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Jan. 18, 2022

Gain Confidence on the Water with Private Training

There is a growing trend toward boat owners seeking professional instruction from a licensed captain.


While you need a driver’s license to operate a car throughout America, only one state (Alabama) requires some boaters to have a license to drive a boat. In many other states, residents must complete a boating-safety certification course before they take a boat out on the water, but these courses typically do not include a hands-on driving component. As a result, some new boat owners are learning how to operate their vessels on their own.

With the recent rise in boating activity coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the need for on-the-water training also is growing proportionately. Many professional captains report receiving a surge in referrals from boat dealers in their area looking for a training resource to recommend to customers who are new to boating.

“It’s especially true for customers with families. They don’t want to put their children in danger,” said Capt. Mike LaNeve, chief operating officer of At the Helm Training, which offers private instruction by professional captains to boaters in Florida and various other locations throughout the U.S.

“Boat accidents were up 26 percent in 2020 over 2019,” LaNeve continued, citing the U.S. Coast Guard’s 2020 Recreational Boating Statistics report. “The whole idea behind At the Helm Training is to help boaters prevent avoidable accidents.”

In some regions, group or individual classes are available that offer training by licensed captains in boats maintained by the school. BoatClass®, which Brunswick Corporation, parent company to Mercury Marine, launched last year in Jacksonville and Melbourne, Florida, is a good example. But not every new boater has a class like this located nearby. That is one reason behind the growing trend toward boaters requesting training by a captain on board their own boat.

In response, in February 2022, BoatClass will begin offering a new course called “BoatClass on My Boat” at its Melbourne location.

Capt. Don Doggett, founder of Sea Safaris Sailing School in the Great Lakes region, and his team of captains primarily taught sailing classes before the pandemic. But when new-boat dealer referrals started pouring in, they began offering private powerboat training as well.

“Last year, we had a record number of clients who wanted custom training aboard their own boats. Typically, they were new boaters with brand-new boats with complicated systems who needed help via on-the-water training,” he said.

Doggett reports that another group of clients requesting training on board their own vessels comprises people new to boating who have purchased a large yacht, rather than a traditional entry-level-sized boat, that they want to insure.

“There are some new boaters who want that big-powerboat experience right away. They want to learn on what they purchased, and they want to have fun with it,” Doggett said. “We had one couple who bought a beautiful Cruisers Cantius 50, and it was their first boat. They applied for boat insurance, but because they were so new, and because of the size and expense of the boat, the insurance company said they could not drive their own boat.”

Doggett’s associate, Capt. Mike Bauman, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master Captain Near Coastal license, prepared a 25-hour course covering everything from docking and maneuvering the boat to preparing for a long-distance cruise. “The couple was extremely happy,” Doggett said.

When looking for private instruction in your own boat, it is important not only to work with a licensed captain, but also to ensure that the training program is based on a standardized, written curriculum based on an accredited source. If you are looking to qualify for boat insurance, also be sure to ask your insurance agency in advance whether the training will satisfy its requirements.

At the Helm Training offers two courses conducted on board its clients’ boats by one of its 40-plus U.S.C.G.-licensed captains. Owner Operator Training is a multi-day course for owners of larger boats with complex systems, approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The program typically runs for two to five days. “On the larger boats, we train the mates, spouses and children on how to support the captain as well,” LaNeve said.

Boat Operations Training is a four-hour course primarily offered for owners of boats under 35 feet. While the course, which covers the basics of boating, is offered to everyone in the family, LaNeve said, “Our number-one group of clients for the four-hour course is women. Husbands come to us and say, ‘My wife wants to learn how to operate our boat but would like a professional captain to teach to her.’”

Whatever the reason boaters decide to seek private training in their boat, they always find the experience to be rewarding.

“It’s amazing to see people go from knowing nothing to being proficient on their boat. If you feel confident operating the boat in different conditions, you will use your boat more,” LaNeve said. “The whole goal is that they won’t need us in the future.”

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