Going Pro – How To Become a Professional Sailor, Work at Sea and Get Paid To Sail With RYA Qualifications
Do you love sailing so much that you want to make a career out of it? Or perhaps, you’ve taken early retirement and fancy doing a few trips each year, with the bonus of some extra pocket money. Either way, who doesn’t want to get paid for doing something they love. The trouble is, how do you go from loving sailing to being paid to sail? We cover everything from RYA courses and qualifications, to networking and getting your first gig.
Read on and we’ll help you find out how to get into the world of working on yachts.
Getting Qualified to Work at Sea
Experience and a good character reference trump qualifications in the yachting world, but your CV is likely to be glossed over completely if you don’t have the proof of training to back yourself.
Whilst, in theory, you should be able to get your first job at sea without any qualifications at all (just a medical certificate from your GP), in reality, employers rarely take the time to even read your CV unless you have some form of qualification listed on there.
Sailing Qualifications you NEED to have
Depending on the vessel and the work, Day Skipper may be enough (for short trips on small boats), but Yachtmaster Coastal or Yachtmaster Offshore are much more desirable. In addition to these certificates, you are also likely to need them commercially endorsed.
To get a qualification commercially endorsed you are going to need to present:
- A PPR (professional practices and responsibilities) certificate.
- An ML5 or ENG-1 medical certificate.
- A basic sea survival or STCW personal survival techniques certificate.
- An RYA Marine Radio SRC Certificate or other acceptable GMDSS Marine Radio Operator’s Certificate.
On top of this, you will also need to take a first aid course before you can take your Yachtmaster exam.
All these courses add up and the initial outlay is significant, however, they are all enjoyable and useful courses so even if you change your mind and never earn a penny, it isn’t money down the pan.
The easiest route to obtaining all these tickets is through the RYA. They offer relevant versions of each of the courses which meet the requirements at a relatively low price. They aren’t necessarily the most comprehensive options but will get you exactly what you need.
Sailing Qualifications that are NICE to have
Of course, you may want to make your CV stand out with some extra qualifications, and some of these can be taken instead of the counterparts listed earlier.
An alternative to the basic sea survival or STCW personal survival techniques certificate is the full STCW 95 qualification. This includes sea survival, and first aid, and even has a couple of extras like fire fighting. The SCTW is also a requirement on many of the larger vessels so if you are dreaming of superyachting, this could be the route for you.
The RYA diesel engine course or MCA approved engineering course (AEC) is really good to have too. Employers don’t want their boats to be involved in embarrassing rescues after totally avoidable or repairable breakdowns, and to be fair, you don’t want to put yourself in that position either. So have one of these qualifications in your arsenal, or have some convincing experience to back yourself.
Every commercial vessel is also required to have someone aboard with a food hygiene certificate. This doesn’t have to be you, but it could be…
And finally, anything else you can get to make your CV stand out is a bonus. I once went on a one-day pyrotechnics course to learn about flares which were interesting and I felt that having that hands-on practical experience would be valuable should I ever need to use a flare for real.
Sailing Qualifications for Large Yachts
For very large yachts (over 24m) or some commercial vessels, you may actually need to look at MCA qualifications. (Maritime and Coastguard Agency). Depending on if you want to crew or skipper, you may need an Efficient Deck Hand certificate or Officer of the Watch 3000 certificate. STCW certificates would likely be required to complement this, which cover elements such as first aid, firefighting, sea survival, personal safety and social responsibility and proficiency in security awareness.
Getting into larger yachts and MCA qualifications can be challenging. You need sea time to complete many of the courses but can’t get the sea time without the job. However, the Yachtmaster certificate is still a really good starting point for this as it will often allow you to get on the bottom rung of the ladder on larger ships, and consequently putting you in a position to move onto the MCA qualifications.
Experience & Networking
Even with all the pieces of paper available, if nobody knows who you are, and you have no references, you may find it incredibly difficult to get started. Basically, before you can get paid to sail, you need to cover the right of passage of paying for trips or at least volunteering your time. If you’re lucky, you might even get your expenses paid. Of course, some people get lucky and will find themselves sailing all expenses paid nearly straight away and others might land paid jobs very quickly, but this is rare and you should expect to have to work from the ground up and cover lots of networking.
Nearly all sailing jobs are gained by word of mouth, and even where they aren’t, a character reference is vital. It sounds a little corrupt but it’s for a very good reason. People’s true (and often worst) characters often come out when in a small space with strangers for multiple days/weeks (e.g. a boat at sea) and so the employer needs to be confident you won’t go weird on them 3 days into a trip.
When working at sea, all kinds of things can go wrong and you need to be able to think on your feet. It’s not just the boat that can break, but sometimes guests can be a bit unpredictable too, and you’ll need a good amount of patience and good character to get everybody home in good spirits.
