Breeze was bobbing away quietly on C Pier at Nelson Marina, gently tugging on her mooring lines as I apprehensively walked up the dock on Monday morning. Chris from Sail Nelson was there to welcome me on board and he introduced me to James and Steve – my fellow Offshore Yachtmaster protégé’s.
Despite all the 30 ish years of sailing, and the weeks of theory revision I’d done prior to the course, I still wasn’t really sure at that stage whether I’d done enough or what exactly lay before us. I felt a mixture of nerves, anticipation and excitement welling up inside me.
Chris, Steve, James and I sat with cups of coffee steaming our hands, huddled around Breeze‘s saloon table. We all had our own unique sailing story and reasons for voluntarily being on board the 36’ Sun Fast with a bunch of strangers for a week of intensive sailing.
For me personally it has been something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I have been keen to tick off the RYA Offshore Yachtmaster exam for a few years now. This certificate is widely regarded to be the pinnacle of all sailing qualifications and allows the holder to skipper a sailing vessel up to 24 meters in length. It is recognised worldwide as the benchmark in professional sailing, but where I take my new qualification to from here is still undecided.
Steve from Auckland had been sailing all his life, and works as an engineer on some incredible super yachts in the Med and Caribbean and has his own yacht in Westhaven, and James, a land locked Central Otago farmer is a relative newcomer to cruising, but has managed to clock up an impressive number of miles under his belt over recent years with various adventures on his yacht which is currently patiently awaiting his return in Virginia USA.
As is often the case with fellow yachties, we all had lots in common. Not only a passion for sailing and the ocean and a genuine desire to enjoy and succeed on the exam, but also that sense of adventure, zest for life and plenty of crazy stories and experiences to share with one another. We all got along really well and by the end of the week had become great mates.
Chris, owner of Sail Nelson, and our instructor for the week, had been clear in his instructions: He was simply there to help familiarise us with the beautiful Breeze, the area in which we’d be sitting the exam, and helping us refine and perfect all our required skills to pass. We were expected to already have the skippering experience, sea time, boat handling expertise and navigational knowledge already firmly imprinted in our skill-set. Becoming an Offshore Yachtmaster isn’t simply a week-long course you can sit and pass, but it comes from having years of practical experience at the helm. Chris is a very patient, relaxed and experienced instructor who quickly recognised our various strengths and weaknesses and carefully guided us through some techniques to ensure success in our exam.
We ran through all the equipment on board Breeze, had a safety briefing, checked out the engine, sails and all the other systems. By the end of the week we were expected to know this boat like the back of our hands.
After lunch we cast off the lines to make the most of the building sea-breeze for an afternoon sail.
Nelson Harbour is the perfect place for a course like this. With a 4m range of tide, current flow, plenty of navigation marks, leading lights, large ships and fishing boats regularly coming and going, narrow channels, and areas where you can sail at high tide, but not at low tide, some interesting depth contours and corners to turn and then a huge bay in which to sail in as well. The area has plenty of scope to test some of the theory & practical skills we had accumulated over the years.
It was great to have plenty of time up our sleeves to get to know Breeze. She is a beautiful 36′ Jeanneau Sun Fast, and with all boats she has her own unique quirks. For example Breeze really likes going forwards, like for a really long time, and it seems like an especially long time when you really really REALLY want her to be going in reverse, like in a marina, or when picking up a mooring buoy. She also doesn’t really like turning tight corners, especially in reverse or when the wind is blowing. In short, she is a great boat to both sail and then also get to know how to handle in a marina.
Day two started with driving rain and gusts of about 30kts blowing through the marina. “I think we should do some marina manoeuvring today” Chris calmly suggested.
I felt a wave of mild anxiety that I am pretty sure most yacht owners experience when trying to wrangle an unfamiliar boat, in challenging conditions in tight spaces, around expensive boats, with an audience watching. Nothing like pushing you way outside your comfort zone to help perfect some of those skills when the consequences of the potential disaster are so high. Lets just say we managed to avoid crashing in to anyone, I have a new appreciation of how nimble little Wildwood is and I may have even overcome some of my marina demons (stemming from an unfortunate and very un-classy experience in Waikawa marina many years ago now, the details of which we will never be discussing ever again…)
If it was easy I guess everyone would be doing it right?!
After a $1 = three minute shower in the marina, and another of Chris’s amazing hearty meals to feed the hungry sailors, we headed out for some night navigation. It is actually amazing how much less and also how much more you can see at night. The real difficulty comes from tired eyes picking which light relates to what on your chart. Is that glittering white light in the distance an anchor light, a leading light, a stern light, a towing light, light house, a cardinal mark, a plane, the moon or a street light? Your eyes play tricks on you in the darkness, and being confident about what you are looking at, vs what is on the chart is a skill that comes with experience.
