The Truth About ASA Certification (Equal to Experience and Mastery?)

The problem is that students of sailing, looking to expand their skills and experience, often find themselves enrolled in American Sailing Association (ASA) certification classes that they are not truly qualified for. While they meet the pre-requisite requirements, they have not mastered the skills taught to them in earlier classes.

ASA certification does not make a sailor

Student’s mistake their successful completion of a previous course with experience. Mastery takes practice and experience takes time; two things that ASA classes can’t offer.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with many students that register to take Advanced Coastal Cruising (ACC106). The lack of preparedness is apparent at all levels of ASA classes but at the ACC106 level it can become down right dangerous.

Capt. Frank reviewing some marlinspike seamanship with a class
Capt. Frank reviewing some marlinspike seamanship with a class

ASA classes introduce and teach skills, but are in short duration and cannot build experience. The classes have specific standards that have to be taught and while each student learns and demonstrates those skills, the class must move on long before mastery can be achieved (heck they’re only two to three days long, mastery takes hundreds of repetitive actions). Following the successful completion of a class the student must spend time on the water practicing the skills learn and acquiring experience.

But I’ve completed each class successfully

I recently taught three classes, ranging from BKB101 to BKB101-BBC104. In all three cases the classes were in jeopardy due to a lack of wind. In the end we got enough breeze to be able to barely accomplish the standards. It was simply the way it was.

As a result of the conditions, my students received certification but have never sailed in more than about 8 knots of wind. Satisfy the standards? Yep. Prepared for the next level of certification? Not a chance.

In fact had we had a week, or even two, and had we had a wide range of weather conditions over that time frame, the students still would not truly be qualified to attempt further certification. Raising and lowering sails ten times and interpreting weather for eight or nine times just doesn’t build mastery. It’s a start though.

Look, students learn to sail because they want to enjoy the challenges and rewards of the activity. They want to get out on the water and enjoy the satisfaction of moving their boat without the aid of an engine. They love the peace and relaxation of the boat gliding through the water.

So, why are they so concerned with filling their logbooks with stickers?   I think that they return for additional certification because they simply don’t know what else to do.  They have never been told that they can simply hire an instructor and a boat and go out on the water for two or three days and improve their sailing.  Why haven’t they been told?  Well, maybe no one at the school ever thought about it.

Beyond filling a logbook with stickers

The original intent of the ASA’s program was for a student to learn new skills and then practice and enjoy those skills. After some time, maybe a sailing season, the student would be prepared to return to the “classroom” and learn a new set of skills.

That pattern of learning and then practicing would continue and the end result would be a well seasoned, informed, and thoughtful sailor. Continue that pattern through ACC106 and now, with some motivation and drive, the student might be a mariner–someone who’s decisions are made using experience and wisdom rather than by grabbing at some bits of knowledge that were crammed into their brain during an intense two to seven-day certification session.

How to gain actual sailing experience

The new sailor’s experience and confidence level would be much better served by booking a boat with an instructor and simply going sailing. That time should be spent running drills and reinforcing the skills that have been taught in the past.

The instructor should be looking for new challenges throughout the sail. Slaloming through crab pots might be one new challenge introduced. Traveling to a new marina and having the student pull into a different slip than they’re used to might be another.

The point of these sessions should be to reinforce existing skills, practice for mastery, and gain valuable on water experience.

With successful completion these drills will boast the new sailor’s confidence. All kinds of new situations will arise during the course of the day and with the instructor onboard, each turns into an educational practice session.

These sessions can range from a half-day sail to a week or more. There is so much to be learned and so much to be taught on a “trip” that cannot be duplicated by taking a class. A class, by its nature, is restricted in available time by the need to cover the course curriculum.

The advantage of this type of training is that all the emphasis is on gaining sailing experience and mastering sailing skills.  The student, while simply sailing, will put into practice what had only been theoretical understand in the classroom.  Throughout the day as problems are encountered, the student’s solutions to those problems will become part of their personal reservoir of experience.  And, the student will continue to reinforce the basic skills that everything else is built on by  sailing, doing drills, and experiencing life on the water.

The new sailor should also spend time on the water without an instructor. That time should not just be joy riding, but rather practicing.  What should be practiced?

Well, crew-overboard maneuvers come to mind. These maneuvers require a mastery and understanding of many skills in sailing. Sounds like a perfect drill session to me!

How about tacking and gybing up a channel? This drill requires the precise timing of the turns and teaches sailors to judge distance and learn how maneuver the boat with a measurable goal—to get up the damn channel.

So who’s to blame for the new sailor being in this situation?

I think that some of the blame lies with the instructors that taught the new sailor previous courses. An honest critic of the student’s skill level at that time may prompt many to seek out additional training or practice.

It is very hard to fail a student. Instructors feel pressure on them, often self-inflected, to pass students. They don’t want to hurt the feelings of a struggling student. They don’t want the student to get resentful and go to another school (that hurts the school and the instructor financially), and they don’t want to jeopardize their chances of receiving a gratuity. They do want the student to feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. After all, by the end of a class or classes, they have built a relationship and they want that to continue.

A lot of the blame falls on the schools, since they are the ones selling the classes. It is their responsibility to give the prospect an honest description of what expectations the instructor and ASA have of them.

The school should guide the prospect to the correct training scenario for them to truly achieve valuable experience. If a training sail is more appropriate for the new sailor the school should say so. They should explain the benefits and rewards of that session and reassure the student that with that training they are well on their way to being able to bareboat with the school.

Many of my students, with less than BBC104 certifications charter boats from Sailing Florida. We know them and we taught them. We know what they know and what they don’t know.

ASA certification should have prerequisites

The ASA has responsibility in inexperienced sailors finding themselves in classes they are ill prepared for as well. If the ASA would place a prerequisite of say, 30 days on the water on boats larger than X feet between each class that would go a long way toward qualified candidates finding other qualified candidates IN THEIR CLASS.

Oh yeah, the ASA would need to put some teeth into the rule once given.  If a school tries to certify a student for a class without the prerequisite classes having been taken, the ASA rejects the application. The same should hold true for attempts to certify without the proposed prerequisite time on the water.

If the ASA would install AND enforce such a policy then ALL schools would be on equal ground and the quality and value of certifications would grow immensely. Good luck with that!

The remainder of the responsibility falls on the prospect. They need to honestly evaluate their own skills. Only they know whether they are just filling their log books or are truly ready to progress on. If they are armed with the reality that two to seven days of training does not equal the experience needed to be an experienced sailor and they chose to continue anyway, well then it is on them.

So, let’s get together, without trying to get a sticker in a logbook (unless you’re truly ready) and train, train, train! It’ll be fun, I promise!

Let everyone see you On the Water…With Captain Frank (we’ll be the ones perfecting MOBs)