HOW LONG does it take before you can have a license to drive a boat? A very long time if the current thinking at the Royal Yachting Association persists. While other European countries have insisted on introducing formal qualification schemes, Britain has resisted, with the support of the Department of Trade and Industry, and has, instead, insisted that its voluntary scheme of learning produces better boat users.

However, there are many harbour masters who would like to see such a statutory scheme introduced, only if they could exercise the sanction of suspending the licenses on who could play the cowboy on their territory. And there is a particularly determined attack on the Jet Ski fraternity, a few of whom are causing serious attacks of nerves about the safety of others trying to share the same stretches of water.

But Britain has good cause to think that its system is working well. Its certificates of competence are accepted throughout Europe, and about 100,000 a year of them are issued. They are a bit like an international driving license and although the form of them is being renegotiated so that a new version will be available from 1 April this year (1999), the RYA hopes that holders of existing certificates will be able to continue to use them.

Nor is there any current move to license boats, not even to make third party insurance compulsory - insurers are more worried about theft - there is a growing number of people who want to have some sort of proof of competence, and quite a few feel that compulsion is only a matter of time.

There are 538 schools, large and multifunctional down to a one man one boat enterprise, which are recognised by the RYA. There are 121 of them in the UK ranging from the ever-popular but very tidal Solent to the quieter West Country and West of Scotland and, for those who like to tackle both tides and some shallow water, the East Coast, especially of East Anglia.

With all these choices, taking the plunge is being made easier and easier. Many schools offer a taster day, with all the kit provided. Courses can be split between going afloat in the summer and finishing off the work in the classroom in the winter. There are many motor boat courses and, as new motor boat sails far outnumber new sailboat sales, the authorities are very keen on the powerboat fraternity becoming as qualified If conventional learning is not for you then, the school can come to you. Many powerboat owners take their courses on their own boats from qualified instructors. They range from a simple, two-day helmsman's course, which should set a few more minds at rest as they look over their shoulders apprehensively at 35 to 40 feet of gleaming white plastic charging into a crowded marina. It should also set more at rest the minds of the crew, who can be included in the course.

On a more advanced level there is a Day Skipper course, which includes some time in the classroom ashore, and a coastal skipper, which, as well as more complex navigation, also puts the skipper through all the functions of running the boat and its equipment.

Sail boats have their equivalent, starting with competent crew, but working all the way up to Yachtmaster Ocean, which should mean that you can handle an Atlantic crossing and will give you a government-backed skipper's ticket.

Windsurfers, of course, are in plenty of trouble if they need offshore navigation, but they will have safety included in any course which starts with the simple problem of standing up, making a 100-yard distance, turning round and coming back again.

That's why these crafts are so popular at the Mediterranean schools and holiday clubs; at least when, not if, you fall in the water is warm and there is usually some sun to warm you through. there are even some schools specialising in Sea Survival.

Simply put, if you want to get involved in sailing there is no better time than now.