A View From The Bridge: How qualified is your captain?


As a yacht owner in the 50m to 90m range you could be forgiven for believing that any captain hired to take command of your pride and joy has an MCA Certificate of Competence (CoC) for Master < 500 or Master < 3,000 GT.

And you might believe that the captain in question would have to have a good level of experience in the actual handling and manoeuvring of yachts in this size range.

This would by most people’s measure seem entirely reasonable. The fact is that nothing could be further from the truth.

The MCA’s remit is to examine for competence in navigation, collisions regulations, general seamanship, stability, radio communications, medical care, general safety and survival procedures, stability, meteorology, legal requirements and, more recently, some basic leadership skills. Oddly enough in the super high-tech world we now live in, celestial navigation has been reintroduced to the syllabus at MCA level.

Only minor lip service is paid to the actual physical handling of a vessel and it is only done verbally.

So where does the practical training and experience of handling a large yacht come from in terms of what is legally required?  The simple answer is that it does not exist in any mandatory form beyond the RYA (Royal Yachting Association) syllabus.

So how does a large-yacht captain get his qualifications, and more importantly where does that essential large -acht handling training, practice and experience come from?

Before taking on the higher-level MCA syllabus the usual route to follow is the RYA syllabus to obtain your Yachtmaster Ocean Qualification.

This can be done in several stages from competent crew through to day skipper, yachtmaster offshore to yachtmaster ocean and then a commercial endorsement over a period of several years.

Another option is that it can be completed in what is now the very popular “zero to hero” programme over an intensive three-month period.

During your yachtmaster training you will get physical hands-on experience of actually handling a small yacht. This is usually about 10m to 14m with a market value of under         £100,000.

There is also a requirement for accruing a certain amount of sea time through the various stages of the programme, but these are very minimal with the requirement being only 2,500 Nm and “5 days experience as skipper”.

Although the RYA syllabus is very good and is the entry level for future large-yacht captains, this is where the mandatory requirement for any actual hands-on boat handling, manoeuvring and actually being “in command” (all of which could be, and often is, under the supervision of an RYA instructor) ends.

Shocking though this may sound, there is absolutely no further requirement to have any hands-on experience after this level has been completed.

Some crew will then progress to deckhands as their first role on a large yacht. After a season they may be trusted to drive one of the tenders where they will pick up some more small-boat handling experience.

As they progress through the ranks over time on their yacht they may (if they are very lucky) be trusted enough by their captain to be given very limited time driving and/or manoeuvring the yacht under close supervision.

This is however less common than you may think and lots of captains simply do not do this for various reasons, whether it be their own inadequacies or they will simply not relinquish power.

Whatever the reason, I find it culpably irresponsible not to do this because who is going to take over if anything happens to the captain and there is not another suitably experienced person on board?

You could be left with someone simply “qualified on paper” but without hands-on experience.

It is entirely possible therefore to go from only having had actual control of a 12m yacht with absolutely no command experience to having a Master < 3,000 CoC and be in command of a 90m vessel.

One example would be the deckhand who climbs the ranks to first officer and falls into the captain’s shoes when he moves on because the owner is familiar with him.

He has gained his Master’s CoC whilst serving onboard regardless of having zero actual hands-on time in control of even a modestly sized yacht.

I find this utterly astonishing and would urge all owners to be much more conscious of the fact that this can and does happen.

Often the insurers will simply look at the qualification and accept it without looking for any actual experience, which is surprising as they ultimately underwrite the asset and are taking on further risk through lack of an experienced captain.

By comparison, I entered the industry with over 90,000 miles of command experience over many years.  Perhaps we should give actual experience more consideration for the sake of protecting the assets and lives onboard.


Iain is a highly experienced yacht captain with over 250,000 Nm in the role of professional captain since 1996. He grew up on sailing vessels but chooses to work on motor yachts now. He has a great reputation for crew loyalty and retention, through solid management, mentoring and leadership. Iain has a wealth of experience of working in very challenging roles. He has a wide and varied skill set with solid management and administrative skills.

Iain enjoys simple pleasures such as using his 7m RIB to go exploring and wild camping in his native Scotland.

Iain is currently looking for new opportunities to command a superyacht.