Skysail Training


Yachtmaster Practical Advice                  RYA Yachtmaster Books

Good guide to exam preparation - RAF Sailing Association

When we bought our Moody 336 ‘Skyva II’ my wife Celia and I both did the shore based Yachtmaster course, but our practical experience was based on dinghy racing in Merlin Rockets (still the most efficient means of going to windward that I know), an RYA dinghy instructors course, an Ionian flotilla and a couple of bare boat charters round Corsica where we had an experienced skipper. When you buy your first cruiser no one tells you that your first task is to take the boat through a lock, up a narrow channel and into a narrow berth, so we had help with that and spent a day under instruction ‘pontoon bashing’ round Hythe marina to get some basic motoring skills.

Most of the first year was spent in outrageously deep water and the entrances to Beaulieu, Newtown and Bembridge were negotiated with great caution and a sense of satisfaction that others might obtain by crossing the Atlantic. Over 5 years we have ventured further to the Channel Islands, Normandy and Falmouth and built up a reasonable level of competence and about 4,000 miles in the log. The sailing has never really been a problem; the 336 is a rewarding boat to sail, but we had some sticky moments in marinas and have usually taken the easy option when it offers itself. Our excellent Garmin GPS and Yeoman plotter take all the stress out of the navigation, and to be honest we are over dependent on electronics. We reached a plateau in our skills and I had always intended to stretch further by taking the Yachtmaster preparation course and the exam when appropriate.

So I booked a weeks preparation, mugged up on tidal vectors, meteorology, flags and first aid and set forth. Our boat was an Oceanis 411, very comfortable, not a great sailing boat, but predictable and easy to handle. The instructor assumed you knew the syllabus, the objective was to demonstrate practical boat handling and brush up on any weak spots. Again the sailing was not a problem, but I soon found that my motoring skills were not up to it and had to work very hard to master mooring astern in a 3 knot tide - not something I usually look for. The marinas on the Hamble River are quite reasonably getting very nervous about school boats, so even finding places to practice needed careful planning. Blind navigation took a lot of practice, and we had a real experience of blindness outside Newtown entrance in a hailstorm when even the GPS could not find us the mark, when we must have been within 25 yards of it.

After a few days we concluded that I and another candidate (Duncan) were not quite ready, so we crewed in an exam and found this was valuable preparation; helping a candidate go through the process was very satisfying and it was interesting that the candidate, who had shown capable motoring skills all week still had some nasty moments when asked to perform under pressure. But it was also reassuring that the examiner was ready to give a second chance, and if you showed hesitation he kept probing until he was satisfied that you really knew the subject. This exam took over 18 hours, which reflects the level of intensity, and because a few things did go wrong we had to repeat them. The night sailing and pilotage in Portsmouth harbour were hard work, and we had a real emergency when a large vessel occupied the small boat channel in the entrance. Maybe he was not expecting us at 11 pm. 

Another surprise was a Man Overboard at night, after all our MOB practice had been by day. The MOB process has changed since I first learnt the RYA method - the first step now is a crash tack which may you get close enough to the MOB, if not then roll the genoa and motor upwind to stop alongside the unfortunate casualty. You might still have to demonstrate the ‘reach, tack, reach’, method under sail, but the RYA assumes you have an engine and would need a good answer for the coroner at the inquest if you did not use it. Two other valuable lessons were that good lassoing skills are essential, even thought the RYA is said to frown on the lasso method, there is no other way to pick up the large buoys outside Cowes under sail in a forty footer. Secondly, get a crew with good eyesight; a Day Skipper with us could not only find unlit posts at night with no moon, but also identify if they were red or green!

So Duncan and I booked another days pontoon practice to be followed by the exam. The day was spent on the Hamble with non stop manoeuvres and we both showed marked improvement. Our instructor made us do all this under some verbal pressure in the hope that the examiner might actually be more relaxed, which proved correct. A few phrases were embedded - ‘Tide is King’ was basic, but we added ‘The correct manoeuvre, poorly performed, is still better than the wrong manoeuvre, perfectly performed’. We also did some blackboard work to quickly revise difficult situations and the correct response. Our instructor gave us a lot of confidence and I think was quite impressed by the level of preparation we had put in, even down to forecasting our likely exercise area as the Beaulieu River and Newtown where we had already calculated secondary tidal heights. The Yachtmaster content is exactly the same as the Coastal Skipper - but the Coastal exam gives you plenty of thinking time, while the YM is under continuous pressure, sometimes subtle but always there. Preparation is essential. A lot of this exam is about close quarters boat handling, as the qualifying passages are assumed to confirm the longer distance work, and you may get questions to verify this.

