James Wood gets to grip with navigation, passage planning, tides, buoyage, Colregs and more on his RYA Day Skipper Theory course

There was no getting out of the RYA Day Skipper Theory course; after six months’ applying the necessary elbow grease to get our Maxi 84 Maximus back on the water, it was time to learn to sail her properly… and that meant going back to school.

While I have a good number of years under my belt as ‘incompetent crew’, navigation was always something I left to the skipper.

Unfortunately, the skipper (my wife, Ali) wasn’t having any of it.

Sailing with our three young children meant she wanted us both to take a role in passage planning and pilotage.

A man teaching students on their RYA Day Skipper Theory course

RYA Shorebased courses are run in a friendly, informal manner where everyone can get involved. Credit: RYA

Next thing I knew, I was signed up for an RYA Day Skipper Theory course at Cobb’s Quay Marina in Poole, led by Powerboat Training UK.

It was time to brush up on my buoys, collision regulations, safety procedures and learn to safely get our Maxi 84 cruiser from A to B.

Run over 40 hours, the RYA Day Skipper Theory course is an intensive way to formalise your seamanship skills. It’s possible to take it online, but after 20 years out of the classroom, I decided to attend a class to help focus my mind and meet fellow sailors.

The intention is to follow up the theory with the Day Skipper Practical course, which concentrates more on boat-handling, including manoeuvring, wind awareness and emergency drills.

RYA Day Skipper Theory: Seamanship

It had been a decade since I crewed on cruiser-racers in Poole Harbour, and longer still since I cruised with Ali and my father-in-law on a GK24 and then a Morecambe Bay Prawner.

So on the first day of the course it was good to brush up on the different parts of the boat, and useful things like knots and the situations that each are most useful for.

We also discussed the principal of stability, and the considerations for anchoring successfully.

Collision Regulations

Day two introduced the Collision Regulations (the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea).

Beyond racing spats over right-of-way, my knowledge of the Colregs was scant.

In fact, I’d dangerously assumed that the stand-on vessel had actual ‘Right of Way’, which isn’t true.

Every vessel must take all reasonable precautions in order to avoid a collision, and this includes:

  • Maintaining a good look-out
  • Maintaining a safe speed
  • Assessing the risk of collision
  • Assessing and undertaking the required action to avoid collision .

Shapes and lights

Next up was day shapes, and in one of the more humorous moments of the week, we were told that a diamond between your balls always leads to a restricted ability to manoeuvre!

ABOVE: Night time lights for a vessel restricted in her ability to manoeuvre... BOTTOM: ... and balls and a diamond indicate the same thing during daylight

ABOVE: Night time lights for a vessel restricted in her ability to manoeuvre…
BOTTOM: … and balls and a diamond indicate the same thing during daylight

We also covered an almost exhaustive range of light signals for navigation at night.

And for anyone who has ever wondered, a flashing yellow light in addition to the white motoring light is for an air-cushioned vessel – or a hovercraft to you and I.


I’ve always found charts fascinating, beautiful… and impenetrable.

The RYA Day Skipper Theory course spends a lot of time unravelling some of the mystery around chart reading.

I was amazed to learn that the RYA has developed a set of remarkably detailed, but fictional charts specifically for their courses.

Their reasoning is that they can include all likely scenarios within a condensed chart area, and as a fictional area there’s no chance that they make it onto the water and mislead confused sailors!

Continues below…

As a keen walker I was familiar with contours for depth as opposed to height.

Beyond that, it was a relief to learn how to take a fix from chart landmarks, how to plot a course while allowing for the tide and the adjustment that needs to be made to account for true and magnetic north.

The charts make for a great resource to learn the principles of using a Portland plotter and dividers, in order to fix your position and plot a course to steer; incredibly useful when your course takes you far too close to the shore for comfort, once you have calculated the tidal stream.

Passage planning & tides

Armed with my new-found knowledge of charts and navigation it was time to put it into practice with some passage planning.

We were also thrown into the figurative deep end of tidal streams, diamonds and drift, while navigating in the fictional Beaufort Bay.

Using the RYA Training Charts 3 and 4, our first few attempts were error laden, with all of our group managing to plot a course straight across Jinks Bluff en-route to Whale Bay.

Course instructor Robin went on to explain the difference between using an Estimated Position (EP) and plotting a Course-to-Steer, allowing us to successfully plot a passage from one point to another, using the skills we had picked up on the course.

We were also introduced to the principles of tidal planning:

  • Calculating safe times to enter or leave a port
  • Where to anchor safely
  • How to use tidal tables
  • Using tidal streams from an almanac
  • The effect of spring and neap tides
  • How to calculate tidal range over time

It’s fair to say my head was spinning after these sessions, but putting the theory into practice during some practical exercises really helped establish the principles.

Safety and emergency procedures

I found this topic the most difficult in a classroom setting, because of the number of new acronyms and new technology and probably also the lack of context.

