The Yachtmaster offshore exam is very much like taking your driving test, with both practical and theory tests that you are independently examined on. They call it the ‘ticket’ because once you have it, a whole host of opportunities opens up for you as a skipper – 3/5th of the world becomes your playground.
You can become commercially endorsed and be paid to sail and work in the marine industry or opt for non paid work but either way you are deemed good enough to be able to sail anytime anywhere within 150 nautical miles of safety. Putting that into perspective, that’s about 30 hours from land…France is only about 10 hours (60N nautical miles), so definitely far enough to get your self in deep s**t.
Like the driving test, the exam is thorough and the syllabus is wide, the examiner can ask you to go anywhere, day or night and simulate a whole host of scenarios. The favourite ask, is for the engine to not work when doing MOB, dropping anchor, picking up a mooring buoy or approaching a pontoon, all must be done under sail and in control – easier said than done and judgment of the tide and wind is the key to success here. Like the driving test, if you are dangerous and out of control ie. hit anything ( seabed or another boat or object) then you automatically fail, get lost and not know where you are,…. then you fail, be incompetent not in control…..you fail, not knowing your col regs ( think highway code)….you fail, unable to forecast the weather, ….you fail……Failure is too common and many do, but the challenge of passing and the kudos of passing and being part of the ‘yachtmaster’ club is what drives most on and to subject themselves to the terrifying experience of taking a yachtmaster examiner out for sail.
The RYA Yachtmaster examiners are the Jedi knights of the sailing world, most have a ridiculous amount of experience and you wonder when they have had time to sleep or how much time they have actually spent on land in their lifetime.
To prepare for the exam you must go through a prep week, this is where you have mini mock tests and practice your skills in the format of how the exam will be done. At this stage now, it’s not about distance sailing, it’s about sailing in close proximity with traffic, marinas and challenging ports, harbours with tidal restrictions, the Solent serves all of this up right on our doorstep – Lucky us !
All was going well on the prep week and skills started to fall into place, being asked to pick up a mooring buoy downwind – no problems…, upwind anchorage – no problems, man over board after engine failure – no problems, Strong ebb tide, downwind into a marina berth – OH s**t!! I fronted end the boat into the pontoon, this had the potential to be a confidence killer, ..this was a bit like clipping the kerb on a parallel park – an automatic FAIL…..I was doing so well, at least this happened on the prep week !
We focussed on Southampton water and the surrounding challenges, convinced that the visit of Donald Trump to Portsmouth would put the examiner off from heading East from Hamble – this was a wrong assumption !
I can’t remember how I felt on the day of my driving test, that is now 27 years ago, but on the day of the yachtmaster exam I felt possibly the most nervous I have ever felt, in fact when I had my impacted wisdom tooth pulled out I don’t remember being as anxious as I was waiting for the examiner to step onto the boat. Now I would rather go sailing than the dentist but pre yachtmaster exam nerves is not something you want to experience every week.
Whilst waiting, my mind was spinning, am I good enough ?, do I know enough ?, I decided to adopt a simple mindset that I was “only taking a man out sailing” and that he was a VIP and I needed to take care of him, everything would be alright as long as I didn’t hit anything!. This worked until ‘Nigel’ ( the examiner) stepped on board and introduced himself – he was a Jedi sailor, 35 – 40 ocean passages, a zillion sea miles and self confessed RYAs top yachtmaster examiner. Subsquently for the first 30 minutes I could barely remember my name and DOB on the application form, let alone the lights for a trawler with nets fast upon an obstruction…please god do not choose me to go first !
Luckily my prayers were answered and I did not have to go first, perhaps Nigel sensed that a man who cannot remember his DOB or name and complete a form in a timely manner without pen shakes, perhaps should not go sailing straight away. I was selected to go 3rd out of the 4 candidates. This was good news but also bad news, my first passage would have to be at night in the dark and in the direction of Portsmouth, via the gap in the submarine barrier and he also asked me to find a special yellow buoy on the way and finally berthing the boat for the night in Gosport marina.
