RYA electronic chart training has missed the boat

The near-universal shift by small boat sailors from paper to electronic charts has left the Royal Yachting Association’s training courses floundering in recent years.

That was underlined when Admiralty, owned by the UK Hydrographic Office and one of the world’s gold standard official chart brands, said in July that it will stop selling paper charts altogether by the end of 2026.

The RYA’s response was that it would “continue to teach both traditional and electronic navigational techniques through its range of courses, although over time it is right to expect the weight of emphasis to shift towards more digitally based techniques.”

I’m afraid that’s a bit late. Implying that the shift is in the future is wrong. It has already happened and it’s been obvious for years which way the wind has been blowing.

The Golden Globe race is a trial of old skills, and its ban on satellite navigation makes it stand out – a living museum of navigation

The first signs of the shift to electronics actually arrived many years ago when ships were first allowed to abandon paper, and worldwide sales of paper charts soon started to plummet.

But in the small boat world, the RYA reaction until recently was to make excuses about why it could not start systematically training candidates on day skipper and yachtmaster courses in the use of electronic charts. People were given some instruction and tips about safe use of electronic charts but were basically left to pick up for themselves how to operate a real chartplotter.

It was only in January this year that the RYA announced it was hiring a new training manager to tackle these issues after a two year gap in filling the position, and results are still awaited.

You only need to read the RYA’s training publications and syllabuses to see that this modernisation should have started a long time ago. Then compare with a book such as Stress Free Navigation by Duncan Wells (Adlard Coles), which teaches the old methods alongside the new, and you can see how the RYA has missed out.

This month the RYA strategic report said that it had “begun on modernising” shorebased navigation courses, and the review would run into 2023. Details would begin to roll out to instructors and training centres later this year. The word ‘begun’ at this stage of the electronic revolution on boats rather stands out.

The strongest argument the RYA used over the years for not upgrading training in electronic charts was that there was no uniformity among leisure chartplotter systems, so it was impossible to teach how to use them in a coherent way. That now seems to reveal a lack of determination, ingenuity and ambition.

Another rather legalistic argument was that leisure charts are not currently approved for navigation by maritime authorities (see the warnings when you open your charts). But again, things have moved on: everyone does use them, and that includes many fishing boats and small commercial craft. The ‘not for navigation’ warning is a problem that needs solving by higher leisure chart production standards, and it will be in the next few years.

Another thought I heard expressed at the top of the RYA was that if you encourage electronic navigation by bringing it to the forefront of training you’d undermine the all-important teaching of traditional navigation. In the extreme, you’d end up with people who do not have a clue what to do if their electronics fails, and – horror of horrors – they might even be doing it all on a phone app.

But as a Royal Institute of Navigation survey three years ago found, most leisure sailors by then already relied mainly on electronic charts, paper had become largely a backup, and few even bothered to correct their paper charts any more, because electronic charts can be updated frequently and reliably.

That was a survey of experienced members (I remember filling it in). I would guess that the younger and less experienced were by then automatically gravitating to apps, the internet and electronic navigation because that’s how most people under 40 live their lives. If you take up sailing, where’s the first place you search for advice? Maybe U-tube? You’d find plenty of material about modern navigation methods and you would already be entirely accustomed to relying on electronics.

Before going any further, I have to say I am strongly in favour of learning traditional methods alongside electronic navigation, for a variety of good reasons which I’ve set out in the new updated edition of Pass Your Day Skipper (out in the New Year from Adlard Coles).

But given the ease and cheapness with which multiple independently powered back up systems can be brought on board (think laptops, tablets and mobile phones) the much-repeated threat that you must learn the old methods or you’d be lost if your batteries failed is now rather lame. The stronger case for learning both methods is much less dramatic: they are complementary, and each helps to better understand and use the other safely.

A modernised chart table on an old boat – ours. Two raster charts are being tested on tablets (Imray and VMH’s UKHO charts). The ancient Garmin GPS is still working and is connected to the DSC radio. The main chartplotter uses C-Map vector charts and is installed in front of the wheel in the cockpit.

There will be more to say on the consequences of Admiralty’s abandonment of paper charts in subsequent posts.

