Sailing in the UK

Information on the rules on boat licences and sailing permits, the sea safety recommendations, maritime weather and more, with details of the ports and harbours and links to local sailing associations...

The UK has many open sea, lake and river and canal areas suitable to all types of yachting and boating. The prevailing winds are well-suited to sail boating and yachting is very popular. The extensive canal system is also navigable.

The Royal Yachting Association (RYA) is the national body that oversees all forms of boating, including dinghy and yacht racing, motor and sail cruising, sports boats, powerboat racing, windsurfing, inland cruising as well as narrowboats, and personal watercraft using the vast canal network.

  • The RYA website is very comprehensive and a good place for information on recreational sailing in the UK: Click here

Sailing Clubs

Most people who sail regularly and proficiently are members of a club. A membership fee, usually charged annually, might allow the member things such as boat storage, rescue cover, entry into racing events, and access to the club house facilities and club social scene.

Find a club

There are numerous clubs in London, some with a focus on sail boating, others on motorboats, some on the inland waterways and some include it all.

  • The RYA website has a "find a club" search tool: Click here
  • The RYA also has an events guide to find out what's happening in an area: Click here

Sailing at Sea

Weather and tides play an important part in safe and pleasant sailing in UK waters.

  • For up-to-date wind, tide and weather warnings: Click here

No licence is required to own or operate a small pleasure sail craft (yacht, dingy or multi-hull) for non-commercial purposes. However, UK waters are busy, and there are complex and important regulations in place regarding safety, communications and right of way.

Safety and emergencies at sea

The Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA) is a government authority which manages maritime safety and coordinates search and rescue at sea through Her Majesty’s Coastguard. HM Coastguard can be called for help in an emergency in various ways depending on the type of craft, the communications onboard and the distance from shore.

In the case of a small craft just offshore, a mobile cellular telephone might be able to reach a signal. Otherwise send a voice Mayday or Pan-Pan message on VHF channel 16 (frequency 156.8MHz). Flares might also work but may not be seen and should not be used if a helicopter is overhead.

  • Tel: 999/112 and ask for the coastguard
  • Pan-Pan messages (for urgent but not life-threatening situations)
  • Mayday (for emergencies)

In all cases, the authorities require the following information:

  1. MMSI number and vessel name (spoken three times).
  2. Position.
  3. The nature of the situation (for example, “rig failure”).
  4. What/where the caller intends to do/go next.
  5. End a report with "over".

It's recommended that a pleasure craft be registered with HM Coastguards as this can help in case of an emergency.

  • For comprehensive guidance from the government: Click here
  • For the Maritime Coastguard (MCA) emergency information: Click here

Inland Boating

The UK has over 4,800 Km (3,000 miles) of inland waterways, most of which are maintained and managed by British Waterways, the Environment Agency (which manages the Thames, Medway, Royal Military Canal and Anglian river) and the Broads Authority.

The waterways are used for recreational boating as well as for moorings and passage of narrowboats. Many people live aboard these narrowboats (which may be bought or rented) and pay for a residential or temporary mooring.

Boat licencing

Boats must be licensed (to use British Waterways) or registered before being allowed to use these waterways. The boat must also pass an inspection (part of the Boat Safety Scheme) and be insured. Licence pricing varies depending on the size of the craft.

The boat skipper needs no specific training, certificate or permit to sail a craft for personal, non-commercial purposes.

  • Full details on rules and regulations from the RYA: Click here

Boating in London

As in much of the country, London has a web of waterways open to pleasure boaters - not least of which is the River Thames. The Environment Agency website has detailed information on where to sail, how to licence a boat and safety on the water.

Waterscape website has detailed information on where and how to hire or buy a boat in the London area, as well as route guides and recommendations of places to sail to and where to moor in the area.

Learning to Sail

With the right guidance it is relatively straightforward to pick up the basic skills needed in a few hours and to be cruising across the water in a week. The first of these steps should always be taken through a sailing club or a commercial sailing school offering RYA approved courses.

Motor boats

Personal Watercraft (PW), more commonly known as jet skis, Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIBs) and power boats can be hired and taken out along the coast in many parts of the UK. A licence is not required to drive a motor boat, however it's highly recommended that at least a one-day RYA training course is completed. The RYA certificates are recognised throughout Europe and much of the world. Many sailing schools and yacht clubs run regular RYA-certified courses.

  • For information on training and courses: Click here

Owning a Boat in the UK

Boats of all types - motor, sail and houseboats - are advertised for sale in newspapers, on websites and in the club houses of sailing clubs.

  • For comprehensive advice, refer to the RYA's website when considering buying a boat: Click here

It's recommended that before buying a larger, more expensive yacht the buyer acquires experience on another boat. Sailing club notice boards feature skippers looking for crew members for evenings and weekend sailing.

Importing a boat

Boats can be relatively easily imported to the UK from EU countries as there are some common safety and other standards in place. However importing a boat from outside the EU may be more complicated.

BIS, the government authority for Business Innovation & Skills has clear guidelines on buying or importing a new or second hand recreational craft within the EEA and EU-overseas territories; meanwhile the Hampshire City Council website has a section dedicated to importing a boat from outside the EEA:

Further Information

  • The website Sailing & Boating UK has much useful information on where to sail, safety information, regulations and organisations