Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Slowtrack Yachtmaster

Strata 6 in a typical location off Felixstowe
Many people nowadays take a "fast-track" Yachtmaster course - Guy was one of them. Over period of three to six months you gain sailing experience, sea miles, endless practice of navigation skills and Collision Regulations, all the supporting qualifications offered by the RYA, and finally you take the RYA Yachtmaster (Offshore) practical exam.

I think I have just achieved the "slow-track" alternative. Looking at my quite aged RYA cruising logbook, I see that Sam and I did the Competent Crew practical in April 1989 (with the Westerly Sea School, long since defunct alas, and a colour-blind instructor). I followed this with the Day Skipper and Yachtmaster theory courses in 1992 and 93. A bit of a gap then as we didn't have a boat for a while, followed by VHF, First Aid and Coastal Skipper practical course completion in 2002-3, when we bought Magewind. At some point I did the Radar course, although I seem to have lost the certificate, followed by Sea Survival in 2009, and then a further long gap - I did a couple of weather courses too with Simon Keeling, but they don't form part of the RYA syllabus.

Last week, almost exactly 26 years after I completed the Competent Crew practical, I finally passed the Yachtmaster (Offshore) exam. Hooray!

Naturally there are more qualifications I could take if I wish - Yachtmaster Ocean for example, or Yachtmaster Instructor if I want to teach. At the moment however I think I have made quite good progress in overcoming my general nervousness (believe it or not) about going sailing. I've come a long way since we came out of St Valery en Caux in Kalessin in 2005 when a nasty force 5 Channel chop sent me down to hide in the cabin, shaking, crying and quite unable to cope with being on deck. I spent a few NLP sessions trying to find a way to get over that one.... and it may have taken 10 years but it seems to have worked.

I did what is called a "brush-up" course with East Anglian Sea School. Over the years these seem to have got shorter - when I did my Coastal Skipper in 2003 we had a Yachtmaster candidate who brushed up with all of us for five days and took his exam on the sixth. (He failed, mainly because he had no sense of where the wind was coming from). Last week's course, with two candidates on board, was just three days followed by the exam on the fourth day. Apparently people were turning up expecting to be brought up to YM standard from scratch in five days. No doubt a six-day course would be even harder on the wallet than the four-and-a-half days I did.

I was pretty lucky with my instructor (Ian McGlynn) and fellow candidate (Keith). As it happens, both are highly experienced - Keith was in the Merchant Navy for many years and holds a mate's certificate, although the RYA doesn't recognise that as qualifying you to sail a yacht (I guess you are a little closer to the water than on a coaster). He's also a really interesting person - former owner of a number of food production businesses, a lay preacher, volunteer with the Africa Mercy hospital ship, owner of an oldish 43-ft Oyster, and he's done the wooden boatbuilding course at Lowestoft. Ian meanwhile is a retired engineer with various water companies, a highly experienced yachtmaster instructor and charter skipper, guitar player and supporter of the Nancy Blackett trust (Nancy Blackett is a 1931 Hillyard 7-tonner formerly owned by Arthur Ransome, the original of the Goblin in We didn't mean to go to sea, and we were privileged to visit her in her berth at Woolverstone).

We had three days of delightful warm south westerlies and although it was the hardest work I've done at sea for a number of years, the course was actually enjoyable, considerably to my surprise.

On Wednesday evening the wind went round to the NE and the temperature dropped by about 10 degrees, which was a shame. Also, the cause of a squeak and catch in the wheel steering turned out to be a very worn steering cable - just as well we spotted it, as there were about four strands left and it would never have stood up to the rigours of the exam. The yacht, Strata 6, is a Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 36i, only six years old, but very well used as you would expect with a sea school boat (also generally well maintained, but not without problems). The wheel is huge and was a challenge for me more generally, as steering with it was very different from the tiller steering on Kalessin.