January – RYA training upheaval, and ending an electronic chart nonsense

The small craft navigation conference in Cowes at the end of January heard that the RYA is finally promising to overhaul its outdated Day Skipper and Yachtmaster shore-based courses.

The conference was also told that there is to be a concerted attempt to abolish that annoying legal disclaimer on all our electronic charts that they are “not for navigation.”  As soon as we switch on a pop-up appears with this message, often with a line underneath saying that only paper charts must be used, which of course almost everybody ignores.

First, the RYA: any novice has noticed for years when boarding a cruising or racing boat that most navigation is electronic and paper charts are relegated to backup. Surveys of skippers have proved that. 

The approach of RYA shore-based courses has been like getting into a car with full satnav, and being told not to switch it on but instead to dig out the AA road map from under the back seat.

After a 2 year gap without a manager for the Day Skipper and Yachtmaster shore-based courses, an executive has now been hired, and the promise is that course improvements will be a high priority this year. A better integration of training for electronic charting and traditional navigation is long overdue. More on that another time.

Second, that warning notice on our charts: it has become a joke, but it’s no laughing matter. It reflects some real quality and standards issues affecting leisure charts, which is why official hydrographic bodies will not licence their data to publishers unless they use the disclaimer. This is also the legal position, because under international maritime law only official charts from hydrographic offices are recognised.

Many fishing boats use the same charts as yachts

That’s not a problem to worry about if you are a leisure sailor on a modest size yacht. But it is an issue for large numbers of small commercial vessels, including fishing boats and indeed for sail training yachts and large private yachts.

They are all under that same restrictive legal umbrella, but they mostly ignore it and use cheap leisure electronic charts anyway, because official electronic charts and equipment are so expensive. In theory they are supposed to navigate only on paper, but the law is honoured only in the breach.

The Royal Institute of Navigation, whose small craft group organised the conference, is now leading an attempt to get something done about it.

The plan is to seek minimum standards for leisure charts and chart plotters. This would be in the hope of improving them to the point at which there can be some form of official recognition, and removal of the warning.

The RIN has involved the RYA, the Cruising Association, the Marine and Coastguard Agency, the UKHO, the Marine Accidents Board, the RNLI, chart publishers, equipment firms and various other interests. The focus is a new Pleasure Vessel Navigation Systems Working Group, reporting to the UK Safety of Navigation Committee, which is under the MCA.

There is no plan to set detailed specifications – attempts to do that for the fishing industry in the UK and similar projects in Denmark and Italy failed. Instead, standards would be developed setting out what the charts should do and the functions equipment must contain in order to be approved. Manufacturers and publishers would find their own way of meeting these standards.

For example, some measure of underlying accuracy should be available, as it is on official ship charts and on Admiralty paper charts, where survey age is shown. You then know if the last survey was in 1930 or thereabouts (or indeed 1849, a contributory cause to an oil rig grounding under tow in the Orkneys in 2006).

One proposal is a much simpler traffic light system, with the colours related to the reliability of the information, including survey date.

Other issues include clear separation between crowd-sourced feedback and more rigorous survey information, which are in danger of getting mixed up in some chart brands.

Updating should also be reliable and easy. Shore features should be shown clearly on all charts, and there should be ways of drawing bearing lines from them, measured by the navigator and plotted onto screens to give a traditional fix.

Ideally, all electronic chartplotters should have a common default method of operation so anybody can switch boats and still work the plotter. That is the case with ship electronic systems, but it’s a long way from being taken seriously by leisure chartplotter makers.

The objective is to make leisure chart standards high enough to allow that disclaimer to be removed – and while it may be asking too much for international authorities to accept it, perhaps it will be known instead as the RIN standard.

It will not be simple or quick to achieve, and there are legal obstacles, too – where would liability end up if a faulty leisure chart causes an accident? But that warning as we switch on is a technical issue of real importance.

After a scrub

Meanwhile, on Spring Fever: We took the boat out of the water at the Kingston yard in Cowes for an insurance survey at the end of January. The boat turns out to be basically fine, but we’ve decided to preempt what will probably be an instruction from the  insurance company anyway: we’ll replace the standing rigging, now in its 14th year.

…and a phone to steer her by

Mobiles have had a bad press as navigational tools, but if I were forced to choose one single piece of electronics to take to sea it would be my phone. That’s not a popular view among professionals.

