RYA has questions to answer about Coding prosecutions

The successful prosecution of two 'Recognised' RYA Sail Training centres by the MCA for operating inadequately coded vessels with inadequately qualified skippers, and their consequent  'derecognition' by the RYA is a timely warning to all commercial yachtsmen and women.  But it also raises a number of questions that will not be resolved simply by prosecutions.

Firstly, the two sailing schools concerned will have been rigorously checked, and their yachts inspected by the RYA, before being granted recognition. Whilst it would be unfair to expect the RYA to monitor every aspect of every sailing school, these two failures highlight a weakness in the RYA accreditation system. It is possible, under the present system, for a school to be granted 'Recognition' as an accredited RYA Sail Training Centre with a yacht coded for category 1 or 2 voyages - those no more than 60 or 150 miles from a safe haven - and then to use their yachts (albeit illegally) for category 0 voyages, as appears to have happened in these two cases.

Combined with concerns raised over a number of years about the practice of running 'novice to Yachtmaster Ocean' courses with the barest minimum of experience for the students, it may well be time for the RYA to consider granting Sailing Schools ‘restricted recognition’, say, for passages of up to 60 or 150 miles from a safe haven, or 'unrestricted recognition' for passages over 150 miles from a safe haven.  That way, clients would be able to check whether their sailing school and its yachts are operating within the limits of its licence, and the RYA could provide much needed increased monitoring of those sailing schools offering 'Zero to Hero' courses.

Secondly, the level of pay for a qualified skipper working for a 'Recognised' Sail Training establishment is often barely above the minimum wage.  Many are paid no more than £140 a day, and given that the skipper is legally responsible for the safety of the vessel and all on board 24 hours a day, whether  he or she is on board or not, this works out at a little under £5.84 an hour. Most commercial yacht skippers are freelance, and there is no trade organisation that fights for better remuneration or working conditioins, and so the temptation for commercial yacht skippers to earn extra money by 'stretching' the boundaries of their qualifications is considerable.  The RYA has consistently and publicly refused to intervene on matters of pay and conditions, saying that this is a matter for sailing schools themselves.

Thirdly, even when properly qualified and sailing appropriately coded yachts, freelance skippers working for Sailing Schools are often pressed to take students sailing when prudence would suggest staying in harbour.  A group of students, unknown to each other or the instructor, can arrive at a Sailing School yacht late on a Friday evening, tired after a week's work, and with no knowledge of the yacht apart from a short safety briefing.  The School expects the instructor to take them sailing immediately 'because they have paid', when any sensible person would let them have at least one night alongside to rest, get to know the yacht and each other, and for the instructor to assess their capabilities before setting off. Again, the RYA has said that this is a matter for the sailing schools.

The RYA and MCA deserve our gratitude for improving safety at sea over many years, but if neither of them are prepared to intervene on behalf of the freelance skippers on which they and their Sailing Schools rely, then there may need to be some independent organisation formed that will tackle these issues without having to pull its punches for fear of upsetting the interests of the 'Recognised' Sailing Schools.