Looking back over my notes I realise that very little of the pre-voyage boat checks and emergency procedures had sunk in!

It was a lot of ground to cover. We initially went through the different safety considerations, from technology such as EPIRB, AIS and radar to the merits of laser and pyrotechnic flares.

Later we went through the onboard practical safety checks you should carry out before embarking on a passage, such as the engine and fuel checks and updating the logbook and entering any waypoints into navigation software.

All good stuff, I think you’ll agree, but I’ll defer to the philosopher Confucius here, and try to learn these elements when on the Day Skipper Practical course: ‘What I hear, I forget. What I see, I remember. What I do, I understand.’


I remember the first time my father-in-law taught me about buoyage; always keep the green cones to starboard, and red cans to port… unless you’re heading out of a port, or you’re in America where it’s completely reversed. Argh!

Add the fact that I always confuse east and west cardinals, and the thought of being tested on buoys gives me the kind of cold sweats that I remember from exams.

A chart showing buoyage at sea

An illustration demonstrating the IALA ‘A’ buoyage system. Buoyage can be tricky to learn, but is vital for safe passage

I thought that was bad, but then I was asked to interpret the notations after a mark on the chart, as follows: Fl. WRG 3s 15m 9-6M.

My heart sank, but it’s testament to Robin’s instruction, that I can now tell you that this denotes a lighthouse that flashes White, Red Green every 3 seconds.

The light is 15m above high water, and can typically be seen from 6-9 miles away.

The weather

Our instructor, Robin, wisely decided to delegate an explanation of how weather systems work to the BBC’s Kate Humboldt, via the documentary Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey.

We covered an excellent overview of how weather systems are brought into being, as well as the principle of the gravity and the Coriolis effect.

A nmap showing the areas of the weatherforecast

Map of Sea Areas and Coastal Weather Stations referred to in the Shipping Forecast. The weather stations are included in the extended Shipping Forecasts on BBC Radio 4 at 0048 and 0520 local time
each day. Credit: Emoscopes/CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia

Furthermore, we covered the ins and outs of the shipping forecast, as well as locating the more accurate local forecast resources when in port.

RYA Day Skipper Theory evaluation

There are two 90-minute exam papers to take at the end of the Day Skipper course:

  • A navigation paper testing the principles learned during the week
  • A more general theory paper covering things such as buoyage, safety, Colregs and other practical aspects of the course. The papers are to help the instructor judge whether you’re ready for the practical courses, and the course work you’ve done so far also plays a part in this, so don’t worry if you get nervous over written exams.


The course has proved invaluable in giving me greater confidence in taking Maximus out.

Robin was knowledgeable and approachable, and it was great to meet fellow boaters.

A man holding a certification

James Wood: proud to have gained his RYA Shorebased Day Skipper certificate

To find an RYA centre near you, visit rya.org.uk/training/courses

■ Thanks to Powerboat Training UK, www.powerboat-training-uk.co.uk

Move to digital charts

The UKHO’s announcement to withdraw from paper chart production by 2030 has hastened the development of a more digitally enriched RYA Day Skipper theory course.

Since April 2023 the course gives greater balance between paper and digital techniques.

The RYA is looking to move to a digital first approach, using digital information and equipment where appropriate, with paper being the fall-back until such a time when digital-only is a reality.

As some chart manufacturers have stated that they will continue to produce charts beyond 2030, paper techniques will still be relevant for a number of years to come.

RYA Day Skipper Theory Syllabus

  • Basics: General seamanship; parts of the boat; tying up alongside; preparation for sea; knots and tacking.
  • Navigation: Using charts; depth contours’ three-point fix; plotting a course to steer allowing for tidal set and drift; position fixing by various means and estimated position, taking into account tidal set and drift.
  • Tidal streams: Plotting courses to steer and estimating position; using a tidal diamond table and the tidal stream atlas to work out the tidal set and drift for various times of day and compensating for spring and neap tides.
  • Passage planning: An introduction to planning short daytime passages using waypoints and visual aids.
  • Tidal heights: Working out the height of tide for entering ports, crossing shallows and avoiding grounding; using the tidal height tables, allowing for springs and neap tides; basic secondary port calculations, allowing for time differences.
  • Collision regulations: Collision avoidance; the correct lights to use; how to identify types of vessels from their lights; how to recognise a vessel by its day shapes, and what day shapes to use for various situations; sound signals and their uses.
  • Electronic navigation: Using onboard electronic equipment such as chartplotters; depth/wind instruments and more.
  • Weather: Causes of weather systems; reading and taking into account present and future weather forecasts; understanding weather charts and sources of weather information.
  • Buoyage: How to recognise buoys by their shape and colour; action to take when approaching.
  • Safety: Using liferafts and lifejackets; how to handle and use flares; types of firefighting equipment and fire prevention; how to make Mayday calls and ways of making other vessels aware there is a Mayday situation.

Enjoyed reading How to pass your RYA Day Skipper Theory course?

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