The global standard of sailing qualifications is achievable for any experienced, competent skipper. Tom Cunliffe explains how to pass your Yachtmaster exam
How to pass your Yachtmaster exam
We in the UK are exceedingly fortunate. Just as the English language is the best bet for a world traveller, our very own RYA/MCA Yachtmaster qualification happens to be the global standard for sailing. It’s required for anyone planning to become a professional and, thanks to the continuing efforts of the RYA, Brits who sail for leisure still don’t have to carry any proof of competence in home waters. Despite this blessed lack of regulation, the Yachtmaster certificate remains the logical target of many a self-motivated sailor. It also represents the icing on the cake for those looking for the reassurance of an external assessment.
Courses and exams
Yachtmaster training can take place on a boat or in a classroom. A shore-based course, either at desks in a school or via the increasingly popular Internet distance learning programmes, ends with a Yachtmaster theory exam. Success in this will help a student in subsequent qualification upgrades, but it is not officially recognised. The only certificates accepted by the authorities are those issued after an at-sea examination – the Yachtmaster Practical. To become a fully-fledged Yachtmaster, this practical test is the one that really counts.
This is a non-RYA course and, as such, has no official status or syllabus. However, it is run successfully by many RYA sailing schools to prepare candidates for an examination which generally follows on at the end. Up to four students spend several days together on the boat in which they will be examined. The benefits are that they get to know one another and their yacht under the guidance of a highly qualified Yachtmaster Instructor. The general feeling is that these tutors can’t teach you much you don’t already know in a week, but that they are very good at coaching the best out of those skills you already have. Prep courses are great for brushing up on how to jump through the various hoops an examiner may set up. What they can’t do is make someone who doesn’t have suitably constructive mileage into the confident skipper examiners are looking for.
Coastal or Offshore – what’s my level?
Recently, the old Coastal Skipper ticket has been superseded by the new ‘Yachtmaster Coastal’ certificate. The qualifying mileage for this MCA-recognised qualification is 800, with passage and night-hour requirements being relaxed in comparison with ‘Yachtmaster Offshore’, which keeps its 2,500-mile entry level. Either is a proper Yachtmaster qualification and can be described as such. Only the often-dropped suffix distinguishes the two. The syllabi are identical, the variant is the rigour of the examination. Apply for ‘coastal’ and the examiner, recognising that you have less sea-time, will be more inclined to cut you a bit of slack.
The RYA has noted that most candidates are really only making ‘coastal-status’ passages. In real terms, this includes an annual trip across the Irish Sea, the North Sea or the Channel in a calculated weather window, which is very different from setting off from Ramsgate towards Norway with five days and potentially serious conditions ahead of you. The implications should be clear: unless you need the Offshore ticket for professional reasons, if in doubt, go for Coastal.
Preparing yourself and the boat
If you’ve signed on with a sailing school, you’ll be stuck with the boat you’re given. You can be confident that this yacht ticks all the official boxes by being coded for commercial use, but while some are very up-together, others are not. If the boat is generally sloppy and scruffy, you can at least make an effort to stow the mainsheet in a seamanlike manner while you are nominally skipper.
You can also ensure that fenders are hung at the same level, sharpen up the guardrails and see that things generally look as though somebody knows the difference and cares. Then the examiner won’t hold the ratty lifebuoys and the smelly bilge against you.
Try to be ready in good time so that you aren’t involved in a last-minute kerfuffle. If you’re relaxing in the cockpit with a mug of tea when the examiner arrives, he or she will be more impressed than if you’re frantically working out tidal heights and scuffling through the chart table. Wear sensible kit. Don’t worry if it’s not this season’s fashion. My examiner turned up in an old duffel coat back in 1978 and I think I was wearing a canvas smock and a flat cap, but the smock was freshly laundered and the cap was right way round…
The main thing is that you can sail, but an examiner is always pleased to be freed of any hassle with the paperwork. Most of us are no better with admin than you are, so make our lives easy by producing an up-to-date first aid ticket and all the rest, plus a cheque made out to the RYA – not the examiner, perish the thought!
