What sailing qualifications do I need to sail a boat

What sailing qualifications do I need to rent or own a sailboat?Different countries have different requirements but you should be safe with an International Certificate Of Competence For Operators Of  A Pleasure Craft (ICC) and/or an American Sailing Association (ASA) certificate. In the UK, the equivalent of the ASA  is the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) certification. 

While some countries do not have any legal requirements to hold a certificate, most insurance companies will be reluctant to insure you without one of them, especially on larger boats. Also, with  a certificate, you will be given more favorable rates for insurance. 

It should also be noted that If you wish to sail a boat for commercial reasons, there are other qualifications you will need.

Below we will go through the available options in different countries around the world and the costs to get these certificates as well as what the courses entails. 

There are many individual certificates you can seek to get within each country but the universally accepted one is the International Certificate Of Competence (ICC)  as mentioned above. 

If you are a complete beginner to the world of sailing, you’ll need to know sailing terms, basics on how to sail, have appropriate sailing gear and know the ins and outs of boating at night too. 

What sailing qualification should you do first?

Here is a visual look at the qualification  timeline for new sailors. Please also be aware that this timeline applies to the average boater that wants to sail for recreational purposes. This does NOT cover you for commercial sailing. 

sailing qualifications needed to sail

If you are completely new to the world of sailing and have never had any prior knowledge of sailing, then you should start out with entry level sailing courses. (Tier 1) 

Your local sailing club can provide you with all you need to get started at entry level sailing.

A simple google search for sailing lessons + your local area should provide you with beginner friendly courses on sailing in your nearest area.  

Tier 1 (Beginner/Entry Level Sailing)

With a tier 1 course, you’ll be given the chance to experience a sailboat in all it’s glory under supervision from your instructor. The majority of these courses come with equipment provided, (your standard wet gear, life jackets etc) 

The lessons in these courses can range from 3 hours to a couple of weekends (depending on your timetable) 

These entry level lessons will help familiarize you with basic sailing techniques, how the boat moves, navigation, safety, standard operating procedures, etc. 

Once you’ve completed the entry level stuff, you’ll then want to move onto tier 2 as outlined above.

To get to an acceptable standard to even sit and complete the ICC course (tier 3), you will most likely need to do a Day Skipper course first. 

Tier 2 ( Royal Yacht Association or American Sailing Association Certificate Of Competence)

These courses differ slightly from country to country but the two most popular are the American Sailing Association Certificate and the Royal Yachting Association certificate as mentioned above. 

Depending on where you are in the world, cost to sit this course will vary but a quick phone call to your local sailing club will give you more specific details on prices etc.

The RYA  day skipper course is a starter to intermediate  level that once passed will provide you with a certificate of competence for sailing in the UK (it is also a recognized certificate in other parts of Europe) 

Below is a look at the requirements and curriculum for the Royal Yacht Association course.

Royal Yacht Association Minimum Requirements To Do This Course

royal yacht association
Image courtesy of RYA.co.uk

  • Aged 16 and over
  • Assumed knowledge. Basic knowledge of sailing, safety, navigation, standard operating procedures etc. (you’ll learn that in tier 1 course)
  • You’ll need 5 days, 100 miles, 4 night hours on board sailing yacht 

What’s included in this course? 

Below is a look at the curriculum: 

  • Preparation for sea
  • Deck work 
  • Navigation
  • Rules of sailing
  • Laws
  • Maintenance and repair work
  • Yacht handling under sail
  • Night cruising
  • Emergency situations 
  • Passage making 
  • Yacht handling under power
  • Safety procedures

Typically this course takes 5 days to complete but can vary depending on circumstances. 

American Sailing Association  Minimum Requirements To Do This Course

The requirements for a certificate of competence from the Amercan Sailing Association depend on which exact course you take. 

The course you take within tier 2 will depend on your unique situation. Would you rather sail boats under 30 feet etc. then once course might suit you over another. 

To assess all your options, you can check out the different courses and requirements on their website. 

International certificate of competence 

what sailing qualification is needed
Image courtesy of ASA.com

For the majority of people wanting to rent or own a sailboat/yacht etc or other small boat used for recreation and not commercial purposes, this is the certificate for you. 

It is an internationally recognized document certifying a skippers competence to operate a boat for recreational purposes. 