So get out there and put in some hard graft. Hard workers are usually spotted quickly and offered more desirable work.
For a full guide on how to gain good quality, low cost and relevant experience, check out How to Gain More Sailing Experience.
Start By Paying to Sail
Even if you are fully qualified, if you don’t have a great deal of experience, (think 10 – 20 weeks or more) then you will need to start by paying as a passenger or trainee. This can obviously be very expensive, so for some cheaper ways of going about this check out this blog. Also, something to bear in mind is it’s ideal to gain experience in the area you hope to work in, so if you want to race, get as much experience as you can on racing boats, and if traditional is more your style, then get yourself on traditional sailing trips. If you aren’t sure, then aim to get a broad variety – having a wide knowledge of rigs and setups will be a real strength in the long run, and the experience will help you pick a direction. Hopefully, your name will start to be recognised in a positive way, which is vital in the sailing industry.
Then Sail for Free
Once you have a good deal of experience, you might find yourself invited to help crew for free. There are a few different kinds of ‘free’ sailing:
- Sail for free and just pay your own travel
- Sail for free but contribute to expenses like food, fuel and marinas
- Expenses paid, including food, travel, marinas and fuel.
Helping sailing charities, making friends with boats and looking out on forums and Facebook groups is a good place to look. For a full guide on how to gain good quality, low cost and relevant experience, check out How to Gain More Sailing Experience.
And finally the dream – get paid
Whilst gaining your qualifications and gaining experience, you can have your ear to the ground for jobs. There’s no set requirement for how much experience you need to have before you can get paid but the more the better, so get going and keep your job searches ticking away in the background.
Let people know you are looking for paid work. Nobody will recommend you for a position if they don’t know you would be interested.
Use the internet. There are websites such as Yachtly Crew that advertise paid positions on yachts, but another way is to keep an eye on the organizations you actually want to work for. Many will post on Facebook, linked in, or Instagram when a position becomes available. But I wouldn’t even wait for this, if I really want a job on a particular boat, I keep in touch with friendly emails. Not too often, maybe only once a year, ask how business is going and gently remind them that they should give you a call if they ever need a hand.
If you are keen, hardworking, patient, and friendly at all times, this will be your biggest advantage, not the quals or experience. It’s the “at all times” that is the hard part and yet the most important attribute for anyone working on a boat.
One day the lucky break comes in. Someone asks you if you are available to crew/skipper an upcoming trip. Or, you are accepted for the job you applied for. Then, it’s just a case of working hard, and not getting into any trouble! Remember, there are plenty of people out there who would love to be paid to sail, so don’t take it for granted as you could easily be replaced.
Honesty is key, so if you muck up (as everybody does at some point), say you crash or run aground, the way you go about dealing with the situation will be super important. Stay calm, own up to it, apologize, and do what needs to be done to fix it. Skippers who shout at or blame their crew, lie to their employers, or worse, leave the boat damaged without telling anyone will not be invited back for more work and their reputation will be easily ruined.
And it goes without saying, it’s unlikely anyone would go far if they cannot keep their belongings tidy, their personal hygiene clean, and remain professional and sober. This is just basic boat etiquette! Where cracking a beer once the anchor goes down or having a glass of wine with dinner might be something routine on holiday. Once you are being paid to be responsible for a boat and its guests, watch that your alcohol intake doesn’t let you down. Whilst you might think you are well within your limits, you cannot afford for your judgement to be impaired and passengers or colleagues will be watching you.
What kinds of sailing jobs are out there?
Sharing enthusiasm for sailing and lovely destinations will be natural and the most enjoyable pastime for some. A charter skipper usually works for a holiday company. They are responsible for the sailing and safety of the vessel and crew. The clients will usually provide some ideas of places they’d like to see and activities they’d like to take part in and it’s the skipper’s job to do their best to build this into a suitable itinerary. The skipper doesn’t usually have to do so much of the boat’s general maintenance as the firm usually has its own marine engineers and cleaners. Cooking’s also not usually a requirement. In fact, the guests will often pay for the skipper to eat out with them or provide them with a food allowance.
A flotilla skipper is not only in charge of one boat but they are responsible for many! Sometimes 5 or 6 boats will make up a group and there will be a lead boat with a flotilla skipper, hostess and engineer on board. The flotilla skipper will make the passage plan, brief the individual guest skippers and listen to everybody’s plans or concerns. The flotilla yachts will follow in their own time, either like little ducks, or sometimes more independently. Stopping for swim stops or anchoring for lunch is to be expected. The lead boat will rush ahead and make sure they arrive first at the destination to reserve berths, catch lines, and book tables for dinner. It’s a fun lifestyle and some might see it as a benefit that there are staff for each department like mechanics, hosts, and cleaners so that being a skipper doesn’t mean you have to wear every hat at once.