You may be given the opportunity to produce a passage plan before the examiner arrives. If so, make it realistic. Don’t plot every course to the last degree. After all, you don’t know what speed you’ll make or what the wind will really do. Check tidal gates, distances, viable alternatives and the weather. Look at any hazards, sort out a time to leave and have a plan for updating as things develop. That’s about what you’d do if there were no exam, and that’s what I, at least, want to see.
Examination on your own boat
You don’t have to go to a sailing school to be a Yachtmaster. I love it when a candidate asks to be examined without training on his own boat. Don’t worry if she isn’t coded. There’s no legal requirement that she should be. Most of mine haven’t been either, and I couldn’t care less.
As an examiner, I want to see that your priorities are sound and that you’re thinking clearly and for yourself. On the day, the yacht must be clean, tidy and seamanlike. Waterline crisp, sail covers Bristol fashion, not looking like some poor bird with a broken wing, ropes carefully stowed, a comprehensive chart kit for the waters to be sailed, the makings of a meal plus snacks and, of course, everything that counts should be working.
What the examiner is looking for
Feeling relaxed in close quarters
If there’s one thing that will upset an examiner, it isn’t that you forgot to put on your lifejacket, it’s that he feels insecure when you begin manoeuvring in a marina. Take it from me, there’s nothing worse than sitting at the backstay wondering what you’re going to hit. If the boat slides sweetly out of her berth with everyone knowing what’s required and no shouting, then moves away easily with the examiner confident you’re in charge, that you’ve checked the next alleyway for collision risk, that your choice of speed is sensible and efficient and that it never enters his head to feel anxious, you’re well on the way to a pass after five minutes. No course can teach you this. It can only tick the box confirming you’ve managed it once or twice. The rest is up to you and your sea time.
Here’s another subject you can’t learn on a prep course. Knowing where the wind is and how it relates your position to any impending manoeuvres is critical. I often ask a candidate where the wind is coming from when he’s approaching a situation we both know will involve some sort of gyration under sail. If he looks instinctively at the masthead or, worse still, an instrument set to apparent wind, he’s dropped a bagful of points. At this stage, his mind should be setting up where the boat will best be placed to make her critical turns. Apparent wind isn’t going to help him much. What he should be doing is glancing at the water and noting the tiny ripples to assess what the true wind is actually doing. I’m often amazed at how many folk have never been shown how to do this. Racing sailors can handle it in their sleep, because they need to predict windshifts, but cruisers tend to get lazy, so make sure you can read the wind.
All examiners hate to see a yacht sloppily sailed on passage. Make sure that your crew are using the traveller, that genoa fairleads are properly positioned, that the main is well set up with kicker and mainsheet tension for twist. Above all, do not sail over-sheeted. It’s a dead giveaway that you just haven’t been out there enough yet.
In the days before GPS set navigators free, people used to fail exams by what we called ‘sailing the chart table’ rather than skippering the yacht. Assuming the test to be all about some sort of imagined ‘correct navigational practice’, candidates nailed themselves to the navigatorium when they should have been up on deck directing operations and watching out for the ship coming up astern that was suddenly looking bigger every moment. Well, guess what? Nothing has changed. This remains a big problem with neophyte Yachtmasters.
The secret is to plan well, then nip below every so often on passage to keep an eye on what’s going on in the chart department and whizz back on deck pronto to carry on skippering the boat. I’ll lay a pound to a penny it’s what you do when there’s no examiner on board, so have the confidence to back your own usual practices. This is particularly important at night in crowded waters. An unsuccessful candidate often fails himself by allowing disorientation to creep in, simply by not keeping the true perspective on events, which can only be found on deck.
All examiners have their own take on use of electronics. Personally, I want to know my candidate is making modern aids to navigation, including a chart plotter if there one, an integral part of his navigational policy. The idea, as one candidate suggested, that use of GPS is somehow ‘cheating’ is incomprehensible to me. I will almost certainly ask at some stage that the yacht be navigated classically, to see how easy my man is with what, for most people, are now backup skills. If I’m unconvinced by his performance, off he goes to think again.
Skilled chartwork comes with use, and no amount of last-minute swotting can make up for weeks of doing it as a matter of course. Plotting traditional fixes is a good giveaway these days. With GPS all around us, we only do this for real when electronics fail. I’ve seen a person take
15 minutes to select three objects from a background studded with lights, then plot the results. The yacht had moved over two miles in the meantime…
It’s absolutely vital, whether navigating with a giant chart plotter or a Walker log, that you maintain a decent log book. Without this, if GPS fails for any reason at all, you’re lost, Mate, so is your exam, and quite right too!
