“Yachtmaster”

“Yachtmaster”, has a bit of a ring to it. In the early 1990s I started working towards it completing the RYA Yachtmaster Theory course for the first time. Then one of life’s crash gybes put a stop to sailing for a few years. Gradually through dinghies, a Drascombe Lugger some charters and our Cornish Shrimper Daisy I was able to rebuild miles. I also retook the RYA Yachtmaster Theory Course to support an ICC application. But can a Shrimper sailor get to be a “Yachtmaster”? Only one way to find out… Go for it.

Coastal or Offshore: My lifetimes experience was above the requirements for Yachtmaster Offshore but RYA seemed to require the pre-entry miles, days at sea and nights to all be within the last 10 years.  My experience within the previous 10 years would place me just above Coastal Skipper (now “Yachtmaster Coastal”) level, provided boats under 20’ were accepted. Daisy is only 19′ LOA, the lugger even shorter. Chatting with a couple of YM examiners suggested that though the syllabus is the same for both levels, the level of competence expected can be markedly different. The Sailing Schools take different approaches. Storm Force suggested doing their Preparation Course and deciding part way through the week. Hamble School of Yachting set the level in advance. 

Having havered, researched, procrastinated and otherwise put off making a decision for several years, in March 2015 I booked myself onto the early September Yachtmaster Coastal Preparation and Exam course at Hamble School of Yachting.  Decision made, committed, run with it.    Gulp. Am I really ready?

Revision revision revision

Next step was to reread James Stevens RYA Yacht Master Handbook. Then out with the old flash cards for lights buoys, shapes and sound signals. After a few evenings playing the cards the memory started to become more reliable. Those I have seen in real life I can picture no problem, but many of the more obscure lights are rarely used in the quiet northern waters I sail. Going to the busy waters of the Solent would sort that out.

Passage Planning

One of the key exercises in the exam is to prepare a passage plan. For Coastal level this would be a coastal passage, for Offshore level this would be a sea crossing probably to or from France. I have a template developed from the passage planning form found in Reeds PBO Small Craft Almanac. Using this and some old pilot books I roughed out some passage plans. A copy of Tom Cunliffe’s The Complete Yachtmaster, found in a second hand book shop, was like gold with Tom’s thoughts on a cross channel passage plan laid out clearly and simply in his inimitable style.  

The Solent is not an area I know well, so I familiarised myself with the general area using electronic charts and old pilot books.

Practice Practice Practice

Having dumped Daisy’s unreliable beast of a Mariner Outboard and replaced it with a “relatively reliable” but noisy and under-powered Seagull, most of our sailing that season was under sail, including anchoring and picking up the mooring under sail. Other manoeuvres like heaving to and sailing backwards under sail were practised under a range of conditions as was feeling our way up narrow invisible channels over the mud flats without running aground. The deck log was kept religiously, and flag etiquette practised. No long trips but lots of fun.

What to take?

My kit list has been developed, run in and worn out over many years. Some bits of kit are old and needed replacing (my deck shoes) others are old and serviceable (my oilskin jacket, windcheater smock & wellies), none of it is remotely stylish. As my mother in law puts it I am a naturally scruffy person. Others had more up to date and stylish wardrobes. Largely down to personal taste.

The Nav bag took more thinking about: A4 loose leaf Log file and associated notes including:- May Day card secured to the front cover, Log, Passage Planning forms, Met forms for recording and drawing out the shipping forecast, Safety Briefing Crib Card, Portsmouth, Southampton and Chichester tide curves laminated for repeated use with a chinagraph pencil, Skipper’s and Navigator’s Checklists drawn from years of misadventure with things going wrong and for checking boats at the start and end of charters, calculation pad for rough notes

I also took my Isis 50 Hand Bearing Compass, one that I am familiar and happy with (Used a lot), Sailing Knife (an Opinel safety knife kept in a leather sheath made from an old sailing shoe), Smart phone (so useful it is nearly essential with navigation, tidal data and access to grib and other weather forecasts.) Head torch with a red filter (used a lot, particularly for recharging the luminous compass card).

Final tuning

YM Examiners are renowned for being “old school” navigators shunning the convenience of electrickary and the digital revolution. The arguments are well found and the logic irrefutable. So in the last few weeks before the course I reread Mary Blewitt’s 1970’s classic Navigation for Yachtsmen and leafed through dad’s 1976 Reeds Nautical Almanac saved from the charity shop box. To relax, my old favourite “Sods Law of the Sea”.

