There was a time when a young lad could get a job, as a deck­hand on a large yacht, on the strength of willingness to work hard at scrubbing decks and polishing brass. The pay wasn’t great, but the perks were travel to places he could never have dreamed of visiting and getting trained by senior crew in the arts of seamanship and navigation. By studying hard and taking a few exams, along the way, it was entirely possible that the “deckie” could, eventually, work his way up to captain.


In some ways, today’s route to captaincy is much the same. While some officers do arrive on the large yacht scene, well qualified from the world of big ships, most skippers have still come up through the leisure side of the marine industry, but the way they get there is very different now.

The recent growth of the large yacht sector - technically vessels over 24 metres are large yachts - has been spectacular and shows no signs of slowing down. In the past 10 years, the building, re-fitting, chartering and crewing of yachts, especially in the 35 metre plus size range, has become a very significant industry worth in the region of €10 billion per annum.

With the fleet growing at an ever faster rate each year and with charter demand on the increase, it was inevitable that owners, flag states and insurance companies would become more aware of the need for well trained crew; with formal qualifications, to man and maintain these substantial floating assets. The result has been that, from 1 February 2002 (one year later in the USA), the majority of those working on large yachts have been required to obtain certain certificates, mainly by successfully completing a rec­ognised training course.

Yacht Rating

A high percentage of large yachts fly the Red Ensign and come under the jurisdiction of the UK Maritime & Coastguard Agency and the MCA Code of Practice for the Safety of Large Commercial Sailing and Motor Vessels requires all yachts of 24 metres and over to be safely manned. This, basically, means that the crew must be appropriately qualified and have recent and relevant experience of the vessel type, vessel size and type of operation in which it is engaged.

In the case of vessels over 200 gross tonnes, any rating that is necessary for the safe manning of the vessel needs to be in possession of an MCA Yacht Rating Certificate or a recognised equivalent qualification such as: an AB Certificate issued under the ILO AB Convention; a UK Efficient Deck Hand Certificate; or a Navigational or Engine Room Watch Rating Certificate issued under the Standards of Training Certification and Watchkeeping Convention (STCW) of the In­ternational Maritime Organisation.

Those who don’t hold one of the above certificates need to fulfill certain MCA eligibility requirements to qualify as a Yacht Rating: they must be at least 16 years old; hold an approved medical certificate; have had at least 6 months yacht service, including 2 months at sea, on vessels over 15 metres in length; complete the four elements of approved STCW basic training (STCW 95) and complete the Yacht Rating Training Record Book. The master(s) of the vessel(s) that the applicant has trained on have to sign that the required level of competence, in various sections, had been reached.

STCW 95 courses are usually five days for the four elements: Personal Survival Techniques; Fire Prevention and Fire Fighting; Elementary First Aid and Personal Safety & Social Responsibility. They can be taken separately though.

Holders of certain certificates, recognised by the MCA, will not need to complete the Yacht Rating Training Record Book and the 6 months yacht service may be reduced to 2 months sea service on vessels over 15 metres.

Further details can be obtained by going to the MCA website and downloading the document MGN 270.

Officers qualifications

Anyone wishing to become an Officer of the Watch, Chief Mate or Master of any yacht, over 24 metres long, but under 3000 gross tonnes, must - with certain exceptions - hold an STCW Certificate of Competence. Candidates need to be at least 19 years old, certified fit and have three years experience on the “official crew list” of a vessel over 15 metres in length. The required training is tiered, to enable those aiming to be captains to step up the ladder in stages, both in rank and in size of vessel they are qualified to be in charge of.

The exceptions are for the “smaller” yachts. For example, someone with an RYA Yachtmaster Offshore Certificate can serve as Master of a vessel up to 200 gross tonnes, within 60 nautical miles of a safe haven and someone with an RYA Coastal Skipper can serve as Chief Mate on a vessel up to 500 tons, within 60 miles of a safe haven.

So, in theory, someone who has worked as a steward on a large yacht, for three years, and done a “zero to hero” 10 week Yachtmaster course, could get a job skippering a 30 plus metre yacht, doing the Med port hopping charter route. In practice, it’s almost certain they would be passed over for someone better qualified.

Training with the pros

I visited Warsash Maritime Centre on the banks of the river Hamble in the UK, an MCA approved training establishment that has 50 years experience in training commercial seafarers from around the world. They have training courses that are specifically designed to suit the superyacht industry and the people already employed in it.

Module Subjects for Deck Officer Courses

Officer of the Watch, Yacht - Navigation and Radar 10 Days; Officer of the Watch, Yacht - General Ship Knowledge 5 Days; Officer of the Watch, Yacht - Oral Exam Preparation 1 Day; Master Yacht - Navigation, ARPA and Radar 10 Days; Master Yacht - Business and Law 5 Days; Master Yacht - Seamanship and Meteorology 5 Days; Master Yacht - Stability 5 Days; : Master Yacht - Oral Exam Preparation 2 Days.

Module Subjects for Engineering Officers Course Length

Large Yacht Endorsement (Yacht 1) 5 Days; Advanced Hotel Services (Yacht 2) 5 Days; Chief Engineer Statutory & Operational Requirements (Yacht 2) 5 Days; Applied Marine Engineering (Yacht 2) 5 Days; General Engineering Science I (Yacht 2) 5 Day; General Engineering Science II (Yacht 2) 5 Days; Chief Engineer Statutory & Operational Requirements (Yacht 3) 5 Days; Marine Diesel Engineering (Yacht 4) 5 Days; Auxiliary Equipment & Basic Ship Construction (Yacht 4) 5 Days; Operational Procedures & Basic Hotel Services (Yacht 4) 5 Days; Engineering Skills Test (Yacht 4) up to 10 Days; Marine Engine Operators Licence (Yachts) 5 Days.

