It is always amazing to yachties and officials in other countries that anyone in the U.S. can take a boat out - no experience needed. If you rent or charter a boat in the U.S., the agency usually requires a resume and will often go out with you to make sure you know the basics before they let you sail away. If you buy a boat, however, it doesn't matter if the only previous experience you've had with boats was a rubber tugboat in the bath – you are the “Captain”, and can motor away in your spiffy new boat. You don't need to know why some markers are red and others are green, how to put on a PFD, or who has the right-of-way. That's a lot like learning to drive by buying a new Mercedes and driving it home in rush hour traffic.
Most other countries require the operator of a vessel to have an understanding of basic seamanship, safety at sea and the rules of the road. Many require one to pass a test not unlike a driver's test. When we first moved aboard Nine of Cups, however, there were very few states that had any licensing requirements at all. This is slowly changing – 45 states now have some educational requirements before allowing someone to operate a boat or watercraft, but most of these states have only minimal requirements or requirements that only apply to younger boaters. For example, California only requires boaters that have been convicted of a moving violation to take a boater's safety class; Florida only requires completion of a class if you were born after 1988, and exempts the operator of a vessel if it was purchased within the past 90 days; Massachusetts has no licensing requirement at all.
So now it is time for me to climb up onto my soapbox. I feel very strongly that every cruiser should at least take a general boating safety class. Besides the obvious benefits of knowing enough basic seamanship and the rules of the road to avoid putting your passengers, your boat and the other boaters in your vicinity at needless risk, there are several other advantages to having a boating safety certificate.
Many insurance companies give a discount to operators who have completed a boater's safety class.
Even if the state your boat resides in doesn't require a license, if you sail to a state that does require a license, you may be fined for not having one. A certificate from one state is usually good in another, just as a motor vehicle driver's license is good in any state.
On occasion, officials in other countries may require a “license” of some sort. A Fish and Game official in Queensland, Australia asked to see our boaters license and threatened us with a hefty fine if we didn't have one. I showed him our PASIS certificate (Bareboat Charter certificate) and my boater's safety class completion card from Colorado, which, with a lot of talking and a bit of hand waving, got us by.
And the most important reason for taking a class - it may prevent you from sounding dumb when you are sharing stories with the other cruisers in the marina. I remember a sailor telling me about a really rude power boater who “ blew his horn at me as he approached from behind. When I moved to the right to get out his way, he also went to the right and almost hit me!” If the sailor knew anything about the rules of the road, he would have known a single short blast from an approaching boat means that he intends to overtake you on the starboard side and you should maintain course. (Unless you are outside the U.S. where it's two longs followed by one short blast on the horn. This guy would have thought they were extremely rude in New Zealand with all that horn blowing to tell him to get out of the way.)
Not only do I feel it's important to take a boating safety class, it is very easy to do so. There are several companies that provide online courses for every state. Most charge only a nominal fee, and the Boat U.S. Foundation even offers it free. The process is to review and learn the material, then complete a practice quiz in each of several sections. When you have completed all the sections and feel you are ready, you can take the online exam. If you pass, you can print your lifetime certificate – if you don't pass, you can review the material again and retake the exam as many times as you need until you do pass. It couldn't be easier and it is a great way to learn enough to at least make your stories sound somewhat credible.
The next step is the U.S. Coast Guard Captain's License. Once you have some experience, you can attend the necessary courses, either online or in a classroom, and then take a proctored exam to get your captain's license. The usual license is the “Six Pack License”, which allows you to take up to six paid passengers on a vessel smaller than about 65 feet. Most cruisers don't get this license because they don't intend to take passengers for hire. Instead, it is a good way to learn a lot about seamanship, boat handling, first aid at sea, navigation and advanced rules of the road.
When we first moved aboard Nine of Cups, we didn't have the minimum 360 days experience on inland or coastal waters that is necessary to get our licenses. Once we had the experience, we were out of the country or not in one place long enough to take the course. Now that the courses are offered online, I may bite the bullet and get my captain's license. That way, my sea stories will sound credible to even the saltiest of salts.
If you have any suggestions or experiences to share about online courses for the captain's licenses, please share them.