Preparation Week

Prep week started on the Sunday evening meeting instructor Terry (ex-army, currently “sea gipsy”) and other candidates:-

  • “Fastnet” Dan; Navigator for multi-Round the Island Race winning Folkboat, who completed the Fastnet Race and RORC qualifying races as a bit of a mile builder. Looking to change career from publishing into the marine industry.
  • Louise; Ex RYA development officer, currently working as mate for a yacht charter company. YM Offshore would enable her to skipper charter yachts.
  • Mario; from southern Italy had recently completed the Clipper Race from London to Rio. Many years of Mediterranean sailing. Likes the British professional approach to yachting.
  • Me, part owner of a Cornish Shrimper kept on the Menai Straits who in a good year gets in one 5 day cruise and a few day sails.  

The challenge for all of us during prep week was to work with an unfamiliar crew, on an unfamiliar boat, in my case in unfamiliar waters and in Mario’s case an unfamiliar language and get to a standard high enough to shine.

Over the next 5 days in glorious sunshine and in light winds we worked through a wide range of navigation and boat handling exercises in daylight and in the dark. I was able to get familiar with the layout of the Solent and see real Day Shapes and Light combinations. We were tested to our limits and made mistakes, then practiced and refined until we got it right.  As a group we all went through the classic “Forming”, “Storming”, “Norming” and eventually “Performing” stages. The storming crisis coming on the Tuesday evening when we were all tired demoralised with our perceived poor individual performance, lack of performance as a team and feeling distinctly sun burnt, dehydrated, tired and grumpy.  It drove a much organised “normed” crew over the next couple of days, developing tight routines for each operation and checklists before we relaxed enough to perform individually and as a team through our examination.

“Fastnet” Dan commented that his Coastal Skipper Practical Course was easy compared with the intensity and depth of our YM Preparatory Course.  However the preparatory course did exactly what it said on the tin and prepared us well for the offshore level examination. It gave us time to get to grips with an unfamiliar crew, an unfamiliar boat, in unfamiliar waters and for Mario an unfamiliar language.

The winds picked up and the skies darkened as our Exam approached.

The Exam

The Exam started on the Friday evening when our Examiner Nigel came on board. His introduction “Treat me as a demanding owner” set exactly the right tone for the exam phase. The assessment started after a series of briefings with me skippering a lively first sail into the nighttime Solent, finding an unlit buoy in the dark and anchoring within a boat length of a defined point. The exercises required planning, precise use of hand bearing compasses, creative use of transits and a willingness to change the approach to meet the changing conditions. A night entrance into Beaulieu River in a rising gale to pick up a mooring completed the first evening. Rain hammered down over night.

In the morning our pre prepared passage plans were scrutinised and interrogated. Then a series of theory questions, half asleep I was making schoolboy errors trying to remember the knots equivalent of Beaufort scale for winds I would not take Daisy out in. Back up on deck the wind was gusting force 8 but the rain had eased off. Out into the Solent for daytime navigation exercises, picking up Man over board kit under power and sail as the wind over tide kicked up a steep swell. A wave knocked me off my final approach but keeping things under control and going around again (successfully) was not fatal.  Picking up a mooring running down wind under bare poles against the tide was a lucky break. The more I had practised the luckier I got.  Into Lymington for some pontoon bashing and a cup of tea. Then back into the Solent and on into the night for more exercises, the wind dropping all the time.

In the early hours of Sunday morning we returned to the Hamble for one last round of pontoon bashing before returning to the marina to coil down and debrief.

Debrief

We all passed. I was awarded “Yachtmaster Offshore” based on the 25 years + records in my RYA logbook and my performance during the exam. “No point in coming back in a year’s time to show what you can already do”.

Yachtmaster is a serious qualification and the standards are very high. It is a sobering thought that I am now considered competent to be Master of vessels up to 200 Tonnes operating up to 160 miles offshore, provided I have a First Mate who is at least Yachtmaster Coastal qualified, or to be First Mate globally. Also with a couple more short courses and a medical to do that on a commercial basis.

Can a Shrimper Sailor achieve Yachtmaster? Yes if they can navigate, handle a boat and manage a crew to a high standard and look as though they are enjoying it. Would I do it again? I don’t have to.

Would I recommend it to anybody else? Absolutely.

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