With the superyacht fleet >3000gt still growing, I thought it worthwhile to look at the difference between Yacht and Commercial qualifications, the various pathways to an Unlimited CoC and, some considerations to factor into your choice of pathway.
A Little Background
We know that education, training and experience are vital to ensuring safety on yachts and ships, and although there is the Standards of Training Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) Convention that regulates minimum standards, it was introduced for commercial ships and those destined for a merchant navy career.
In recognition of the requirements of the yachting industry, in 2002 the MCA and, their contributing partners, introduced MGN 195(M) the first yacht specific standards of training and certification as allowed under Article IX of STCW.
Prior to this, commercial STCW qualifications or RYA qualifications for recreational boaters were the only qualifications available to professional yacht crew. Given yachting’s trajectory, it made absolute sense to combine elements of both to develop a qualification that was relevant and attainable. There is no doubt that the Large Yacht Code has significantly improved the standards of safety and professionalism within our industry.
Though there have been amendments, and we are now at MSN1858 (M+F), there are perhaps questions whether it has adapted sufficiently to the changes and challenges we have seen within our industry and, of course, why there is still a barrier that prevents Yacht captains serving on Yachts >3000gt? To answer this and other questions we need to explore the options available.
For unlimited tonnage qualifications under MSN1856 (M+F) there are several different pathways. If we look at the MCA Higher National Certificate/Diploma (HNC/HND) route for experienced mariners – the one experienced yacht crew would be more inclined to choose – there are significant differences in the educational and sea service requirements. For example, the classroom time requires an extra 53 weeks compared to Yacht qualifications.
Another difference is bridge watchkeeping. No verifiable bridge watchkeeping duties or, experience, is required for a Yacht OOW/Chief Mate <3000gt, only 4 months for Master 500gt and, 8 months for a Master Yacht <3000gt and Marshall Islands (MI) Master (Yachts) Unlimited – this is in stark contrast to the minimum of 30 months required for a STCW Master Unlimited under MSN1856 (M+F).
Perhaps these are the reasons why it has proved so difficult for the MCA to provide a suitable transition – how do they reconcile the differences and still comply with STCW? Perhaps an Endorsement, like there are for special vessels like tankers, could be a way forward; though, it should be pointed out these Endorsements are on top of STCW qualifications.
The Marshall Islands recognised an opportunity to provide a pathway to unlimited tonnage yachts for experienced captains and introduced their own qualification. This allows experienced captains, through additional modules and an assessment by MI examiners, to obtain an Unlimited CoC restricted to Yachts.
Below is a summary of the main differences.
MCA Master Yachts <3000gt
- 21 weeks education and short courses
- Minimum 60 months sea service – including 8 months of bridge wathckeeping
- Cost approx. €25,000
MI Master (Yachts) Unlimited – including MCA Master Yachts <3000gt
- 31 weeks of education and short courses,
- Minimum 72 months sea-service – including, 8 months of bridge watchkeeping, and 12 months served as a Master on a yacht >500GT
- Cost approx. €40,000
MCA Master Unlimited – following the HNC/HND experienced seafarer route
- 61 (college) + 13 (home study) a total of 74 weeks of education and short courses
- Minimum 60 months sea-service, including 24 – 36 months of bridge watchkeeping, and 6 months watch keeping duties prior to OOW
- Cost approx. €25,000
Of course, there will be additional expense for a MCA Master Unlimited due the course duration, loss of earnings and subsistence costs.
From Yacht to Unlimited
There is the MI Master (Yachts) Unlimited and, although a practical option for those with Yacht qualifications to upgrade, there are some considerations. So far, the Cayman Islands are the only Administration to have recognised this CoC, the fleet of Yachts >3000gt is small, and the ‘Yacht’ restriction, further reduces its value compared to an Unlimited commercial CoC.
Unfortunately, the MCA don’t make it easy. A Yacht captain, irrespective of experience, still must start at the beginning with an Unlimited OOW, followed by Chief Mate Unlimited before Master Unlimited. Due to time/cost considerations, this only makes sense for those who make the decision to follow the commercial pathway early in their career or, already have an STCW OOW or Chief Mate Unlimited, and wish to upgrade.
There are other Administrations, such as AMSA in my example below, who also have their own pathways. But these are generally based on STCW.
Interestingly, there is a growing number of deck crew, especially those working on the larger yachts, who are choosing the commercial route, it certainly provides them with better career opportunities, including commercial shipping, harbour Pilotage, ferries, as well as shore-based employment with a Class Society, Flag Administration or insurance company.
Whatever pathway you choose to Master Unlimited, there will be a cost and no guarantee of the returns. You might have to accept work as a 2nd officer or chief officer to gain the relevant large yacht experience. And, the reality is that, as mentioned, the Yacht >3000gt fleet is small so opportunities are limited, and you will be competing against commercial officers and captains who have now made yachting their home.
My Own Journey
Late in my career I embarked on my own journey to Master Unlimited. I had earned my OOW Unlimited working for BP Shipping before yachting and with that and my sea service on yachts (all Private) I was accepted into the Chief Mate Unlimited/Master Unlimited pathway with AMSA, the Australian Maritime Safety Agency.
The process involved attending college full-time for almost 10 months in Fremantle, Australia, for my Chief Mate Unlimited. This was an experience, as I was, let me say, a more mature student, and my classmates were all about 20 years younger, with relevant commercial experience; I was that ‘white boat captain’ a bit of a novelty! I was certainly self-conscious of that from the outset. However, what became clear was that, as seafarers, ultimately, we face the same maritime challenges, and whether a ‘white boat’, box boat, tanker, or anchor handler, there was much similarity and we all benefited from the different experiences we brought to the classroom.
On obtaining my Chief Mate Unlimited I then returned to sea to earn another 12 months of sea service necessary to sit my Master Unlimited orals exam. This was not easy as AMSA required sea service on vessels over 3000gt for Master Unlimited (they were supposed to reduce this to 500gt but Australian politics intervened). Fortunately, my industry connections came to the rescue and I found myself as Chief Officer on Katara then Eclipse where I obtained the bulk of the sea service required. I then returned to Fremantle for a months prep before successfully passing the oral exam and becoming Master Unlimited.
So, starting with an OOW Unlimited to becoming a Master Unlimited, took nearly 3 years and I had already worked for nearly 20 years as a yacht captain. And, the the cost of taking a significant amount of time off, leaving a good job with loss of earnings, living expenses, college fees, etc., all mounted up.
So how was my own return on investment?
If I’m brutally honest, the financial rewards have not been great. However, for me, the sense of achievement, professional pride, my greater knowledge and understanding, and the experiences gained from my time served on Yachts >3000gt, have been a far more important measure of success than the monetary cost.
For those starting their career, it is worth considering the MCA or, equivalent, Commercial qualification pathway. This will provide you with the greatest flexibility and broader range of opportunities in the future. And not just at sea, there are many related industries who value a Master Unlimited qualification.
Unfortunately, until the MCA change their qualification standards and pathways, the choice is limited for experienced yacht officers/captains who want to serve on Yachts >3000g. The options are, the MI Master Yachts (Unlimited) or, the MCA Unlimited or, other Administrations, Commercial pathways.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that there are some amazing yacht Owners and yachts below 3000gt and that bigger, is not always better – they come with challenges and differences that may not suit. Think carefully about the time and cost involved and your career goals. And, find time to speak to those who have already trodden the path…