|CrystalblueoceanSailing and Diving Around the World|
sailing and diving around the world
Hey guys, back in Toronto, and the Yachtmaster practical is over. I passed the practical exam, at the Coastal level :) I recently participated in the ARCUSA 2016, and while down there I ran into a few other guys who were also crewing on boats, and I mentioned that I was heading down to Antigua to do the Yachtmaster practical exam. One of them, and I wish I could remember his name, told me about Chris Connor and Dave DeWolfe, RYA instructors and examiners, in Nova Scotia, Canada. They were so emphatic about how excellent their experience was that I called Cpt. DeWolfe, when I got back to Toronto. Not surprisingly, he was fully booked, so he put me in touch with Cpt. Chris Connor. Chris was able to take me on, and it ended up with just the three of us on board for the prep and the examination. There was John, the other YM candidate, from New York, myself, and Chris. People from all over the world come to study and train with Chris and Dave. On exam day, Chris got off the boat, to examine Dave's YM candidates, and Dave came aboard Chris's boat, to examine John and me. Two of us was perfect, because we got lots of contact time. However, Chris said he will take as many as three YM candidates at a time. Some of the other schools will take on up to six YM candidates at a time, which isn't very good because some of the candidates, on those crowded boats, invariably, aren't given enough time to practice the things they're going to be tested on. Chris and Dave don't do it like that. They spend lots of time with their YM candidates. There's a lot going on, and one of the things Chris will be doing is watching you and assessing your skill level. One of the many great things that Chris and Dave will do, after observing you for a day or two, is suggest which Yachtmaster level you should be trying for. Guys, believe me when I tell you, it's easy to go into this Yachtmaster process without really knowing where you're at in terms of skill and experience. I did 14 plus crew gigs, I've got the USCG OUPV, Captains license, and I've done ASA levels, 101 to 105. This post, as they all are, is based on reality. None of those certifications prepared me for this Yachtmaster prep and practical exam. I know a lot of you have been waiting to hear about my experience with the Yachtmaster exam, so here it is :)
So, first of all, in my opinion, do not attempt the Offshore Yachtmaster without doing at least the Yachtmaster Day Skipper, or some other equivalent course. In fact, I would highly suggest that you do the Yachtmaster Coastal prep and exam, first, before attempting the Offshore. I came in 'cold,' so to speak, with the certifications I mentioned, and the 14 plus crew gigs, and some of what I experienced in this YM prep with Chris was new to me. I'll go over some of the things you need to know in a moment, but I need to stress that this Yachtmaster Prep, with Chris, is not a 'course.' You are expected to know all of the techniques when you arrive. All Chris is really supposed to do is evaluate you, and point out your weak areas and help you fine tune them. That is all. However, lucky for all of us who have worked with Chris, he is an extremely patient Cpt, who wants you to succeed. But he won't give it away to you. Either you know the stuff and you're ready, or you're not. For example, if, after you've done the prep week, you decide to go for the Offshore level, you can't, halfway through, simply decide that you want to test for the Coastal level, instead. The Coastal level is not a consolation for failing the Offshore. And, believe me, people do fail sometimes. It's the way it is with any other exam, and it's the way it is with the Yachtmaster exams. By the time the prep week is over, Chris will have suggested to you where he thinks your level of skill and experience is, and he'll suggest which level you should examine for. The man knows what he's doing, so if he says that you're not ready for the Offshore exam, then do the Coastal instead, and save yourself a lot of grief. These are serious men, and they will deny you the certificate if you're not up to scratch for the level you're trying for. They have a list of skills that you need to have, and if they can't check them off, as complete...... well, you get the picture.
