How to Get a Sailing License: A Step-by-Step Guide To Obtaining an ASA Certification

You want to hit the open ocean and leave it all behind for a while, and this is the right place to get your preliminary information so that you can do that.

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You need a sailing license to use your sailboat or operate a powerboat, but it’s not as simple as that.

There are a lot of gray blurs in between the black and white lines, and they vary depending on what state you reside in.

Certain states have extremely strict laws on boating licenses and operation, and even stricter laws on penalties from operating them unlawfully, as well as higher insurance costs and settlements for damages incurred while operating said vessel.

It all gets pretty confusing, but we’re here to strip away all the confuzzling elements and give you clear and concise guidance on what to do.

First thing you should know is that there are basically three different types of licenses you can apply for. Each serve their own purpose, and if you are using an insufficient license or certification to operate a higher tier vessel, you can get in serious trouble.

Simply knowing how to sail properly isn’t enough.

So, if you’d like to learn how to get a sailing license, read on.

Different Types of Sailing Licenses

Sailing Certificate

American Sailing Association Certificates

Agencies like the American Sailing Association can issue certificates to state that you’re competent enough to sail vessels up to a certain size, with a limited amount of passengers or crew.

This is the most basic certification that you need to sail anything beyond a kayak or canoe, and is recommended before you take your own boat out on the water.

A boating certificate can also be a prelude to gaining one of the two additional license types that we’re about to talk about.

Captain’s License

Captains Credentials In Hand

Want to captain a vessel with passengers?

You’ll need this if there’s going to be a maximum of six passengers on your boat.

You may see this referenced as an OUPV license, or a “6-pack” license, but they are all the same thing.

This license gives you the ability to sail larger vessels (generally over 40 ft, which will require crew anyway so it’s a good idea to have a license that can sustain your capacity).

Master License

This allows you to sail vessels of nearly any size (non-commercial, so no freighters or anything like that) with over seven passengers.

This is the highest form of a citizen’s boating license that is available without extensive training or knowledge required.

With any boating license, you should always apply for the highest possible level that you can confidently earn.

If you have met the requirements, there’s no reason to go with a certificate when a master license is an option.

How To Get a Sailing License

Step 1: Document Sea Time

Document your time at sea

If it’s not your boat, that’s okay.

If you are a crew member on your friend’s or boss’s boat, that can count as time spent at sea.

The act of collecting all of your time at sea can be an egregious process, but is required when applying for your license (not just a certificate).

Time at sea does not count if you are moored or anchored, and does not count unless you have spent at least four hours out at sea for any given day.

If you are only a crew member for two hours on a Sunday, that experience is non-existent as far as your license is concerned.

You’ll also have to document that time on a form where the captain or license-holder can sign off on your time.

The good thing about this is that they only need to sign off once (before you go for your license presumably), because the information is only required per vessel, not individual voyage. This information, once signed, is valid for up to five years before it needs to be renewed.

Step 2: Get a Health Check

Health Check before sailing

If you aren’t in good health to operate a vessel, then you won’t be able to get your license.

You’ll need to fulfill a CG-719K medical form, which is essentially the most in-depth medical form available that will give all the necessary information when applying for a boating license.

You can fill out most of the information on your own, but this needs to be approved by your primary healthcare physician prior to applying for your boating license.

If there’s no doctor’s signature, it’s just a big list of self-made opinions on your health with nothing to sustain it.

Schedule a full physical with your doctor and let them know what you are doing. In some instances, your doctor may ask you to fax over the form (with the sections that you completed) to inspect it before your appointment, so they know exactly what to look for.

When your doctor signs off on something, that’s their reputation and education on the line, so they’ll want to explore it extensively.

That’s one of two major health-related aspects to getting your boating license. The other is called a five-panel drug test, which is similar to the same test that workplaces require you take.

This is the most extensive form of drug testing, and proof of compliance must be carried with you at all times in the form of a completion certificate or having it listed on your boating license.

The test must be completed within one year of applying for your boating license for it to be pertinent.

Step 3: Criminal Background Report

Criminal Background Reporting

If you’ve never heard about a TWIC card before, it’s time to learn.

It stands for Transportation Worker Identification Credential, which is a required form that was created by Homeland Security, and is issues by the TSA.

Your TWIC card states that you comply with the requirements of the United States Coast Guard in terms of safety and security while complying with maritime law.

This application process is fairly easy. You simply need to apply online (the form takes about fifteen minutes to complete), or you need to schedule an appointment and visit a local TWIC application center.

You’ll be required to bring along all necessary identification documentation, and anything else deemed necessary by the TSA (their requirements are constantly changing, so it’s a good idea to check out their website prior to filling out the application).

New applicants have to pay $125.25 for their license, and if you lose your card, it’s a $60.00 replacement fee.

This can be mailed directly to your home, and as with previously mentioned documentation, your TWIC card needs to be on you at all times while operating a vessel that requires a license.

Step 4: The Test and Application

Sailing test application

It’s all come down to this.

Gather everything that you need, and get ready to fill out the application for your specific license.

There are fees associated, there are requirements for submitting the information and medical exams that you’ve collected, but it’s all for naught if you can’t pass the test.

The test for each type of license is different. Ideally, you will immediately go for your master license without using the others as a stepping stone along the way.

When applying for your master license, you will have to pass a test on three of the following categories:

  • Deck General Knowledge
  • Rules of the Road
  • Coastal Navigation

In each of those categories, you need to meet a certain criteria of correct answers. This application process can take up to a couple of hours to complete depending on what license type you are going for.

