Emerging Trends/Recreational Boating: Boaters Now Have Access to a Wealth of Live, Hybrid or Virtual Education Options

By Wanda Kenton Smith, Water Sports Foundation

In 2020, the recreational marine industry enjoyed a significant boon in first-time boaters and boat ownership. Boating has emerged as a go-to antidote to the Coronavirus, with thousands of families turning to boating to satisfy the pent-up demand for safe, leisure activities and enjoyable entertainment.

Major Growth of First-Time Boat Buyers

According to Jack Ellis, managing partner of Info-Link, approximately 350,000 people purchased their first powerboat or auxiliary-powered sailboat and another 65,000 bought their first PWC, having never owned a boat before, bringing a total of 415,000 first-time boat buyers into the recreational boating fold in 2020.  

Ellis notes this figure includes both new and pre-owned boat buyers and represents a whopping 35% increase in first-time boat ownership over the previous year. 

With this positive upward trajectory in boating activity has come the sweeping need and growing demand to provide boating safety education to this group of new boat owners. 

Shifting Trends in Boater Education 

In the past, instruction has primarily been delivered through standard, on-site knowledge-based training programs offered by leading boating safety organizations such as the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, the U.S. Power Squadron and many state boating agencies, among others. With the implications of social distancing and crowd control requirements, however, live boater ed classes took an attendance dive in 2020, while the promotion of virtual online programs has spiked.

As vaccination programs evolve, live classes are beginning to return with strict social distancing measures in place. In addition, the advent of hybrid knowledge-based and live instruction, coupled with a bevy of virtual programs covering everything from rules of the road to advanced piloting and navigation continue to gain traction.  

A leader in online, 21st century sailor education is NauticEd which launched in 2008 and meets the American National Standard. The company offers a mix of 20 online e-learning classes, followed by and including live instruction.   

“We’ve taught 70,000 students to date and definitely experienced a notable uptick in activity in 2020 for obvious reasons as people were stuck at home and it was so easy to get started,” said Grant Headifen, global director of education. “Online courses make education accessible and it’s inexpensive, while the ability to work your own time schedule really makes the study significantly more effective.”

According to Headifen, boating safety and competence requires both theory knowledge and practical skills which, when strategically presented, produce more knowledgeable and safer boaters. He believes NauticEd’s holistic approach to boater education enhances knowledge retention, which positively impacts the overall learning experience.

“Our instructors report that people show up now for the practical training session already having completed the online theory courses and are well prepared for practical training,” he explained. “Having passed the theoretical segment prior to the practical instruction segment allows the student to focus on developing the skill set, which maximizes the learning experience.” 

Added Jim Emmons, executive director of the Water Sports Foundation, “The great news for recreational boaters is that there is a wealth of boating safety training programs available, from live instruction with experts like the U.S. Coast Guard auxiliaries, to specific online classes you can enjoy at your leisure from the comfort of your home. There has probably never been greater access to boating education as there is today.”  

Courses cover varied aspects of boating safety, from boat handling to reading the weather, and from kid’s classes to electronics and navigation. Many include certifications as part of the process.  

The Water Sports Foundation is pleased to provide a robust list of links to top boating safety education providers and their respective programs which have been curated from multiple sites and contributors. 


U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary
Local flotillas offer a variety of safety classes, including basic/introductory boating courses and safety courses, navigation, sailing and personal watercraft safety, among others.

United States Power Squadron
“America’s Boating Course 3rd Edition” the most comprehensive boating safety course available. It includes a course book, a narrated student CD and a digital charting DVD. ABC 3 is available as a classroom, home study or online course.

American Boat Operators’ Course
Offers online boating safety courses with online certification tests for a number of states.

American Sailing Association
Beginner-advanced learn to sale educational classes and courses with certifications   

BoatU.S. Foundation
The Courseline is a searchable database of current boating safety courses around the nation.

Offers online boating safety courses with online certification tests for a number of states.

Offers an online Basic Boating Certification Course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, and a Coastal Navigation Course.

Offers online boating safety courses with online certification tests for a number of states.

Commander Bob
Offers resources on boating education.

Fishing from a jon boat on the St. Johns River near Christmas, Florida.

Offers a sailing course meeting the American National Standard (ANS), EDU-3 skills-based sailboat standard 

PWC Safety School
Offers online courses and certification for PWC operators in several states

Safe Boating America
Safe Boating America classes meet the State Educational Requirements for operating a Boat or PWC and also meet the requirements for a Youth Operator.

State Courses
Many states offer boating safety courses. The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators’ online Directory provides contact information for state boating agencies.

U.S. Sailing
Programs offer instruction in small and large sailboats, windsurfers, and powerboats. All levels of instruction are available around the country for beginner to advanced skills. Information on courses and instruction is available on the web.

American Canoe Association
Comprehensive resource to find skills courses, assessments, and instructor certification courses for kayak, canoe, raft, safety & rescue, and adaptive paddling.

CLICK HERE to access the U.S. Coast Guard Mobile App



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