Instructors, coastguards and rescue services learn of many cases where boat owners, especially of powerful motor yachts and RIBs, set off for the open sea with nothing beyond a chart app on a mobile phone, and no knowledge of the underlying skills needed to navigate safely. For the Royal Yachting Association, mobiles are well down the list of recommended priorities, because of the risk that they will be used badly. Textbooks give stern warnings that you must not use them for navigation.

Continue reading “…and a phone to steer her by”

New Brexit chaos for yachts

Just when most yacht owners thought they had understood the impact of Brexit, the government has changed the rules on Value Added Tax, with expensive consequences for some.

Last year there were assurances that, after Brexit, a yacht that has been away from the UK on a long term cruise, typically a few years in the Mediterranean, would not have to pay VAT on returning.

Now it looks as if many will have to pay up, even if the boat was bought VAT-paid in the UK before it left – in other words, owners could find themselves paying VAT twice on the same boat. The second charge would be based on its market value at the time of its return.

Needless to say, cruising yacht forums are full of anger and anxiety, though this is not an issue that will get much sympathy anywhere else because yacht owners are not exactly an under privileged minority.

However, many are far from rich, living aboard on tight budgets for much of the year, often after retirement – ‘fulfilling their dreams’ as the yachting magazines love to put it – a far cry from the superyacht owners everybody hates (who in any case probably arrange their affairs so they do not pay European or UK VAT). And while it is very much a minority problem, how many other much more important parts of the economy are being hit by similar administrative chaos 10 weeks ahead of final departure from the EU?

Both the Royal Yachting Association and the Cruising Association are rather desperately seeking clarity from the government. The Treasury’s position seems to be that under EU rules we already charge VAT on a returning yacht after an absence of more than 3 years. It has decided this will continue to be part of the UK rulebook after Brexit.

But until now the practice has been to suspend the rule in many cases, by exempting private yachts that come back after more than 3 years, as long as they are under the same ownership and have had no substantial upgrades (eg a new engine). In these circumstances, the VAT charge has not been levied. The latest indications are that this concession may go.

Just as alarming for many people, the government has changed the point at which the clock starts on the 3 VAT-free years. Last year the RYA was told that a boat currently kept in an EU-27 country such as France or Greece would be treated as if it had left the UK at the point the UK itself finally leaves the EU ie at the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020. That would give a full 3 years to get back.

Now departure has been redefined as the point at which the boat physically left the UK. Any boat already kept abroad for more than 3 years will be liable to VAT if it returns to the UK after 1 January 2021. This led to howls of protest from the RYA and a promise that there would be an extra year – but no clarity about what that meant.

Would it allow a yacht that has already been abroad more than 3 years another year up to the end of 2021 to come home VAT free? Or would it just add one year to the 3 year grace period, so a yacht that has been away 4 years or less will not pay VAT after 1 January next year, but one that has already been away 4 years and a month will pay?

There’s another set of EU rules that make this even more onerous, if the UK imports them into its own post-Brexit system after we leave, as it seems to be doing with the 3 year rule.

Currently, as long as the importer of a yacht is not an EU resident, the yacht can be temporarily imported for up to 18 months without paying VAT. But if the importer is an EU resident, VAT becomes payable on arrival. (Nationality of the importer and registration country of the yacht are irrelevant – it is the country of tax residence of the importer that matters).

In the past, the UK has taken a tough line on this, with no grace period, though there has been at least one exception among EU countries – Greece in the past certainly allowed a month. If the rule is kept by the UK after Brexit, and applied strictly, it would be risky for a UK resident yacht owner to call in for a day at home in a yacht that has been abroad more than 3 years. The VAT would be chargeable immediately.

The rule seems to be aimed at stopping UK residents keeping their yachts VAT-free in tax havens such as the Channel Islands but using them in the UK – an obvious tax loophole if it were left open.

In fact Spring Fever was first registered in Guernsey in 1988. We have the VAT certificate to prove it was paid when the boat was imported into the UK a few years later, a vital document we guard carefully, especially in these new circumstances. With the first owner on the documentation shown as being a Guernsey resident, we may well be asked to prove VAT has been paid.