greece you will then often need to satisfy the maritime authorities by formally self certifying your capability.  The terms of these self certifications can be onerous – essentially, if anything subsequently goes wrong, it will be deemed your fault!

A better solution is simply to bite the bullet and get a certificate.  Generally the  International Certificate of Competence (ICC) can be obtained in less than a day from a recognised sailing school.  (Bizarrely, if you’re going to Croatia, an RYA theory certficate is all you need to satisfy officialdom –  yes, you need never have set foot on a boat.  Your yacht supplier may need a bit more assurance though)!

Crew Requirements and VHF Certficates

Usually you also need one additional person over 18 with crewing experience, and at least one person with a recognised VHF license (it doesn’t have to be the skipper).

I have known the over 18 rule to be enforced but crew don’t generally need certificates, (though any skipper who values their life ought to make sure someone else aboard knows what to do if anything happens to them)!  I have also been asked on numerous occassions both ashore and at sea to produce my skippers certificate but I have never once been asked for a VHF license.