Course Content

Each subject group is covered in a training module that lasts between 1 & 10 days. Courses cover deck officers and masters duties and the engineering disciplines specifically focused on the sophisticated systems found on today’s luxury yachts.

Much of the training is class­room based leading towards the MCA oral examinations for Master or Officer of the Watch tickets. Engineers are spared the rigours of examination as their course relies on continu­ous assessment, during train­ing, to decide if standards are met.

Putting theory into practice

At Warsash, training can be taken well beyond what is required for certification. It’s a well known fact within the industry that the “hands on” ship handling opportunities for trainees is limited. The reality being that ships masters or pilots carry out much of the routine and all of the tricky manoeuvres, reducing the trainee to learning by observation.

At the Centre’s Marchwood site, they run a series of dedicated ship handling courses using a bridge simulator and manned models. Training scenarios can be set up to meet the specific requirements of each trainee and employer. The full size bridge simulator offers thousands of realistic scenarios in hundreds of ship types. With a 270 degree pan­oramic view of the action, the radio chattering and the deckplates vibrating beneath your feet, you very quickly feel “all at sea”. Harbours, ships, weather, traffic, crew and support vessels, all controlled by Senior Lecturer George Laing, a ships master of long standing, conspire to make life interesting for even the most experienced master.

Manned models

In addition to the usual class­room and advanced simulator training, ship handling theory can be practised out on the water using model ships. I shared a day on the lake at Marchwood with berthing masters and pilots from Bantry Bay, Ireland, a superyacht deck officer and a harbour pilot from Dubai.

The 13 acre lake is carefully designed with canals, docking piers and complex buoyed channels and is home to a fleet of seven beautifully crafted scale model ships. Each vessel is designed to precisely mimic the handling characteristics of it’s full size counterpart and to give a realistic and safe opportunity for trainees to put ship handling theory into practice.

Many superyacht employed trainees find their way to the replica RoRo ferry “Normandy”. With plenty of power, twin screws, thrusters and high windage she presents most of the same challenges to the ship handler that will be found while manoeuvring large yachts.

Stern to and alongside mooring, narrow channels with sharp turns, the effect of wind and water flow can all be demonstrated and worked with in this Lilliputian world. Even tidal streams can be simulated using electric outboard motors to produce the flow.

One trainee commented that he’d carried out more manoeuvres in a day than he normally experienced in a year’s sea time. All of the trainees, no matter their level of experience, agreed that the course is testing and very worthwhile. Many of the big ship officers had been on the course before and will be back again in the future, as part of their ongoing training.

Captain Chris Clarke and his team have a commendably light touch as they pass on new skills and sharpen the techniques of the more experienced trainees. Theories are explained in detailed briefings, exercises are observed and debriefings carried out, on the water, throughout the day.

Demonstrations of “Bow cushion effect”, whereby two vessels approaching head on appear certain to have a collision until water built up at each bow, diverts them at the last moment, or the attractive power of Mr. Bernoulli’s theory, where an overtaking vessel attracts the bow of the slower ship, which strikes it amidships and is held fast by the low pressure area created by the water flow along the ships flanks, are possible using the models that if replicated in real life would cost millions of pounds, perhaps cost lives and maybe do irreparable damage to the environment.

Getting started

It seems that some lateral thinking on training is going to be a necessity if the superyacht industry is to continue its rapid expansion. Last year, BYM News asked Joe Vittoria, owner of Mirabella V, if he foresaw continued expansion, in the large yacht industry, or whether he thought the bubble would burst? He replied:

“I don’t think the bubble will break for the demand, I think what’s going to happen is that the crew situation is going to get very difficult.The schools aren’t bad at pre­paring engineers and captains, for these new requirements, but I have on board – as a guest in this period - a captain who was with me five years; one of my favourite captains.”
“Well, you know, today he wouldn’t have the paper qualifications to drive one of these boats, with the rules that are there now. They require weeks of schooling to get it and, of course, he’s older now - though still a young man - but he’s got a family, so there’s no way he’s going to go back through all that. He can go and deliver someone’s boat, because he’s an excellent captain, but he cant work in the charter trade. This, to me, is what’s going to cause the problem. These big yachts are sucking up crew and making the availability ever more difficult. The rules that have been put in place are good ones, but I don’t think enough people are thinking about preparing for even greater demand.”
“They should be looking at young people coming out of the naval service, from an engineering and technology side, and sending them to whatever school is needed for a brief period of time to get them to understand what you need on a yacht. Then they could be available as second engineers and move up to first.”
“Engineering positions are the toughest ones to fill right now and captains are difficult, so this is going to be a problem, especially for a lot of the people who are having these big motor yachts; sailors tend to be a little more experienced.”
”These people aren’t, necessarily, aware of this and no-one’s going to make them aware, because they want the contract. Then they learn and what happens is that it is becoming a case of supply and demand, so a financial problem, and it needs to be looked at, because it is going to become a bigger problem.”


Qualified and experienced Masters can command salaries of over €150,000 per annum, Engineers, can earn €100,000. So there should be no shortage of would be officers, yet there is. Conversely, we’ve heard of young people who have never managed to get a job, because of another development. More and more employers are demanding that all crew members; even stewardesses and others not involved in deck work, have a basic STCW95 certifi­cate. That means an outlay that many young people cannot afford.

Tom Walsh is a very experienced ocean going sailor and racing man, with a Yachtmaster Ocean certificate. He has skippered and crewed on a wide variety of craft. Tom will be continuing this series about careers in yachting, with further, well researched, articles. Coming next “Finding a job in the superyacht industry.”