This information is for all of you who are tackling the Yachtmaster certifications, but it is also specifically directed at the guys who are like me, who haven't had a lot of formal training with the RYA, and who got most of their experience from volunteer crew gigs. I have my not-so-strong points, guys. I'm not the most aggressive or assertive guy in the world, and I have always had trouble with nervousness and stress when it comes to practical exams. Theory, no problem, but when someone is watching me, I'm in unfamiliar waters, and a lot of money is on the line, not to mention my future, it can be an absolute nightmare for me. However, I have seen other people tackle practical exams and they breeze it like a walk in the park. Lucky for them. But, this is just me, and if any of you are like me you'll easily relate. Having said that, Chris and Dave immediately put you at ease. Let's talk about my experience with Chris, first. The training boat is a 42' Gozzard, a gorgeous boat. It's immaculately clean, it's comfortable, and it has all the gear you need to succeed in the exams. Chris is a very down-to-Earth guy, who knows how difficult these exams can be for some of us, and he goes out of his way to understand where you're coming from. He talks a little about his family, his past experiences on the water, and he's always telling you things about the Yachtmaster exam. Hopefully you're listening :):) So, he makes you feel like 'part of the family,' in a sense. You definitely won't feel like a stranger on his boat. Heck, the delicious food that he provides for the YM candidates is prepared by his lovely wife, who happens to be a gourmet Chef. I'm a formally trained Chef, and I was shocked at how good the food was! So, there is definitely the 'family' feel to the whole experience.
But, like I said, the Yachtmaster Prep is not a 'course.' You need to know the stuff before you arrive. You may very well come up against things you don't know, or have never heard of, but you'll have time to familiarize yourself with them, and Chris will answer any questions you have. On all of the boats that I've crewed on, I haven't come across the majority of the stuff that you'll be tested on for the YM exam. The only thing that I did on those crew gigs, that was relevant, was man overboard drills, on two of the boats. So, if you're doing what I was doing, volunteer crewing, through sites like cruisersforum.com, I'm telling you straight up, it's not going to even get you into the batter's box. You need to be taking the progressive RYA courses. On most of the crew gigs I did, I was mostly only required to handle dock lines, keep the boat on the little blue line on the electronic plotter, and stand night watches. You'l rarely find a boat owner that will allow you to dock the boat, or even maneuver the vessel in high traffic areas, or in marinas. That's why it's important to take courses that give you lots of helm time. The Maryland School of Sailing, like many other schools, specifically offer docking and boat handling clinics that are well worth the money.
What do you need to know before you show up for Chris's Yachtmaster Prep? First of all, you need to know how to drive the boat. He'll simply say, "Jason, I want to you back onto that dock over there." The wind could be blowing strong, it could be a tight fit, with a strong tidal stream, and in waters that you've probably never been in. You have to be able to do it. Either you have the experience or you don't, and he'll know right away. He's been doing this for a long time. You can't learn how to drive a boat on the fly, guys. You can, however, learn lots of navigational methods and techniques on the fly. You need to know contouring, search and rescue (ie, expanding square), how to find unlit buoys in the dark, how to get to an obscure, and unmarked place on the chart. For example, Chris will tell you to go to a certain, charted buoy, and simply put his finger on the chart and say, "I want you to go here." Well, there's nothing there. It's just water. So you'll use a charted buoy as your starting point, draw your course to the spot, get the bearing, in degrees compass, do the time/speed/distance calculation, and then take the boat there. When you're asked to find an unlit buoy, at night, in Halifax Harbor, what are you going to do? You're going to use transit lights, you're going to have a little hand drawn map showing the things, like buoys, that will give you a frame of reference.
Remember, too, that we're all showing up to for the prep week and the exam with our own set of troubles, worries, etc. For example, I'm always dreadfully nervous about practical exams, I had a new set of glasses that I wasn't used to. They're these progressive lenses, you know the ones with three prescriptions in one? It takes almost two weeks for anyone to get used to them, on land, and I had just got them before leaving for Halifax. I had just started using a Portland plotter, and I was dealing with some emotional stuff that I had to fight to get out of my head occasionally, so that I could focus. It always takes me a while to get used to a boat, and, if any of you have had the Captains that I've had on these crew gigs, what do they always tell us? Never, ever, go into an unfamiliar port at night! Always arrange to be there in daylight. Right? Well, this is a Yachtmaster exam, and a Yachtmaster is expected to be able do just about anything with the boat and go just about anywhere. I mean, lets face it, the buoyage system is set up for us to be able to navigate safely, day or night. So, I've never tried to maneuver at night before, in unfamiliar waters, but there I was, and that's what I was told to do, and I had no choice. Again, how to you learn to that? Will you learn it on a volunteer crew gig? I would say 100% absolutely not. What I'm saying is there is no room for excuses. What am I to do? Try to explain all of my difficulties to the examiners? They don't want excuses. They want to see results. They want to see competency. They want to feel confident that you could take their families out for a sail and they'd be safe. They do, however, understand how tough it can be, and they do go out of their way to work with you to help you strengthen your weak areas. That is definitely something you can absolutely count on from whoever you have during the prep week. Once the exam begins, however, you're pretty much on your own. So, we take the courses we need to, to be prepared for the Yachtmaster exams. Most examiners will cut you some breaks. Yes, in certain areas, more or less depending on the level you're examining for, but they expect you to have already done this stuff. Is such a big deal if don't get the MOB on the first try? Of course not. But it's probably not a good idea to run right over the MOB, either.
