Setting global safety standards

30 Oct 20

Over the past 50 years, RYA training has played a key role in improving boating safety. The number of on-water accidents has reduced, and lives have been saved all over the world.

Each year, more than 270,000 people undertake some form of RYA training. Whether it’s racing a dinghy, cruising a small sailboat or riding a personal watercraft, RYA courses deliver the skills and knowledge boaters need to stay safe and enjoy their time afloat.

And it’s not just recreational boaters. Many organisations including the Armed Forces, Police and RNLI draw upon the RYA’s training schemes to safely deliver their services. There are also a number of commercial skippers and crew working all over the world with RYA qualifications. 

Here we chat to James Stevens, who was instrumental in the development of safety education in RYA training for over 20 years - ten as RYA Training Manager and Chief Examiner. As well as Richard Falk, current RYA Director of Training and Qualifications, and Paul Mara, who was previously RYA Chief Powerboat Instructor and now works on special projects as the RYA’s Training Advisor. 

Read on to find out how RYA courses have helped transform boating safety, both here in the UK and overseas…

Striking a balance

With no legal requirement to hold a licence to skipper a vessel in UK waters, the RYA’s stance is clear – it’s all about education not legislation.

So why do so many choose RYA training?

The idea is simple. The more competent you are at handling a boat, the more you will enjoy your time on the water; and by making boaters more confident about their own capabilities, the less incidents there are afloat.

The world-class training schemes are supported by an extensive range of publications, and an abundance of comprehensive guidance and safety advice. But most important of all is an extensive network of RYA recognised training centres and expert instructors.

“Where our 25,000 strong army of instructors really excel is in helping people to build confidence and competence without losing sight of the fact that they should still be having fun and enjoying their time afloat,” explains Richard. 

“Safety is at the heart of every RYA training course. But we also believe that the time you spend on the water should be enjoyable, it’s all about finding that balance.”

This balancing act has brought about fun and safer boating for sailors all over the world. And it’s all thanks to the incredible work of the RYA’s global network.

Setting global standards

A structured programme of instructor training, assessments and revalidations, as well as annual centre inspections helps to ensure that wherever you take your RYA course or exam, you’ll receive the same quality tuition and method of assessment. 

Unlike other governing bodies, a significant feature of the RYA qualifications and certificates of competence is that they involve a practical assessment. RYA practical examinations are respected worldwide and are currently conducted in 40 different countries.

So where did it all start?

Following the successful launch of RYA training with the RYA dinghy and coaching schemes in 1970, the RYA were approached by the Board of Trade to take over the Yachtmaster programme in 1973 - the same year the RYA Sail Cruising scheme was introduced. In the early days, RYA Yachtmaster™ examinations were oral and there was no practical test, but as James explains: “We knew this had to change.”

With many years of experience as an instructor and examiner, when James joined the RYA staff in the late 1980s he was tasked with running the RYA Yachtmaster™ scheme.

“We set up practical exams that could be carried out anywhere in the world, to the exact same standards. As a result, anyone who takes the RYA Yachtmaster™ Certificate of Competence exam today - whether they are a casual leisure boater, or someone taking the first steps in their career as a professional commercial yacht skipper - will be assessed in the same way.”

Today, the RYA Yachtmaster™ Certificate of Competence is the gold-standard qualification for professional and leisure mariners all over the world.

Saving lives

So which courses have significantly improved safety in the world of sailing? The first that springs to mind is the RYA Sea Survival course.

Following the loss of the Tall Ship Marques, along with 19 lives, the MCA introduced Codes of Practice for sailing and power yachts in the early 1990s. “The commercially endorsed RYA Yachtmaster was introduced as the certificate of competence to ensure the skipper was suitably experienced and qualified, including a knowledge of sea survival,” explains James.

And so the RYA Sea Survival course was introduced in 1993.

The RYA adapted the Merchant Navy course, including a session in a swimming pool. “The aim was to give students the experience of a real liferaft and the difficulties of boarding and surviving in one,” he added.

