It’s probably one of the first questions you’ll ask yourself when you’re considering buying a boat in the UK. “Do you need a licence to sail a boat?” The simple answer is that there isn’t a strictly speaking a “sailing licence” which tests competency in the same way as a “car licence” does. However, certain waterways and circumstances will require a variety of permits and licences. In this guide we’ll look at the requirements and the red tape involved, explain the various legal obligations and answer where do you need a licence to sail a boat in the UK.
The United Kingdom has minimal legal formal requirements for boating licences and qualifications to sail. Much of the credit for this is due to the Royal Yachting Association (RYA), the UK’s national governing body, and their ethos of “educate not legislate”. They have successfully lobbied the government since the 1970s for a less formal approach to sailing legislation and have backed their words up with a wide variety of training courses aimed at all sailing levels from novice to the professional skipper.
Where Do You Need a Licence to Sail a Boat in the UK?
When asking do you need a licence to sail a boat in the UK, firstly, consider where you will be sailing. Whilst offshore sailing regulations do not require a licence, to sail on any inland waterways in the UK, such as the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, you’ll need one. To get a boat licence, all you need is a boat safety scheme certificate (BSSC) and boat insurance. For more on boat insurance, read Rightboat’s Guide to Marine Insurance.
The BSSC is simply the boating equivalent of a car’s MOT certificate. It’s part of a public safety initiative owned by the Canal and River Trust and the Environment Agency and aims to help minimise the risk of boat fires, explosions and pollution of the waterways. The scheme tests whether or not a boat meets a minimum safety requirement. There are two checking procedures:
- The Boat Safety General Scheme- applies to all privately-owned, privately-managed vessels.
- 2002 BSS Standards in addition to the Boat Safety Scheme is required of commercial, industrial or public use vessels.
Rowing dinghies, canoes and open outboard craft are exempted from the scheme. All boats requiring a BSSC must be tested every 4 years.
Click the link for more information on, BSSC.
In addition to the BSSC and boat insurance, if you use your boat on a canal or river in the UK then you will need a licence from the Canal and River Trust or the Environment Agency. They are available for fixed periods of time such as 30 days, three months, six months or a year. The costs will vary but in 2017 an annual licence for a 40ft boat cost £697 for canals and rivers and £418 for rivers only. The Norfolk Broads Authority operate a similar “toll” scheme with licences available for less than 28 days and up to 12 months. Scottish inland waterways have similar schemes and are regulated by Scottish Canals. It’s always wise to check locally for any additional fees or requirements such as harbour dues.
British Waterways govern many of the UK’s rivers and canals and licenses can be purchased online, for choosing and buying your licence.
The Broads Authority governs the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads and licenses can be purchased online.
You’ll usually need to register your boat if you want to either moor at or use inland waterways. To register you’ll need insurance and a BSSC and must renew every year for each waterway you intend to use. Further details can be found here, How to Register a Boat.
Anyone intending to spend long periods on their vessel away from UK waters should strongly consider registering their craft on Part 1 of the Central Register of British Ships. However, in certain situations, registering on just Part 3 will be sufficient. Further details can be found here, Boat Registration in the UK.
Alternatively, you can register your craft on the Small Ships Register (SSR). For further details can be found here mcanet.mcga.gov.uk.
Do you Need a Licence to Sail a Boat at Sea in the UK?
Although you don’t need a formal licence to sail offshore in UK waters, many insurance companies may have their own minimum expectation of a sailor’s experience, especially on larger vessels. We’ve all seen lurid newspaper headlines telling of an RNLI rescue of some bewildered landlubber found aimlessly drifting with only an AA map to guide them and a lump of Kendal Mint Cake their only nourishment. To be quite honest these cases are few and far between. Most UK sailors are a responsible bunch with many taking the RYA Day Skipper qualification as a starting point, many go on to gain the RYA Yachtmaster Offshore Certificate. Details of these and other courses can be found here, www.rya.org.uk.
If you’re planning on sailing European waters, then you’ll need an International Certificate of Competence (ICC). The ICC is your “boat licence” and is important to obtain before you go to the European mainland. It is the skipper’s responsibility to ensure that they are aware of any qualification requirements before entering another country’s jurisdiction. An ICC is required for all the inland waterways of Europe and for both inland and offshore coastal waters of the Mediterranean countries. Failure to have the document may lead to your boat being impounded whilst you seek an ICC skipper to release the vessel. The assessment can be taken in a single day and is assessed on the following:
- Regulations: safe speed, look outs, signals, distress signals, etc.
- Coastal water regulations: separation schemes, navigation lights, sound signals, etc.
- Safety: life jackets, fire extinguishers, flares, etc.
- Boat preparation and planning: engine checks, weather forecast, fuel levels, etc.
- Navigation: charts, plotting, tide tables, tidal streams, etc.
- Pilotage: buoys and IALA system, port entry and departure signals, etc.
- Practical skills: ability to give a safety briefing, engine use and maintenance, crew communication, mooring, safety procedures, etc.
Further details and requirements can be found on the RYA website, www.rya.org.uk.
Other Licences and Requirements
Ship Radio Licence. A legal requirement for all craft, including private pleasure craft, equipped with VHF or long-range radio transceivers. This includes handheld VHFs, satellite communication equipment, EPIRBs and SARTS. The licence is issued free by Ofcom and lasts for ten years. Apply on Ofcom.
Short Range Radio Operator’s Licence. A legal requirement for anyone operating a marine VHF radio, including longer-range Medium and High-Frequency set. The RYA’s Short Range Marine Radio Course covers all aspects. It costs around £70 for the course and an additional £60 for the exam and licence. Further details can be found here on RYA courses and training.
SOLAS requirements. The key rules and regulations laid down in the International Convention for Safety of Life at Seas must be complied with. The key sections are to be found in Chapter V. These apply to all vessels that put to sea.
Insurance. although unlike motoring insurance, boat insurance is not compulsory in the UK, pretty much every harbour, sailing club and marina or mooring provider will require a minimum of third party insurance cover. This also applies to the Canal and River Trust. For more on boat insurance, read Rightboat’s Guide to Marine Insurance.
This article was published in February 2018 and was last updated in January 2023.
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