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Those approaching the world of boating, and of sailing in particular, have soon to face the highly-varied and debated world of boat licences.

Why? Simple: after the first experiences at sea, after the first courses or the first sailings as guests of friends, the next, instinctive step is to start paving the way to achieve, one day, full autonomy, or plan your own cruise or, why not, have your own first boat.

And, often, at this point, one of the most widespread and misleading belief comes into mind: “I’ll get a boat licence, so I can sail”. Nothing is more wrong or could be further from the truth and, above all, nothing is more dangerous.

A boat licence, according to the provisions of the Italian legislation, is required to drive boats having certain technical characteristics, within (or beyond) a certain distance from the coast. Generally speaking, a boat licence is required for boats powered by engines of more than 40 hp, or for any boat sailing beyond 6 miles from the coast to go to sea.

Nothing more.

When you get a boat licence, you don’t learn to sail, you learn the regulations (a part of them, by the way), which is certainly essential, however, is not all what you need to know. Experience is a completely different thing, it is gained at sea, it takes years and never ends. Never trust those who think they know all about sailing just because they have got the much-needed document!

As an example, the fact that a newbie without a boat licence is at liberty to sail all around Italy in a 15-m and 15-ton-sailing boat, provided that he does not sail beyond 6 miles from the coast, shows a flaw in the regulation.

There is a wide variety of opportunities offered by nautical schools authorised to grant boat licences. It must be said that, in the best cases, schools offer – no doubt – a good basic training, which, of course, justifies a cost increase.

This is, in other words, a real jungle. There are schools that offer courses lasting months and others that promise you will get your licence in a couple of intensive weekends! Differences in prices are often due to the hours of practical training, i.e. of sailing.

There is a wide choice: from “special offers”: 300 Euros for a super intensive course, few lessons, mainly self-study, to very long, in-depth courses of two lessons per week and several sea trips, whose cost may exceed 1,000 Euros and, in many cases, even be 1,500 Euros.

Those who decide to get the licence as external candidates have to face a totally different challenge where all or almost all depends on the determination of the candidate and on his/her choices.

Boat licences are divided into two main categories, within or beyond 12 miles. They have a similar didactic structure, partly in common. In both categories theoretical skills are nothing but notions, definitions, regulations and laws tested in a multiple-choice exam.

There is a great variety of topics: from navigation lights to meteorology and to the components of a hull structure. From compasses and their parts to the bodies and agencies that oversee navigation.

Pay attention: apparently it is just boring theoretical information, but actually these are basic notions for those who want to sail. To be able to identify the kind of boat that can sail around in a moonless light from its navigations lights, as well as its direction of travel, are the basics for those who want to cast off the moorings autonomously. The same goes for being able to instantly recognize a shroud from a life line when manoeuvring.

Charting, i.e. setting a course on a marine chart, is quite different from theoretical notions. Self-teaching is possible for everyone, yet not very easy. The chart test is very important to get both licences – within or beyond 12 miles. There is no doubt this is the stumbling block of the theoretical test and one of the most common causes of failure.


The central issue, when talking about getting a boat licence in Italy, is the practical test, as this is not the same all over our territory. In some cases, the harbour authorities have required any sail manoeuvres to be performed by the candidate, even to come alongside a pier in a 20-knot wind. By contrast, some practical tests have taken place on a lake, under wind-free conditions, where the examiner, in order to simulate a taking or a gybe, had to move the boom while the boat was proceeding with engine started. In conclusion, anything and everything may happen!

The important thing after getting a boat licence is to be aware of your actual level of expertise and experience before sailing and, if you realize it is necessary, apply to one of the thousands of sailing schools.

Actually, the practical test is the Achilles heel as the Italian legislation requires a test that lasts half an hour and whose level of difficulty may vary from 0 to 100. In other countries, e.g. in Switzerland, the candidate has to exhibit a certificate showing he has sailed hundreds of miles, before getting a boat licence.

In conclusion, being a skipper requires experience (also considering the civil and criminal liability that the role demands) while what is requested in Italy is just to be able to tack. To gain experience is essential for the safety of both skipper and the crew, as nobody can claim to be able to sail just because he has got a boat licence.

Stefano Sergi

Stefano Sergi
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