The syllabus draws upon learnings and recommendations from the 1979 Fastnet inquiry, in particular the use of lifejackets and the process of abandoning ship. Its teachings have made a difference to the safety of offshore sailors all over the world.

James suggests that it is one of the most important courses that the RYA delivers: “I’ve heard so many stories of sailors who have survived accidents at sea due to the knowledge they have gained from the Sea Survival course, it’s a genuine life-saver.”

Promoting high-speed passenger safety

The RYA has also been instrumental in improving the safety of small commercial craft, striving to ensure small high speed passenger rides are carried out safely and are fun for everyone onboard, not just the driver.

“Since the turn of the millennium, there has been a significant increase in the number of small commercial craft offering sightseeing and ‘thrill rides’ around the coast and on our major rivers. This increase in activity highlighted the need for a nationally agreed set of guidance,” explains Paul.

So, in 2010, the RYA worked in collaboration with operators and several maritime safety organisations including; the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) and Passenger Boat Association (PBA); to produce the Small High-Speed Passenger Vessel Voluntary Code of Practice.

This guidance is reviewed on a regular basis, taking account of upgrades in technology, changes in practice and lessons learned from accidents. It was last updated in 2019.

“We recognise that fast boat rides are a lot of fun, but these guidelines help to keep everyone as safe as possible at the same time,” Paul added.

Safety training for superyacht guests and crew

In more recent years, RYA training has also made waves in the superyacht world.

It’s not unusual to see personal watercraft (PW) being used by owners and guests around anchored superyachts in beautiful and exotic locations, but with powered watersports toys becoming more commonplace, the industry wanted to ensure its clients could use the equipment safely and within the local laws.

The RYA was approached by the Professional Yachting Association (PYA) in 2007 to see if it could help them to implement safety measures for the use of this high-octane kit. “They wanted a scheme that would train superyacht crew to become PW instructors so they could deliver training to guests onboard,” says Paul.

“We were obviously keen to help, but the scheme did come with its challenges. Most notably the fact that the superyachts themselves needed to become fully accredited RYA training centres, but unlike a traditional centre, superyachts move around the world and would still require an annual inspection by the RYA.

The team persevered, and we successfully set up a scheme to train the crew and help guests to enjoy PWs safely during their holidays.” There are now over 400 superyachts recognised by the RYA as training centres.

Following the success of the superyacht PWC safety course, the RYA Tender Operators Course was launched in 2014. This course teaches superyacht crew how to safely transport their guests by tender boat to and from the mothership. In some cases these tenders can be as large as 70ft (21m) in length, and require quite specific skills to operate in what are sometimes quite challenging situations.

The introduction of both courses has helped to reduce the number of incidents in the industry. 

Future safety developments

Water safety is an ongoing task for the RYA, its training centres and instructors. “As a collective we’ll never stop providing people with the skills to enjoy the thrill of being out on the water, and we’ll always continue to deliver up-to-date advice and guidance on how to do it as safely as possible,” explains Richard.

RYA courses are reviewed on a regular basis to make sure the syllabus is still relevant and up to date.

“We also work closely with the MAIB (Marine Accident Investigation Branch) to learn from new incidents, integrate learnings into our courses and to educate and update our extensive network of instructors,” he added.

“As we look to the future, we’re committed to ensuring the RYA schemes stay relevant and continue to deliver the quality, fun and structured training we’re known for.

“Thanks to the incredible work of RYA recognised training centres and instructors all over the world, we’re helping to keep oceans, rivers and lakes safe for everyone who uses them.”


50 Years of RYA Training

The RYA introduced the dinghy and coaching schemes in 1970 to help clubs and sailing schools by providing a national syllabus and method of learning to sail. Fifty years on, the RYA has a network of more than 2,400 training centres in 58 countries and supports the delivery of over 100 courses.

Read about the 50th anniversary celebrations at Or to join the millions of boaters who have trained with the RYA, visit