This is a different Sun Odyssey 36i but gives a good idea of the size of the wheel...
This isn't Kalessin either but shows how different the cockpit layout is in a Westerly Storm

Our examiner, Norman Andrews, is also in private life a Yachtmaster instructor at East Anglian Sea School. This seemed quite incestuous, but it appears there aren't enough examiners on the east coast. We started at 9am and finished around midnight, with Keith and me alternating skipper-ship throughout the day.

Good bits:
  • My course to steer to Fox's buoy (the direction to sail in, allowing for tide and wind) was perfect, which was a surprise as I'd managed to get it wrong every time I'd practised it in the previous month
  • I got the boat to heave-to on the right side of the buoy (downtide) and did it perfectly
  • Planning our route back from South Bawdsey to Wadgate Ledge, I asked Norman a question about crossing the Cork anchorage area, to which he expressed horror as he thought we were going the wrong way. Turned out I was right and he was wrong (he was thinking of a different anchorage somewhere else)
  • I worked out my tidal calculation correctly in about two minutes - mainly thanks to Ian who got us to do a tidal curve each day
  • My planned (theoretical) passage to Breskens was pretty good, and so it should have been because we have done variations of that route half a dozen times and spent many days in Breskens marina
  • We stopped on a mooring at Shotley for dinner, to answer some theory questions, and to wait for it to get dark so we could go night sailing. Around 9pm Norman popped on deck to check conditions, and announced it was so cold that we would not go out to Pye End as planned but would just do pilotage in the Stour and Orwell. Phew
Less good bits:
  • My first go at reversing into an alongside berth in SYH was rubbish, mainly becase I put a bit of forward throttle on instead of holding my nerve
  • It took me about six attempts to pick up the man overboard (just a little fender with a weight and loop of string - you have to come alongside it very slowly). The conditions were choppy and gusty which made it much more difficult than when we had practised in the Stour. We almost did it on the second or third pass but Ian dropped it :( Mind you I dropped it twice while Keith was trying to pick it up.... and I'm pretty sure he had more goes than I did
  • On my second run at the man overboard Norman told me there was no water coming out of the exhaust. I assumed this was an examiner's wicked ploy, turned off the engine and we did the whole thing under sail, but in fact it turned out to be true - the water pump drive belt was worn and possibly slipping, and the water filter lid was loose and might have been allowing an air leak
  • Norman helped me pick up the mooring in the Stour under sail. Grrr. The tide whizzes round the corner there and the wind is a bit flukey, that's my excuse anyway.
  • At the end (around midnight) we finally got the results ... after arriving back into SYH, tidying up the boat, putting on the sail over, making a cup of tea and generally messing about for almost 30 very nervous minutes. Norman said "Well, I'm recommending you for the qualification of Yachtmaster offshore - but you won't make Yachtmaster of the year". Thanks very much Norman. What happened to "Congratulations"? What happened to the appraisal sandwich, where you give people the good news about their performance, then slip in a bad bit, and end with another good bit? Basically he said my navigation was fine but my boat handling wasn't. I am very cross with myself about this, I know I could have done better. I just hope that it was the combination of exam nerves, the first sail this season and a socking great wheel which meant I reverted to my timid and hesitant native self. Bugger.
Anyway Keith also passed, as expected, and we finally got to bed around 0130. Slightly bizarrely Norman's boat was about 10 metres away from ours, having just been launched, and he ended up coming back for a drink and a warm-up as he had no heating on his boat - and then back again for breakfast the next morning.

All in all it was a good experience, tough and challenging but with great opportunities to learn. I was lucky to be with a good team (Ian and Keith). I wouldn't choose Strata 6 as a boat for me, she's responsive and quick, and reasonably well-equipped and comfortable below, but very tender (tippy) - in a Force 4-5 we sailed everywhere with the No.4 headsail, which is a small working jib, and often a reef in the main, and she still griped up into every gust.

My hope was that the qualification would give both me and potential crew more confidence. Just at the moment I'm not quite sure how confident I feel, knowing I will never be Yachtmaster of the year (grrrrrrr). Kalessin is due to go into the water at the end of this week so I'll have an opportunity to find out fairly soon....