Motor Cruiser Owner’s Guide - Part 1

The first part of our motor cruiser owner’s guide takes you through the steps involved in getting to know your new motor cruiser. Read on for more info on training, how to prepare your boat before sailing and a checklist for when out at sea.

fairline motor cruiser at speed


All skippers should have a sound understanding of boat handling, navigation and meteorology. If you have recently bought a motor cruiser only you will know if you need to improve your skills or brush up on your navigation before you venture out to sea. Take it step by step and have as much fun as possible as you build up your skills. Here are just a few examples of elementary questions you should be able to answer in the early stages:

    • Can I do an engine check?

motor cruiser engine during an engine check
  • Can I spot a potential engine problem before it is too late?

  • Can I prepare a passage plan for a day trip?

  • Can I plot a course to my next port of call?

  • Can I manoeuvre my boat out of a crowded marina with a strong tide running?

  • Do I know the meanings of all the channel markers?

  • What does a North Cardinal mark look like and what does it mean?

  • What is the significance of a buoy with a yellow light?

  • Do I have to give way to a sailing boat on a port tack?

  • Do I have a VHF Short Range Certificate (SRC) ?

  • What channel should I be monitoring for the Coastguard?

  • Do I know how to convert a magnetic compass course to true?

  • Can I plot an estimated position if my GPS fails?

  • How are my meteorological skills - do I know how to read a pressure chart?

  • How much chain will I to need to let out when anchoring in 5 metres of depth?

  • A crew member falls seriously ill when I am out at sea, what do I do?

How to avoid potential risks

The great thing about boating is that like many pastimes you can build up your skills and experience over time. If you are aware of your limitations then you can plan accordingly and avoid potential risks.

One of the best ways to reduce risk at sea is to be properly trained. There is a range of Royal Yachting Association (RYA) motor cruiser and motor cruiser training courses that will help get you started and enable you to build on your experience all the way from handling small, single-engine motor cruisers to large twin engine motor cruisers. You can use the courses to progress towards RYA/MCA Certificates of Competence which are recognized worldwide.

The RYA training scheme

rya training centre logo

The RYA Powerboating courses are designed for operating small powerboats such as RIBs and sports boats. The courses start with basic boat handling at Level 1, through Level 2, Intermediate and Advanced, at which stage you will be able to drive by day and night in unfamiliar waters in demanding conditions.

RYA Motor Cruising courses are designed for both novices and more experienced skippers looking to improve their skills. The training is usually done on large twin engined, live aboard motor cruisers and progresses through three main stages - Helmsman, Day Skipper and Coastal Skipper.

motor boat training illustration

RYA Motor Cruising – Helmsman

The Helmsman course is for those with little or no experience and covers basic boat handling, engine checks and safety procedures. The course runs for two days after which students will be competent to handle a motor cruiser in sheltered waters.

RYA Motor Cruising - Day Skipper

The Day Skipper courses consist of a shore based theory course followed by a practical course at sea with a minimum duration of 4 days.

The theory course is taught over 40 hours and covers coastal navigation, pilotage, chart work, weather forecasting, collision regulations, safety procedures and more. This course can be done either online or in a training school classroom. Either way it requires students to put in a fair amount of homework and fitting this in to an already busy schedule can be quite challenging. There are two exams at the end of the course.

Once you have passed the theory course, then you will be ready to move on to the Day Skipper practical course out on the water. The aim of the practical course is to learn navigation, pilotage, seamanship and large motor cruiser handling up to the level required to skipper a motor cruiser by day safely and competently. This really is the minimum skill level you should be aiming for as a new owner of a large motor cruiser.

RYA Motor Cruising - Coastal Skipper

The next step up is a more demanding practical course that you might consider doing once you can handle your boat with confidence in calm conditions close to the shore. The Coastal Skipper course will stretch your abilities and covers more advanced pilotage, boat handling and how to deal with emergency situations.

You will also learn how to prepare a detailed pilotage plan by day and night, advanced weather forecasting, how to handle a motor cruiser in heavy weather and strong winds.

VHF Radio Short Range Certificate (SRC)

Anyone who operates a VHF radio is required by law to have a Short Range Certificate. The RYA administer one day courses which includes a practical and written exam. The course covers radio operation, use of frequencies and channels, emergency procedures, Digital Selective Calling (DSC), Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), Emergency Position indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB) and Search and Rescue (SART).

In summary

motor yacht leaning into a turn in open water

Getting to know a large motor cruiser takes time and there is a lot to learn. Be prepared to spend as much time as it takes to master berthing techniques in windy conditions and get used to manoeuvring in and out of crowded marinas. Practise man overboard drills and anchoring techniques with your crew. The whole learning process is part of the enjoyment and if you can manage your expectations then there will be less chance of finding yourself in a potentially risky situation at sea. In summary:

  • If you have limited boating experience, personal skill advancement is critical.

  • Research the RYA training scheme and book yourself onto a RYA motor cruising course for your skill level.

  • If you don’t hold a VHF licence, also book a RYA VHF radio course (SRC) In the early stages, plan a number of short day trips rather than a major cruise.

  • Use check lists to ensure that you are well prepared and avoid potential risks.

  • Practise your boat handling skills.

  • Make safety your top priority at sea.

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