The Road to the Yachtmaster

My bedtime reading

My bedtime reading

As some people will be aware, I came over to Europe this summer with the main goal of obtaining my Yachtmaster Coastal certification in Gibraltar. The Yachtmaster Coastal is a basic captain’s license offered by the RYA (Royal Yachting Association), an organization based in the UK, which basically serves as the gold standard for charter skippers in most of the world. To pass your Yachtmaster, you must have logged 800 nautical miles on a yacht (a keelboat with a cabin, a head and a galley), as well as hold a certificate showing you have been trained to use a VHF radio and apply basic first aid skills. Although these are the requirements on paper, as I discovered, the actual exam tests you on much more than just this. The RYA’s vague description on their website does not give a good indication of what to expect:

The Yachtmaster™ Coastal has the knowledge needed to skipper a yacht on coastal cruises but does not necessarily have the experience needed to undertake longer passages.

I was set to take my Yachtmaster exam in Gibraltar – the Friday before last – following a week-long prep course. Unfortunately, our group hit an unexpected hitch. On the third day of our course, our instructor told us that we were likely to fail our exam. Although all our skills (practical and theoretical) were borderline, he felt our biggest problem was that we lacked the confidence necessary to pass; a confidence that only comes with familiarity and experience on yachts. In the end, I had to agree with him. Sometimes you need to read the writing on the wall, even if it means changing your plans.

As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that the examiners for the Yachtmaster in Gibraltar are notoriously hard. They’re all ex-navy and they’ve seen enough bad shit happen at sea to last a lifetime. From what I’ve heard, other people had much easier times testing at other locations. I probably could’ve figured out a different arrangement too, but Gibraltar is cheap and you get your money’s worth, in terms of training. So I decided to stick with it, despite the added difficulty.

I think it’s safe to say we were all pretty shaken after our instructor sat us down and told us we weren’t going to pass. Most of us opted out of the exam, but one member of our group (probably the most experienced) decided to take the test anyway. He managed to pass – but it was by the skin of his teeth! His exam was so shaky that we all (including him) thought he had failed by the end of the day. I don’t know if I could’ve done any better – and I’m glad I decided to postpone anyways, for several reasons:

The first factor in my decision to wait was a growing awareness I was somewhat ‘out of my depth’. This was hard to admit. I’m a highly experienced dinghy sailor; I’ve been coaching beginners since I was sixteen and I have several years of collegiate racing under my belt. I’ve also done a lot of power boating too, but, again, mostly on smaller boats. I entered this summer with the misconception that I could easily transfer these skills to yachts, within a couple of weeks. I have the “required” amount of yachting experience – most of it pretty informal and quite old. It wasn’t enough. There is no substitute for time spent on big boats. In order to develop the proper decision-making skills, you need to have the proper intuition – and this was something I didn’t have. I realized I needed a couple more weeks minimum, to bring me up to speed.

Second, I had several conversations with instructors that made me realize being a charter skipper entails taking on  more liability (in the legal sense) than I’d realized, and I didn’t want that on my plate until I felt confident in my own abilities. Barely passing a test just so you can get a job is one thing! Having a heap of legal trouble dumped in your lap as a result is something else entirely. Finally, I’d always seen this summer at the Yacht Week as a stepping stone to future charter skipper jobs (maybe with other companies and in other parts of the world). The idea of “half-assing” my training was pretty unsatisfying to me. I like to be good at whatever job I’m doing.

As a result, I decided to take some more time to prepare, study theory and get extra time on the water. I’ll be taking my Yachtmaster (in Gibraltar again) in mid-June and I’m fairly confident that I’ll be ready the second time around. In the meantime, I’m traveling around Spain and looking for any opportunity to get on the water! I’ll be posting a more ‘light-hearted’ account of my travels in a week or so… there’s been enough serious posts for a while. Don’t forget to check back.

Thanks for reading!

-Alex

P.S. If anyone here is thinking about taking their Yachtmaster, I’d recommend a look at this – a syllabus excerpted from the RYA logbook (as a Canadian, I can’t access it without buying a copy). I wish I’d seen it before I went into my course. Here is a good site I used to learn to the Colregs (it has some other good stuff too!), and here is electronic copy of the ISAF Offshore Special Regulations (probably more detail than you need for safety, but worth skimming). Good luck!

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