We had to prepare passage plans from Cowes to St Peter Port and back, which was reasonably straightforward. Our examiner came aboard at 6 pm and did the paperwork. You need to demonstrate the necessary 2,500 miles tidal mileage, night passages, shore based course work, VHF and First Aid Qualifications, and produce a passport photo which was not apparent in the pre entry paperwork. The examiner asked the two other crew members to follow the candidates’ briefing but not make helpful suggestions, and asked us to remember that we were in a boat with sails and he wanted to see efficient sailing wherever possible.

We set off for Cowes across the Bramble bank, and the questions started straight away - ‘What does that mark indicate? Er, North Cardinal, 12 flashes’. Which side is the danger? To the South.  ’Excellent’ And if that was right he started on another subject - ‘what will the depth be over the Bramble?’ We had a lot to get through with two candidates, and the first MOB came within 800 yards of leaving the pontoon. We picked up moorings under sail, wind against tide, successfully negotiating the rapid changes in tidal streams off Cowes, rapidly cooked and ate a tinned curry, then I had to skipper to Beaulieu entrance, which I did by picking up Lepe Spit mark then sailing west down the 5 metre contour. By now it was dark and the night MOB duly arrived. We lifted the ‘casualty’ over the stern and she was breathing but unconscious with a large lump on her head. ‘What treatment do you give? Right, would you call a Mayday? Right, go to Beaulieu with all speed to hand her over to an inshore lifeboat’.

Although local knowledge is a great help, make sure it is up to date. I did not know the new sectored light in the entrance, but fortunately my crew did (and it is on the new chart editions and the almanac, so I had no excuse). So we went in, with more questions -‘ what’s your bearing line?’, came out, after some rapid and unwanted zigzags around the posts in the dark, then set off for Yarmouth with Duncan in charge, demonstrating his knowledge of electronic navigation with his handheld GPS. As his specialty is offshore race navigation, this was easy meat for him. He even knew all the racing marks to avoid en route. By now we had established that the crew helms the yacht unless the examiner asks you. Stay back from the actual boat handling as much as possible, you already have enough to do. Briefing the crew is therefore vital and the examiner was continuously watching for this.

Duncan found an empty berth on the pontoon opposite the north wall and smoothly moored the boat at 11 pm after what had so far been a reasonably successful evening. Though we were both conscious of errors, we had not been asked to repeat anything, so far. The examiner even produced a bottle of wine at this point, so he must have been reasonably happy - or needed to calm his nerves?

Up at 6.30, I was asked to take the boat up the channel, turn round and moor in the space we left. I was uncertain of the available depth further up the channel as there were only smaller boats there, but thought we can soon find out. I briefed the crew on springing off,   ( YACHT MOORING ) and with an onshore wind I successfully reversed outside two boats when it all went horribly wrong. Probably I took it too slowly, but the wind caught the bow and soon I was broadside on in a 45 foot channel in a 41 ft boat. By leaving well alone the bow turned downwind and I could reverse up the channel, moor the boat and left the mooring for a tidal vector exercise across the Solent. I was allowed one course change. I did not do well on this, was far too slow and did not make use of all the available information, such as the log and shore marks. We reached the target mark with no course changes but I definitely did not impress. The examiner was never critical; he had spent most of his career in the Royal Navy and had already seen every conceivable way of getting it wrong. He had a fund of outrageous stories about his experiences, and made the whole event a real pleasure, at least in hindsight. He let the situation cause the pressure. He was upset when tea failed to arrive at frequent intervals, and his favourite ploy was to ask you to go below, carry out an exercise and make the tea simultaneously. If the tea slipped your mind you were in serious trouble!

Our next destination was the Beaulieu for anchoring practice. En route a trawler passed. More questions on fishing boats. Into the river, ‘Can you anchor there? No, that’s across a power line’. Right, anywhere you want to go, then’ What time should we leave to cross the bar? - No problem, there is always enough water today….So I tried to anchor on the north bank but soon found that we would fall back into the channel, so motored up to the pool on the corner where we could lie back out of the channel.

Duncan then supervised raising the anchor and we set off again for the Folly Inn and some narrow channel motoring exercise, and en route we did the Hi-line exercise   ( YACHT RESCUE HELICOPTER HI LINE )  and discussed passage plans, which he seemed happy with, but added some useful advice about giving the crew all possible written information on the chart, such as distance to go and lights visible. He made a good point that in this litigious age the front page of the log should contain ‘standing orders’ for watches and calling the skipper. It might be your only written record in court. Then more questions on fire fighting, liferaft launching, flares, meteorology and using the emergency tiller.