You'll be doing lots of man overboard drills. The figure eight method is the most popular, it seems, and it's a good one to show skill level. But there are other MOB drills that are more effective, and you should know them. The 'falling leaf,' for example. You'll be expected to know how to pick up mooring balls, and to anchor, under sail. Wind awareness is important. That might sound like a silly thing to say. You might be saying to yourself, "how the hell can you sail if you don't know where the wind is, anyway?!" Well, that's easy to happen, too. The crew gigs that I've done were mostly long passages, and I wasn't required to do any boat handling in ports, so I didn't really have to know where the wind was, so to speak, constantly, at all times. The crew gigs I did simply required me to point the boat in the direction of the destination, St. Maarten to Panama, for example, put the autopilot on, and sit back and watch for traffic. Basic sail trim was required of course, but, for the most part, it was usually one tack, one course line, and one wind direction. The couple of times I was Captain of the vessel, it was the same thing, a long passage, across a body of water with the wind coming from one direction, using the autopilot I would highly recommend doing some racing, in order to hone your wind awareness skills.
Dave drilled us on the COLREGS and was quite impressed with John and myself in that regard. Heck, I knew them by number. Remember, however, you can know the rules are by number, but be certain that you actually know what they mean :) My weak area was lights. Most of the markers out there have distinctive light sequences. What is the light sequence of a south cardinal buoy? What about an isolated danger marker? As you're sailing along, or motoring, Chris and Dave will quietly say, "what's that buoy over there?" "What are those lights on that vessel over there?"
On the morning of the exam, Chris will leave the boat and Dave will arrive. Before Dave gets there, have the boat cleaned and squared away. Even if the other YM candidate can't be bothered with the cleaning, do it yourself, because the state of the vessel is a reflection on you. The other YM candidate's performance, on the water, is not a reflection on you, however. If, for example, he doesn't know how to handle the lines, and it takes you forever to tie up to a dock, don't worry about it. As long as you've shown competency at the helm, getting the boat to the dock, as pretty as you please, you're good. So, the morning of the exam, before Dave arrived, I scrubbed the cockpit, hosed it down, and squared the boat away below decks. When Dave arrived, I found him to be exactly as Chris described him, very easy-going, with a manner that puts you at ease right away. Had he been any different, I probably would have been a basket case. Dave asked me to do the engine checks and do a safety briefing. He asked John to take us out of the slip and we were on our way. We covered everything that I've described so far. We stopped for lunch and for dinner during the exam. Dave called us for a sit down, once or twice, individually, and asked some questions. For example, he'll ask you to join him below, and he'll have a synoptic chart. It may be a chart of the English channel, with a cold front coming in from the west. He'll say, "ok, you're here, on the English side, and you want to go to France. The wind is coming from this direction. What would you do?"
You'll be asked to plot a course. In our case, John and I had brought our RYA practice charts with us, and our plotting tools, so were asked to plot a course on the practice charts. We were given the departure point and the destination and told to plot the course for a specific day. This may involve taking into consideration some navigational obstructions, like a sand bar, for example, or a bridge. Most likely you'll be dealing with secondary port differences. He'll sit down with you at some point and ask you questions about the course you've plotted. For us, the exam began in the morning, and we took a break after dark, to get some sleep. I got up in the wee hours of the morning to go over a couple of things that I wasn't sure about, such as Angle of Vanishing Stability. We were up at daylight, and the exam continued for a couple of hours more. Dave puts you out of your misery immediately when he calls you below, by holding out his hand and congratulating you immediately if you've passed.
I'll have more to say later, but that is a pretty good synopsis of my Yachtmaster practical experience. I'm still sort of 'coming down' from the week in Halifax, but I can tell you it was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and it would be very hard for me to do any further RYA courses anywhere else other than with Chris and Dave.
Of course, as always, feel free to email me with any questions :)