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September 20th 2018. By Alex Smith.

Boat licences

Our boating lives here in the UK may be relatively free of legislation - but the boat licencing issue is still one we need to understand.

While in the world of cars, we all need a licence as a means of illustrating a basic level of road craft, knowledge and competence, there is no such requirement for people who own and use recreational boats in the UK. The Royal Yachting Association (RYA), the national body for recreational boating in the UK, certainly has a wide range of courses, covering everything from elementary introductions to specialist professional courses, but it has always adopted an approach defined by education rather than legislation and, as such, both our safety record in the UK and our easy-access routes into the sport are envied by a great many nations around the world.
There are of course exceptions within our no-qualification culture, such as where rental boats are concerned or for insurance purposes; and it is also a mandatory requirement to secure an RYA Marine Radio Short Range Certificate (SRC) in order to operate a marine VHF radio. But as regards the RYA’s practical courses in the operation of a boat, whether that relates to sailboats or to power driven vessels, there is no legal requirement for the owner of a private leisure craft to get them done.
However, there is of course much more to the story than that because, just as the use of a car brings with it the inevitable levy of a road tax, so your boating region can often bring with it a mandatory fee for the management and maintenance of the waterways, as well as a mandatory requirement for a safety licence to affirm that your boat is suitably equipped to operate on such waters. In fact you often need a valid safety certificate in order to qualify for the issue of a waterways licence – but in all cases, you need to check what kind of licences are required on the waters you intend to cruise, because ignorance is not a defence.

Ignorance is not a defence: you need to check what kind of licences are required on the waters you intend to cruise.

What is a private leisure craft?

For obvious reasons, commercially operated craft face much more stringent and prescriptive licencing requirements than private pleasure boats in the UK, so before you wash your hands of the red tape and the complication, you need to be certain that your boat is in fact a ‘private leisure craft’. In order for your boat to qualify, it must be privately used by you, your family and your friends and, while contributions to the expenses and running costs on a given trip can be accepted, you must not earn any money through its operation or employ any personnel on board your boat. As UK-flagged private leisure craft operated in UK coastal waters become larger, the rules also change in relation to the carriage of fire fighting and lifesaving equipment, but if your boat is no longer than 13.7 metres and it satisfies the above criteria, then (thanks in large part to the RYA) your life ought to be relatively simple.

Heading inland

With more than 3,000 miles of waterways, encompassing glorious historical structures, bustling urban hubs and remote rural landscapes, inland boating is enjoying a new golden age here in the UK. However, it takes money and personnel to keep them in good order, so a licence is required. You can buy one for three, six or 12 months and you can choose between a Canal and River licence or (if you intend to keep your boat on a river) a River Only licence. A Gold Licence, meanwhile, covers you for use on all waterways managed by both the Canal & River Trust and the Environment Agency and, depending on the frequency and variation of your cruising in any given year, it can represent a more cost-effective investment.
As regards price, a 57-foot narrowboat will cost around £1,000 per year for a Canal and River licence but you can get a 10% for early payment. Just be aware that, in order to qualify for a licence, you need to produce a valid Boat Safety Scheme Certificate (BSSC) and an insurance cover note; and be aware also that some specific waterways that fall outside the remit of the licences detailed above will levy additional fees on all boats that attempt to cruise within their areas of jurisdiction.

The Boat Safety Scheme Certificate

Established in 1997, the Boat Safety Scheme (BSS) is designed to promote safety on the inland waterways. Compliance with the criteria of the BSS is required in order to secure the issue of a Boat Safety Scheme Certificate (BSSC) – and a BSSC is required in order to secure a navigation licence and an insurance policy for boats on most parts of the inland network. Although the BSSC only requires renewal every four years, it is subject to ever-changing rules and regulations, so assuming your boat will pass because it features the same equipment and the same standards as it did when it last passed is likely to leave you disappointed. As with a car’s MOT, your Boat Safety Examiner will explain any ways in which your boat fails to comply and, on a well-maintained boat, it rarely takes much time or effort to bring your craft up to the latest standards.

A Boat Safety Scheme Certificate is required in order to secure a navigation licence and an insurance policy for boats on most parts of the inland network.

Heading abroad

When you go boating abroad, you are obviously required to comply with the maritime legislation of the country in question, in addition to that of your vessel’s Flag State. However, legislation from country to country can vary wildly, so to help overcome these difficulties, an International Certificate of Competence (ICC) indicates that, despite not holding that nation’s recognised national certificate, you have met a broadly (though not universally) accepted level of boating competence. 
If you have your Powerboat Level 2 certificate in the UK, then you can apply to the RYA for an ICC – and if you plan on enjoying some boating on Europe’s inland waterways, then you will need to supplement that with a CEVNI (Code Européen des Voies de Navigation Intérieure) endorsement to illustrate that you understand the signs, rules and procedures in operation on those waterways. You can take the ICC CEVNI test either in person at an RYA-recognised training centre or you can take the online test remotely. Just be aware that, in order to go boating abroad, you will also need an organised and up-to-date portfolio of paperwork that includes basic items like a registration document for your boat. Details of these documents and how to acquire them can be found on the RYA’s ‘Knowledge and Advice’ pages.

Maintaining effective communications

In order to preserve space on the airwaves for emergency calls and to ensure clarity and brevity of communication, it’s important that everyone who uses a VHF marine radio understands the protocols required to operate it effectively. Whether you use a fixed set or a portable handheld unit and whether it is equipped with Digital Selective Calling (DSC) or not, the Short Range Certificate is the minimum qualification required by law on a British-flagged vessel. The course involves a single day of tuition, covering basic operation, key frequencies, DSC, distress and emergency procedures and the Global Maritime Distress Safety System. The day finishes with a short written exam – and while the exam is always classroom-based, the course itself can be taken online.
On a similar note, a Ship Radio Licence, issued by Ofcom, is designed to ensure that all radio equipment used on board ships, including satellite and RADAR equipment, as well as Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) and Search and Rescue Transponders (SARTs), are properly operated. Failure to hold a valid licence is a criminal offence, which can result in fines of up to £5,000 and/or a six-month prison sentence – penalties that ably illustrate the seriousness with which this particular area of legislation is treated.

Alex Smith is an ex-Naval officer, with extensive experience as a marine journalist, boat tester and magazine editor. Having raced as a Pilot in the National Thundercat Series and as a Navigator in the inaugural Red Sea RIB Rally, he has now settled in the West Country, where he lives and works as a specialist marine writer and photographer from his narrowboat in Bath.