While it isn’t an actual license ‘per se’, it is widely recognized as the license for boating and is accepted internationally (as the name suggests)

So if you wanted to sail around the world for recreational use, .this would be the ideal certification for you. 

The next course/certification you can get is the International certificate of competence (ICC). This will allow you to sail to most parts of the world and be fully compliant. 

Look at it like an international drivers license, only for sailing. If you are planning on making a long sailing trip into other countries, this is your best option to ensure compliance. 

This is tier 3 and is for those more advanced and with prior sailing experience. 

What does the International Certificate Of Competence (ICC) course involve ?

The course will be divided into two parts. A practical assessment and a theory assessment. Let’s go through both in detail. 

The ICC Practical Assessment 

  • Engine Checks
  • Handling Boat In Confined Space
  • Man Overboard Recovery
  • Mooring 
  • Fire Safety 
  • Boating Safety 
  • Leaving & Returning To A Pontoon 
  • First Aid & Basic Medical Care

The ICC Theory Assessment (Written Paper)

  • Navigation & Chartwork (Calculate course to steer, read longitude/latitude & bearings, distance measurement
  • VHF Radio Knowledge 
  • International Boating Regulations 
  • Identify shapes (Day Ships, Night lights, Sound Signals)
  • Buoyage

Please note that the above curriculum may vary slightly depending on which country you sit the course but the above is the foundation and the majority of what will be covered in the ICC.

How long does the ICC take to complete? 

The international certificate of competence for operators of a pleasure craft course will take anywhere from 3 - 4 weeks approximately to complete. 

This can vary depending on the country you sit it in and your ability to pass each phase of the course.

Where can you take the ICC course? 

A simple google search in your local area will provide you with details on your nearest location. 

The most popular places are the United States and the United Kingdom but most countries around the world offer this course. 

Alternatively, you can look at popular sites like Royal Yacht Association or American Sailing Association and they will have lists of schools providing the international certificate of competence. 

The cost of this course will vary quite a lot from place to place and costs will also be based on your own ability. 

If you’re a complete beginner, you’re obviously going to spend more getting yourself up to a competent level for sailing.

The fees can range from $100 into $1,000s. The exam fees themselves aren’t too bad. The cost adds up when you’re getting the actual lessons. 

If you want to prepare for the ICC and just want to brush up on your skills, there are many online courses that will prep you for the ICC exam. 

Again, just check out american sailing association or royal yachting association websites for more information on this and costs etc. 

How long is the ICC valid for once you get it? 

Your International certificate of competence will be valid for a period of 5 years after which you will have to get it renewed. 

Other useful information 

In the last couple of years, charter brokers have been requesting higher qualifications than the ICC for boats valued over $400,000 for a weeks vacation. 

This will obviously depend on the specific broker in question but something you should most definitely be aware of.

Better safe than sorry.  Make sure if you plan on chartering a boat that they except the ICC (which the majority will) before planning  a vacation. 

Otherwise, you’ll not be able to charter the yacht or will have the added expense of hiring a skipper with the boat. 


The sailing qualifications required to sail vary from country to country as mentioned above. There may not be a legal requirement in some countries to show a certificate of competence, it’s always best to still get yourself a certificate for peace of mind. 

If you don’t plan on travelling into international waters, then local competence certificates are more than enough especially when starting out. 

But if you do want to travel further afield, it would be best to get your International Certificate Of Competence (ICC). 

This will protect you in most other countries around the world and ensure you’re compliant with local maritime laws. 

If you are ensure about a particular country, you can always contact their local sailing authority for more information. 

We would highly recommend this when planning long journeys. It’s always better to be safe than sorry. 

If you want to charter a yacht/boat of certain sizes without a skipper, you will need to provide proof of competence so it’s definitely a course worth taking. 

Just do it once and get it out of the way is what we’d recommend. You’ll also have the added bonus of having a better understanding of first aid should the unfortunate event occur that someone has a medical issue on a voyage. 

If you are planning on doing any of the courses mentioned above in the near future, we’d love to hear about your experiences once you have completed it so we can share it with our community. 

You can always email us through our contact form. 

Finally, just as a reminder for the beginners out there. These certificates are only applicable to people wishing to operate a boat for recreational use. 

There are other certificates and requirements for those operating a boat for commercial purposes so please keep this in mind.