One of the most important questions on most examiners’ private lists is how good the candidate is at taking charge. If he’s managing well, we probably won’t even notice that he’s in command, that his crew all know what’s expected of them and that their skipper is quietly checking that they’re doing it. Good leadership is seldom about barking orders, and never about ignoring all on board, yet leadership is what being a Yachtmaster is all about. First, you must be sufficiently comfortable with your own skill levels not to have to worry about little things like picking up a mooring. Only then can you consider what may go wrong for the poor soul on the foredeck in
a gale at midnight.
The classic skills
These are what most people imagine success in an exam is based upon. Actually, these basic skills merely help an examiner build up an overall picture of the candidate. It’s generally not a hanging matter if one manoeuvre goes a bit haywire. Even a grounding is often more interesting for what the candidate does about it than for the fact that it has happened. After all, nobody is perfect, especially under the stress of an exam.
Errors in principle are not popular with examiners. Mistakes under pressure may sometimes be forgiven, and man overboard is a case in point. If the boat sails past the dummy with her mainsail full and the examiner asks, ‘What went wrong?’ It won’t get you much of a score if you reply, ‘I was going too fast.’
‘Candidate’s speciality, stating the bleeding obvious,’ the examiner will note on his pad, and move on, downhearted.
However, if you say, ‘I’m kicking myself because I was too far upwind and couldn’t de-power the main. I tried to get onto a close reach but I misjudged my approach,’ he’s more likely to take a lenient view – especially if you’ve opted for ‘Coastal’.
Securing the yacht alongside
When I was examining instructors regularly, I’d often sail up to Poole Quay (a tidal wall) shortly before closing time. I’d hop off the boat as soon as she touched the piling, saying, ‘You sort her out, skipper, I’m off for a quick pint.’ I’d then do just that. When I returned 10 minutes later, if the yacht was neatly snugged down with four lines ashore, ends on the dock, a fender board in place, sails neatly stowed and all hands below cooking and relaxing, the guy was in good shape for a pass. If I found discussions on deck about whether to ‘hand the end back for a spring’, and people blundering about in the dark, things didn’t look so bright for our hero. Have a system and know how to execute it.
… and don’t forget
Mooring and anchoring
These are Day Skipper skills that should pose no threat to a Yachtmaster candidate. Under sail, just remember first to assess whether the wind is with or against the tide. If you get lucky and it’s against, drop the main and arrive stemming the stream, spilling under headsail or creeping along under bare poles. If wind and tide are at all ambiguous, never forget the old adage – when in doubt, drop the mainsail.
As forecasting has become more comprehensive and accessible, I’ve noticed a reduction in candidates’ capacity to understand what’s going on and to read a bulletin creatively. Anyone who can’t describe the typical cloud sequence on a North Atlantic depression gets nil points from me, and failure to understand the basics of air masses is going to run up a black mark too. A favourite with examiners is to produce a weather map and invite their Yachtmaster to analyse it. Be ready, and know your subject.
Many candidates produce excellent pilotage plans for entering a strange harbour. I’m happy with that, and most examiners love it. Personally, I prefer to sketch a few notes on the actual chart and have it in the cockpit held down with a winch handle, yet I’ve met examiners who’d be horrified to see a chart on deck at all. So there you have it. Do what suits you best, then be ready to justify your choice. Actually, this advice is good across the board. The examiner wants to see what you really do, not some fantasy you’ve cooked up because you think he might like it. That is a weak candidate’s policy and it often backfires.
So far as the MCA is concerned, this is the crunch. Examiners are encouraged to demand high standards in this subject, and there’s no reason for a candidate, knowing full well he is to be put on the griddle, not to have the regulations burned into his heart. The best way to be exam-proof is to invest in A Seaman’s Guide to the Rule of the Road, available for modest money from all good chandlers or Bookharbour.com. Place it prominently in the heads some months before the exam and devote five minutes of the shining hour each day to digesting its wondrous contents. The book makes it easy and there’s no excuse for disappointing the Board of Trade!
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