For example, a master license will have many more questions and a more in-depth overlay of knowledge.

You need to reach 70% as a passing score in both deck general knowledge and coastal navigation, but you much reach at least 90% in the rules of the road section of the test.

If you went with an approved ASA school or another school, then you will receive an ASA certification of completion, which you will need to submit when you fully apply for your license after the examination is completed.

Once your examination is completed and all of your paperwork is in order, submit the full application for your license with everything attached.

You will either have to appear in person to the Coast Guard office if you did not go with an alternative approved sailing school, or you will have to submit your application via email.

The issue with this is that the Coast Guard servers only allow certain file sizes, and with modern photography and copiers, you’re likely submitting higher resolution imagery of your certificates than their servers are able to manage.

You may need to submit it in person.

Step 5: Waiting

Sailing Boat

You’ve finished it all and submitted everything: now you just have to wait for your license to show up in the mail.

This can take up to a week for everything to be reviewed and filed, and one to two more weeks for your license to be shipped out. If you submit your application for your license in person with a packet, it might actually take less time even than submitting it electronically.

You’re going to be excited when the license arrives, but before you hop onto your boat and sail away, pore over it very carefully.

You may not have received a master license, but instead a lower grade captain’s license, and this is very important to inspect prior to inviting all of your buddies out on the sailboat.

It’s also important to look over everything on your license and make sure it matches the paperwork you’ll be carrying with you out on the boat.

It’s all too common for a clerk to mess up an address or someone’s proper name spelling on a driver’s license, and with all this added information, can you imagine how many mistakes your boating license could potentially have?

Sailing License FAQ: Is ASA Certification Worth It?

All about sailing licenses:

Who Needs a Sailing License?

It depends on what state you live in.

We know that it’s an ambiguous answer, but this interactive chart will clear things up for you. Each state has different laws that can get a bit tricky to navigate around, but on average, you can use this as a guideline.

  • If you own anything that is capable of exerting more than ten horsepower through its motor, you will need a boat license of some sort.
  • If your vessel is over twelve feet long, you will need some sort of a permit for it. This can be applied to large kayaks and canoes as well.
  • If you plan to operate a vessel with passengers that are not included in the crew, you will need a license.
  • If you wish to captain any vessel at all, you need a license.

It is important to have all your bases covered prior to getting out on a boat.

It’s impossible to be penalized for having a license that greatly exceeds the maximum requirements for the craft you are on, which is why it is recommended to go for your master license instead of a certificate if you are eligible.

How Much Does it Cost to Get a Sailing License?

Cost of a ship licence

There’s a big variable at play, which is the course of your choosing.

There are hundreds of sailing schools all over the United States, each offering online course material as well as in-house classes and other teaching materials.

You can go with the United States Coast Guard course, but that’s going to be a lot more involved and require a ton of paperwork, as well as a waiting period.

If you wanted to, today, you could sign up for an online course and get started with all the preliminary knowledge to get your captain’s or master license.

Each school costs a different amount, and those that are accredited by the ASA are able to charge a lot more. While it’s a smoother process, they know what those courses are worth as they are guaranteed to meet specific guidelines.

You also have to think about what type of license you’re going for. You need more hours logged at sea for a master license than a simple certificate, and the time spent at sea could be costly in different ways.

Since you need to be at sea for four hours per session for it to count, you might be missing engagements, work, and spending money on food for the trip as well as upkeeping your sailing clothes and gear.

Those are the unseen costs that people don’t wrap up into the true price behind a sailing license.

However important this license is to you, and at what level, will determine how much time and money you’re willing to spend on it.

For fixed application fees, first-time TWIC card fees and other structured costs, wrapped up with an average sailing school price, you can expect to pay $1,500 for a sailing license over a relatively short period of time.

How Long Does it Take to Get a Sailing License?

It all depends on which license type your going for.

More hours will need to be logged at sea for a master license, and the course material/exam time is generally longer as well.

On average, this is how much time it takes per license type:

  • Certificate: Certificate programs can generally be achieved with four to six hours of coursework, a thirty minute exam, and one to two hours to study for said exam. These ar the most simple types of license to acquire.
  • Captain’s License: Courses may take from fifteen to twenty hours, exams may take up to one hour to complete, and the application process may only take approximately six hours to complete between paperwork and medical examinations.
  • Master License: Courses may take up to thirty hours to complete, exams may take up to three hours to complete, the application process (including medical exams and paperwork) may require an additional ten hours in varied situations.

What Type of Courses are Best to Prepare for my License Exam?

Sail Boat Experiences

So long as you have had previous hands-on experience on a sailboat, at least one time in your life, an online course can be an excellent way to prepare for your exam.

If you were to take an in-house course, you might be arriving from work, beaten and exhausted, or you’re moving around obligations in order to attend these expensive courses, and it’s just affecting more parts of your life.

Online courses offer the ability to pick it up and put it down whenever you want, generally for a similar cost to in-house courses. If you only have enough time to read or examine fifteen minutes of material, that is okay: you can come back to it.

If you’re not focusing enough because you’re exhausted from leading a hectic life, sitting in a classroom isn’t going to do you much good.

Online courses offer more freedoms, and the life on the information you learn is good for up to one year after the start of the course, so you don’t have to fulfill it all at once.

If it takes you a few months to finish your course, it is recommended to schedule a block of time to review that course in its entirety to brush up on knowledge prior to taking any exam.

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