Murphys ( sods) law that it was also bang on Spring tides with no moon that day, so this made the night pilotage hard along with the challenge of berthing and yellow buoys in pitch darkness. The issue with yellow buoys is that they are unreliable, they are seasonal and can get moved, their lights are generally dim and not easily identifiable unless you are really close. This played out in my passage, I took over from the 2nd person from their task of an anchorage outside Bembridge to find the yellow buoy, all was going well, I had a plan, the nerves had abated and we were on the transit that I had identified and using a back bearing to hold the course. Using time, distance, speed tables I was confident we were going to find the yellow buoy. 5…4…3…2…1… we should be right by us now, crew please keep a look out for a 4 yellow flashes every 5 secs on our port side…no response, a quick check and we were in the right place, but wheres the buoy??? – Oh f888 what do I do now..if I had a heart monitor on it would have exploded, stress levels beyond stress levels,I had a sweat on, remember the training….STOP THE BOAT !,…. we hove to. The boat spun round in the darkness, taking away all the forward momentum and turned it into a bobbing cork in the wind and waves only drifting with the tide. I had bought myself some time to think, but having done this in the dark with the buoyage lights of Portsmouth glaring at me, it was like spinning round after 10 cans of lager and staring at a Xmas tree. Where the f888 are we ?!.
This was automatic failure territory, lost in the dark, unable to find a simple yellow buoy, my brain was at full speed and maximum power, somehow I managed to take a 3 point fix ( thank you to the Spinnaker tower, nearby Fort and isolated danger mark) I was able to determine our estimated position, we were right by where the yellow mark is supposed to be. To cut a long story short I then had to convince the examiner for the next hour that the seasonal yellow mark had been moved or replaced. After an extensive torch and spotlight search, he agreed, yes.. he actuallyagreed it had been moved… Again my mind played tricks on me, did it ever exist, was this the test – had I passed ?, I wouldn’t know for another day….
Keep calm and carry on…so I proceeded to thread the boat through the submarine wall gap and then approach Portsmouth and the Gosport marina in the dark following the light sequences and harbour approach rules, it was now close to 1am and the final test of parking the boat in the marina. Somehow I held it all together and parked her up without hitting anything, it was now 0130, we were all shattered, still a full day of exam to go. Nigel gave nothing away, he was a master of the dead pan face, how did we do?, have we failed, are we all s**t?, all we knew is that we had 6 hours rest until we were going again at 0730.
It felt like I had only slept for 10 minutes, my mind racing all night with self doubt over that non existent yellow buoy. I had to dig deep with self confidence and talk to myself about all the good things done, we had arrived safely in the dark in the marina, navigated the submarine wall and Portsmouth harbour entrance all at night..keep thinking positive thoughts, today is a new day. The sun was out and after the night before nothing could be quite as bad, so bizarrely I relaxed and started to enjoy it. Theory questions were asked in the areas of Radar, weather, lights, sounds, bouyage and collision regulations. I was like a machine gun rapidly firing responses having memorised and remembered all the cards, each question I answered filling me with more confidence as it progressed – I can do this…
My 2nd passage was in the day time ( yipppee) and it was to go from Beaulieu to Cowes, something I had done before but I had the task of answering the question by Nigel of “what’s the latest time we could leave Beaulieu” ?, he knew full well this meant a secondary port calculation and at springs +1 day there would not be enough water to exit and I would fail if we grounded the boat. After triple checking my calculations we had to leave by 1800. The dead pan face came on again, “let’s hope you are right Dan, let’s see shall we”? ….Game on, I was confident on this and we successfully exited Beaulieu river at 1755 and headed towards Cowes without incident apart from the expected MOB drill on the way. This had to be done under sail only and I managed to get back to the MOB first time and stop the boat alongside. Nigel was down in the saloon making notes and for the first time this really did feel like “just taking a man out for a sail”.
The final passage back to Hamble at dusk was enjoyable and thrilling, we topped out at nearly 10 kts, still an element of anxiety as we would find out our results but I knew I would heading home regardless of the result to see the family and my beloved Baloo.
After a quick walk up and down the pontoon whilst Nigel prepared his paperwork, Nigel ( dead pan face) welcomed me back to the boat with a big broad smile and immediately settled my nerves – “Congratulations you have PASSED”
I must say a big Thank you to Hamble School of Yachting , their instructors and tuition approach is fantastic and the professional sail training is simply the best. Lastly a big thank you to all my fellow wannabe yachtmasters on the course (PST77), everyone on my boat passed and I have immense respect for the support and patience shown by everyone as we learned new skills together and progressed our journey to yachtmaster’s.
Good Luck in the future Skippers !
Many Many lessons learned, not just in sailing but in leadership, life and about yourself, I can recommend the experience but one thing for sure, it is not a holiday or an easy ride – but dig deep and you will be rewarded.
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