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Comment: Hong Kong's skipper shortage is critical

Local training standards need to improve to deal with the growing number of large yachts on the water, says Cameron Ferguson

author icon By Cameron Ferguson | 23 July 2021

The well-reported explosion in the number of motor and sailing yachts purchased in Hong Kong during the pandemic has led to a significant shortage in qualified captains to skipper larger vessels over 15 metres, which require a Marine Department (HKMD) Pleasure Vessels Operator (PVO) Grade 1 licence Certificate of Competence (CoC). Many are asking how this situation can be improved.

There are two routes to achieve a PVO Grade 1 CoC. One is direct examination at the Hong Kong HKMD and the other is via the RYA Yachtmaster Offshore qualification. Acceptance is always at the discretion of the HKMD, but both paths require the candidates to already hold a PVO Grade 2 (less than 15-metre vessel) licence before gaining a Grade 1.

Yet, the two paths could not be more different. The HKMD route is purely a theory-based approach, requiring no mandatory logged milage or experience. The RYA path requires a candidate to have acquired significant logged practical experience and have completed a set of shore based courses, culminating in a practical examination over a 24-hour period, with an independent examiner.

This divergence is even more acute when looking at vessel operator licences for vessels under 15 metres, where the Marine Department has no accepted Hong Kong international licence equivalent.

The inexperience of a skipper who acquired their knowledge mainly through studying the theory is very evident to anyone who navigates the waters of Hong Kong. When faced with simple head-to-head and crossing situations with other vessels, the difficulty of bringing the theory into the practical environment is all too evident. The basic concepts of who is the stand-on vessel/give-way vessel is frequently misunderstood, resulting in erratic manoeuvres and subsequent close quarter incidents.

Currently, a Hong Kong-acquired licence is not accepted overseas due to the lack of any practical assessment of a skipper’s competence

The professional mariners captaining vessels in the waters of Hong Kong waters are also faced with significant issues. Large container vessels often run a gauntlet of small leisure, fishing and even local commercial vessels, many of whom often appear to be completely unaware of their basic responsibilities when navigating in proximity to Traffic Separation Schemes.

The Hong Kong method of gaining a skipper’s licence is at odds with most parts of the world that mandate a qualification. We need to modernise the system to both improve seamanship skills and to open up the waters to suitably experienced and qualified skippers from outside of Hong Kong.

Ensuring that what is assessed is based on a clear training needs analysis, along with some form of practical assessment, would be a significant step forward.

Hong Kong could adopt a scheme like Singapore’s. In addition to a theory assessment, the Singaporean government supplies the assessment vessels and conducts a basic practical seamanship assessment, similar to the International Certificate of Competence (ICC). Such a move would also create the possibility of the local Hong Kong vessel CoCs being recognised by other countries. Currently, a Hong Kong-acquired licence is not accepted overseas due to the lack of any practical assessment of a skipper’s competence.

If Hong Kong can more closely align itself with international standards, it would also simplify the comparison between the Hong Kong CoC and other international certifications such as the ICC, RYA Day Skipper or ASA Bareboat Charter licence or higher, all of which require a practical and theory assessment.

There is nothing especially unusual about the waters of Hong Kong. It might be a busy port in places, but there are no local rules that can’t be readily understood by a competent skipper reviewing the Hong Kong Harbour Facilities & Layout pamphlet and the local charts. This would make self-skippered bareboat chartering possible in Hong Kong waters for suitably qualified overseas visitors.

Tourism is likely to be an ever-increasing and important contributor to the Hong Kong economy and Hong Kong waters are some of the best in the world for yachting. The opening up of these waters to suitably qualified visiting boaters and superyacht captains would be a considerable boost to the leisure boating industry and strengthen Hong Kong’s place on the international yachting map.

About the author:

Cameron Ferguson is a Hong Kong-based RYA instructor trainer and examiner