In the United States, there are two governing bodies for the sport of sailing: US Sailing and the American Sailing Association (ASA). Each organization offers certifications to help you learn how to sail. However, the lens through which they view the sport differs greatly. For this reason, it’s important to understand the focus of each before deciding which to join.
In general, US Sailing focuses on performance sailing. Their courses and certifications are geared toward sailboat racing and competitive sailing. US Sailing also regulates regatta certification and the US Olympic sailing team.
The ASA focuses on cruising. Therefore, the courses and certifications are geared toward recreational and long-distance sailing. The ASA courses prepare you to sail larger boats for longer lengths of time. This can include sailing up and down the coast, chartering a catamaran, and even sailing across oceans!
Do You Have to Be Certified to Sail a Boat?
No! In the United States, there are no certification requirements to sail recreationally, regardless of vessel size. However, many charter companies require certain certifications if you plan to rent a boat or bareboat charter. You may also need special international certifications to sail in different parts of the world.
It may sound like a lot, but don't worry because there is some overlap. For example, if you earn the ASA Bareboat Cruising certification, you can receive an International Proficiency Certificate (ICP) with no further instruction.
Perks of Being Certified
The most obvious benefit of being certified is the formal base of knowledge about safety, rules, regulations, and sailing skills.
But did you know there are insurance benefits as well? Many insurance companies require proof of a proper amount of sailing experience. Having ASA or US Sailing certifications proves you have that experience. Plus, most insurance companies will even lower your insurance rates with every sailing certification you achieve.
What to Know About the ASA
The American Sailing Association, now known as American Sailing, was founded in 1983. The ASA’s mission since day one has been “to teach people to sail safely and confidently.” It was the first organization to create a unified set of standards that measured a sailor’s level of knowledge and skill in keelboats.
The ASA's system of standards has 7 primary levels of certification available for students:
Since 1983, the ASA has expanded to include over 400 affiliated sailing schools throughout the U.S., Europe, Caribbean, Central America, and Asia. Over half a million sailors have taken ASA courses and are certified via an ASA school!
Check out more information about the ASA certification system and why it's important.
What to Know About US Sailing
US Sailing was originally founded in 1897 as the North American Yacht Racing Union (NAYRU). It formally changed its name to US Sailing in 1991.
Its original mission was to promote yacht racing, and to administer a unified set of yacht racing rules throughout different parts of the world. Today, US Sailing’s mission is “to increase sailing participation and excellence through education, competition, and equal opportunity, while upholding the principles of fair play, sportsmanship, and safety.”
Today, the three main focuses of US Sailing are:
Offering sailing education courses and certifications
Upholding racing rule regulations
Certifying regattas and race officials, and managing the US Olympic sailing team
US Sailing offers a Small Keelboat track that includes a Basic Keelboat, a Performance Sailing certification, and a Cruising track that includes certifications from Coastal Cruising through Offshore Passage making, similar to the ASA system.
Comparing ASA vs. US Sailing
So what is the difference between the two organizations?
Both organizations offer keelboat certification courses that cover the same subject matter on the same size vessels and require the same level of knowledge and skill to attain. Certifications from both organizations are lifetime certifications but require yearly memberships.
ASA membership: $59.00/year
US Sailing membership: $79.00/year
Both memberships offer exclusive courses, clinics, and discounts on sailing gear.
While smaller than US Sailing, the American Sailing Association’s core focus is adult education and instruction on cruising. The ASA courses spend more time on skills that will be beneficial when cruising on longer timeframes and longer distances. It also offers standalone endorsements such as:
US Sailing is a larger organization than the ASA and has many other priorities and focuses other than adult cruising sailing. The adult education cruising curriculum is a small portion of what US Sailing does. The US Sailing curriculum tends to view its courses through the lens of performance sailing. The courses focus more time on advanced sail trim and the use of performance sails such as spinnakers or gennakers.
Which Sailing Certification is Better?
In general, most students who have an interest in racing and performance sailing follow the US Sailing track. Students more interested in long-distance sailing and cruising tend to follow the ASA curriculum.
Since the certifications from both organizations are comparable on paper, it’s important to compare the specific courses and sailing instructors.
To choose the right sailing course, we recommend looking at the duration of the course and how much of it is actually spent on the water. At First Reef Sailing, we spend a minimum of 12 hours sailing per course!
When it comes to instructors, look at the quality of the instructor that will be teaching the course. It’s easy to get caught up by a long resume, but remember the instructor needs to be a good teacher. The best instructors are easy to learn from and gel well with your personality and learning style.
How to Get Certified to Sail
Sign up for a course! At First Reef Sailing we offer certification courses from ASA 101 - Basic Keelboat through ASA 107 - Celestial Navigation. View all the certifications we offer and spend a minute reading through their descriptions.
Our instructors cover every single new concept during the course day, so you won’t have to self-study and learn new concepts at home. By the time you take the written examination at the end of the course, you will feel well-prepared and confident. 99% of our students pass the exam on their first go. If you do not pass on the first attempt, we will work with you to develop a study strategy. After a period of review and self-study you can return and take the exam again for no extra charge!
Each course also requires you to demonstrate your proficiency in different sailing maneuvers. Rather than having a daunting practical examination at the end of the course, we practice each skill one at a time until you are confident.
Build Your Sailing Resume and Get Hands-On Experience with First Reef Sailing
Are you new to sailing? We offer various beginner courses to help you get comfortable on the water. Start by taking our ASA 101 - Basic Keelboat course — no sailing experience required! From there, you can follow a student's typical progression from no sailing experience to owning their own boat!