UK Boating Laws - All at Sea?

Exactly what qualifications are needed to take a pleasure craft to sea? And what safety equipment must such a vessel possess to be considered officially seaworthy? I did some digging. The answer was surprising.


Just a few weeks ago, the following headline appeared on the BBC Cornwall news website: ‘Yachtsman rescued by lifeboat crews seven times’. My word, I thought, that is unlucky. I read on, ‘Bob Weise and Steve Shapiro, attempting to sail from Scandinavia to North America, both 71, left Norway in July and have had to call rescue teams in Norway, Denmark, Scotland, Ireland and Cornwall.’  As I continued to read, it was evident that this was more than bad luck, it was incompetence.

Last year pleasure craft (powered and unpowered) accounted for a third of all call outs by the lifeboats of the RNLI (3,043 in total).

It set me thinking - exactly what qualifications are needed to take a pleasure craft to sea? And what safety equipment must such a vessel possess to be considered officially seaworthy? I did some digging. The answer was surprising.

According to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), a vessel of less than 13.7m is officially classed as a pleasure vessel, if it is, ‘used for the sport or pleasure of the owner or the immediate family or friends of the owner.’ The owner of such a vessels must possess on board: radar reflectors (but only if it is ‘practicable’ to fit them) and a chart of lifesaving signals. The individual may also sign up with HM Coastguard’s voluntary identification scheme, which helps the coastguard identify vessels that find themselves in trouble. And that’s it.

So all that is required in the UK to take a vessel the length of a double decker bus on to the high seas are radar reflectors (if they can be fitted), and a signal guide. There is no compulsory ‘driving test' or indeed any compulsory measure of competence or seamanship for vessels under 80 gross tonnes. To continue the analogy, all that would be required to take a bus on the road would be a pair of headlights and a copy of the Highway Code. This is a country where 3.5 million individuals a year (7% of the British population) actively participate in some form of boating, from sail boats to power boats.

Contrast this with the USA. There every coastal state (except Florida, which bizarrely exempts individuals born before 1988) has vessel licensing laws that require seamen to sit an exam before setting to sea. Of the EU’s major boating states, only Greece and Italy have mandatory licensing and testing.

Something didn’t seem right. I decided to contact the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) which represents the pleasure boating fraternity and offers training courses for all classes of pleasure boats from dinghies to motorboats. Given this key role in training you might have though the RYA would be four-square behind mandatory safety testing and licensing. You would be wrong. Indeed, they are actively campaigning against it.

I next spoke with the Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA), responsible for addressing issues of safety at sea and drafting legislation and guidance for seafarers. Surprisingly, the MCA is also against compulsory licensing, claiming that it would make no difference to safety at sea. Indeed they argued that evidence suggests such licensing could have the opposite effect. In the USA, where testing is mandatory, fatalities per head of population are twenty times greater than in the UK.

The RYA claims that licensing simply ‘breeds a sense of complacency’ amongst boat owners, and that the culture in the UK of education over legislation is ultimately a better way to go. As one of their top trainers explained, you can give an idiot a driving license but when he gets in a car, he is just then a licensed idiot.  Interestingly, similar arguments were advanced by motor bodies in 1934 when the UK Government introduced compulsory driving tests and driving licenses.

Contrast this state of affairs with the fishing world. All new entrant fishermen must undertake basic safety training in sea survival, fire-fighting, first aid and health and safety. The MCA requires sea survival training to be completed before going to sea for the first time and requires the other three courses to be completed within three months. Working fishermen, with at least two years experience, must undertake a safety awareness course.  If you want to be a skipper, mate or engineer you have to get the MCA Certificate of Competency. You can only get a Certificate of Competency after assessment and examination, practical, written and oral.  

If fishermen are expected to undertake such necessary training, it does beg the question should not pleasure craft skippers undertake training equal to the risks they face?  I can appreciate that a man in a dinghy off Aberdeen’s silver sands might not need full certification, but if he is going to sail a 12m long vessel across the North Sea, then perhaps some basic training might be in order. After all, every time a lifeboat is called out to attend a pleasure craft in trouble, it is an occasion when such support is not available to fishermen and other seamen who might also face troubles.