Taking boats from A to B! With or without the owner on board, the skippers’ job is to get the boat to its destination in the same condition they picked it up in. No need to wear that cheesy smile all day but no time to luxuriate either. Weather depending, the boat must be home by the shortest route, making no unnecessary stops, not even at night. If you are independent and like nothing better than a peaceful, solo night watch then deliveries could be just the ticket for you. The downsides are that you’ll need much of your own equipment and need to be careful when deciding which jobs to accept. There’s much to think about: Is the boat safe? Is the route safe? Are the crew safe to work with? Is all the insurance and paperwork sorted? If you are self-employed and working trip to trip, then just the communication, coordination, and preparation can mount up to a fair bit of work. Working for a trusted company that does all of the admin for you, and finds the work in the first place is probably much more preferable.
Fancy the glitz and glamour of superyachting? You’ll need to be qualified before you ever step foot on a superyacht and then be prepared to work from the bottom up. The good news is that these jobs can be found on websites such as yachtlycrew.com and you can easily upload your CV. However, be prepared to spend A LOT of time in your first years cleaning, and polishing, and cleaning again. It can take a few years to climb the ranks. But if you have the patience for that, it is the best-paid job in the industry.
When we say sail training it doesn’t mean ‘learning to sail’, instead it means using the experience of sailing offshore as part of a team to open up new skills, challenges and, discoveries. Sail training trips are usually funded by charities and offered to young people, disabled or otherwise disadvantaged people. If you’ve ever sailed before you probably realise how sailing can improve one’s confidence and resilience so it can be a valuable source of therapy as well as everything else. By volunteering for sail training charities you can amp up your experience level and feel satisfied for giving your time to a good cause at the same time. If you love sharing your passion for sailing and being sociable with all kinds of people from different backgrounds, then Sail Training could be for you! Check out www.sailtraininginternational.org to find out more.
Dream vs. Reality
Do these jobs sound like living the dream to you? Well, in my opinion, it often is, but that doesn’t mean it’s all glamour though.
Being paid to sail comes with dirty jobs like lots of cleaning, provisioning, regular maintenance, fixing broken stuff, and often cooking.
Cooking catches out a lot of people, so if it’s not your best skill then be prepared to learn a few recipes that are easy, don’t create much washing up and are easily adaptable to dietary requirements. This doesn’t include Frey Bentos pies (much as I love them) and other tinned only meals! Meals from tins and cans are great to have in reserve for rougher days but in order to keep a healthy diet and morale high, be sure to have ideas for meals that include plenty of fresh and varied ingredients.
Many of the maintenance, provisioning, cleaning and fixing jobs are done outside of your sailing days, and they aren’t avoidable. You can’t do just the sailing and not the preparation and maintenance. In fact for many skippering jobs, half of the year might be maintenance and admin related! Also, not all sailing days are blue birds. When there’s a job to be done, a working vessel might need to go out whether the conditions are nice or not. Many vessels will only NOT sail when it is dangerous to do so. This means you will be out in rain and cols so treat yourself to some decent waterproofs and a good hat!
Finally, there’s the people management. If you are the skipper, this will arguably be the hardest part of your job. You’ll need to keep the team happy, fed, rested, and working together harmoniously in order to make every voyage a successful one. At sea you are boss, mum, police, sailor, and friend and being able to wear all these hats at once is an art that makes the difference between a good skipper and a great one.
So, in conclusion, being a sailor for a living means working hard, being nice, and a further top tip from us: keep your underpants in your washing bag, not on the floor and not on your shipmates’ bunk, or else they will be hoisted to the top of the mast and you’ll never work at sea again!
If you need a training centre for your theory qualifications, look no further than Ardent Training where you can get your RYA certificates and learn from the professionals, in your own time, in your own home. www.ardent-training.com
Sailing can appear to be an elitist sport where only the most wealthy can partake. But, there are funding options available, and hopefully, you’ve seen in this blog and in our other blog How to Gain More Sailing Experience, that there are ways of working your way into the industry without paying lots of money.
Trinity House is an organisation dedicated to the safety and wellbeing of shipping and seafarers. As part of their commitment to support sailors they offer an RYA scholarship, where they will sponsor a number of people each year, to take the qualifications they need to achieve the RYA Yachtmaster certificate. You need to be nominated by an RYA training centre and demonstrate that you want to work in the maritime industry. They also provide cadetships for those looking to work in the superyacht sector. To find out more, visit:
Trinity House RYA Yachtmaster Scholarship