After lunch and some satisfactory 360 degree turns in confined spaces I had to recover my problems of the morning by plotting a course across the Bramble. This time all conceivable information appeared; I used clearing bearings and natural transits and thought it was going well until I realised we were sailing to windward with the sails set like dishrags. Things improved when I asked for the best course we could sail and our helm gave me 090, when it seemed to me more like 030, and found the problem was due to a magnet sneakily taped to the binnacle. More questions on a tug towing alongside, big ships seen in Southampton Water, using every natural opportunity that turned up.

We finished about 2.00 pm and this was probably a good sign. We had kept well to schedule, and the examiner took us on the foredeck while our crew sailed back to the Hamble. He was very pleased to recommend passes for both of us, to much relief all round, then gave a good debrief on the improvements we could make. His basic criterion for a competent Yachtmaster was command and control of the boat and the situation; but if the plan does not work, be prepared to change the plan, such as my poorly controlled but corrected departure in Yarmouth. His view was that, as in the Navy, the captain should be able to think beautiful thoughts and you can only do this by standing back, planning, briefing, then letting your crew get on with it with some style. Any other approach is stressful for the crew, the boat and the skipper.

We had a great time and packed more into 48 hours than I could believe, including some activities we would never normally dream of. The courses and exam improved my skills and raised my expectations, and as importantly showed me where to improve. I overestimated my capabilities at the start, and my best course might have been to take Coastal Skipper first which would have been equally useful and much less pressure. Duncan and I strongly agreed that it helped to share the experience - you could not help each other directly but there was great moral support. So if you have been thinking about it my advice is to go for it. You will learn a lot and it will raise your sailing game and give confidence to go still further.


From Steve Betts:

Hi Keith

Remember me from the Day Skipper Theory in Amersham/High Wycombe? I thought you’d be interested that as one of your pupils I took the Yachtmaster Offshore practical on Thursday and passed! You obviously did a good job with getting the theory sorted so thanks for your help.

I did the 5 day prep at Four-Winds in the Bavaria 37, along with two other candidates and at the end Trevor the trainer – himself an examiner gave us an appraisal. He said that Alastair would probably pass; I was border-line but would probably pass; Alitio would probably fail. Based on that summary, Alitio decided not to do the exam but stayed on to help us crew.

Ian the examiner arrived a few minutes late at about 6:00 – building the suspense! We did the paperwork, which was interesting in that he did not seem particularly interested in the log and qualifying passages. We had to sign that we had done the minimums required but did not have to detail how and when.

We had a spot of the supper that Allitio had cooked while we did this and I did a very quick safety briefing. We slipped at about 8:30 – nearly spring low. Al had lost the toss and had to plan a passage to take the boat from Bucklers Hard to Power-House Creek – down the Beaulieu River in the dark just short of spring low.

I took over and took the boat to Itchen Marina (under the Itchen Bridge) I found a document that seemed to say (in German) that the mast was 13.9m and that the bridge height was 23m, but it certainly didn’t look like I had 9m clearance and my heart was in my mouth as we stood in the cockpit with a torch pointed at the top of the mast and the bridge beyond. I had to pick up a pontoon in the marina just beyond that on the left. Afterwards, I heard him say to Al and Alitio, “he won’t forget that in a hurry!” and he’s right, I won’t!

Al then took the boat down to the Hamble and berthed for what was left of the night at about 01:30. We set the alarms for 07:00 and he took the boat out and anchored on the eastern edge Southampton water opposite Calshot, where we had breakfast.

My first task of the day was to take the boat to Newtown Creek “sailing as much as possible”. I tried and failed to sail off the anchorage – getting too much drive from the mainsail in the 18-20 kt Northerly breeze. I used the engine just to take the pressure off the chain so Al could pull it up. The rest of the passage went faultlessly including picking up a MOB or two, sailing up the transit into Newtown and anchoring in the lake on the left.

Pasties for lunch and Al was tasked with taking the boat back to Bucklers Hard – he on request prepared a “racing” course round three cans but we were constrained by getting back up the Beaulieu before low tide and didn’t complete it.  We did a couple more MOBs under power and sail and Ian had a play – he said it was the first new model 37 that he had had a chance to sail. Perhaps he was trying too hard but he seemed to have less success picking up our MOB than we did.

Anyway – we got back at about 16:30 and he gave us the news in separate one-to-one interviews and departed, leaving us to tidy up and leave. I was too exhausted to feel much exhilaration, but its finally dawning on me that we have both passed a huge milestone.

Steve Betts

posted 4th March 2011