The strong currents and large range of tides in Nelson makes it a perfect place to test the skills of plotting fun things like, height of tide and current set, drift, and let’s throw in some leeway there too. Constantly calculating, speed, distance, time, variation (and thankfully not much deviation on Breeze) from true course to magnetic & compass course blew some of the dust accumulating in the maths section of my brain. Pulling this all together to plot a course to steer is one thing, but then putting it in to practice in a blind navigation test is quite another. As you are sitting down below in darkness, calling out a course to steer to the helmsman while madly trying to work out how fast you are going through the water vs over the ground, adding the height of tide, to what is displayed on the depth sounder on to chart datum and hoping that you’ve plotted your course in the right direction is pretty stressful, but extremely rewarding when I popped up on deck about 15 minutes after starting to find myself about 20 metres off my target spot. Hurrah!
Boat handling was fun, Breeze was a delight to sail, with the only challenge being getting her to come to a complete stop when attempting to pick up a MOB or a mooring in the light winds.
With our sailing, pilotage, navigating & boat handling skills all polished up, next on the menu was meteorology, COLREGS, sound signals and passage planning. Our examiner had left a choice of various passages to choose from, and I picked a trip from Catherine Cove to Nelson, after a rather terrifying trip I’d done a couple of years ago in the opposite direction. The boys chose a passage in to and out of Mapua which they quickly decided was quite a tricky place to take a keelboat in to given the changing channel and restrictive tides. After having done my friend Jackie Parry’s excellent Passage Planning online course, I managed to produce a fabulous and very comprehensive plan which the boys thought was very nerdy and completely over the top… 😉
After five days on board I was actually pleasantly surprised to say we had barely even looked at the GPS all week. It is extremely satisfying to be able to navigate without using much technology. While GPS is amazing and awesome, I realised that solely relying on GPS is really akin to just relying on one of your senses. The ability to be able to also confidently use charts, plotters, compasses, bearings, tide tables, deviation tables, tidal diamonds, depth sounders and all the other things in your navigation tool box, you open your senses up to an incredible extra dimension. You aren’t simply following the pink line on your chart plotter – anyone can do that. But really navigating requires some talent and knowledge – especially if your electronics fail.
After a full on week of practice, Chris wished us good luck and we retired to the pub clutching the COLREGS flashcards, putting the final touches on our passage plans and had a nice lunch and a couple of beers to help calm the nerves.
Thankfully Chris had also lent us his 15 year old son Ben as our deckhand. It was great to have another experienced crew member on board who knew the boat and could help with all the various activities we had ahead.
At 6pm the examiner, Stuart – the local harbour master, arrived to put us through our paces. We had a quick chat to get to know each other, while he reassured us all that while this test was going to be intense and serious, we should also relax and have fun! James, Steve and I exchanged mildly terrified glances at each other, while hoping that no one was noticing how white my knuckles were tightly gripping the wheel as we departed the marina.
As we passed a speeding un-lit boat in the dark on the wrong side, a dinghy driver with no life jacket and someone doing welding on their boat in the marina, I started to get an understanding of what separates a Yachtmaster from your average boatie. As Stuart and Chris had explained, the RYA has high expectations that the people who pass this exam are hopefully not going to turn up on the front page of the paper for doing something dumb or careless at sea. Both the RYA, our assessor and their reputations as well as the people employing Offshore Yachtmaster’s depend on people holding this qualification being fit and capable seafarers. We simply weren’t going to be able to get a certificate of participation for this course.
We were well and truly put through our paces during the next two days. Taking turns to be skipper and crew, we were presented with numerous challenging navigation tasks during the day and at night, boat handling skills while discussing theoretical disasters on board, imaginary fog, engine troubles, storms, quick fire questions on knots, lights, COLREGS, pilotage, and if BOB the fender fell overboard one more time I decided I was going to carefully hide him away in my sleeping bag when no one was watching…
At the end of it we were mentally and physically exhausted. Had we done enough to prove our capabilities? Stu took as all aside one by one to give us some feedback and our final result. Thankfully we all passed!
The fact that the prep week and the exam had been quite intense made the positive result seem even more satisfying. Despite being really tired, we decided to head in to town for a couple of quiet drinks to celebrate.
I think we got home about 4am… 😉
I’d like to highly recommend Sail Nelson and thank Chris for all his patience and expertise guiding and feeding us for the five days before the exam, it was a fantastic preparation for the challenge ahead. Breeze was an excellent vessel for doing the test and for living on board and I loved sailing her. Chris’ son Ben was a delight to have around and I am sure he has got a bright sailing future ahead. Stuart was a wonderful examiner, we all really felt like we’d had a good opportunity to show off all the skills we’d been perfecting during the week. Thanks to Seth, my Mum and in-laws for holding the fort at home while I was away. Finally I’d like to thank my fellow Offshore Yachtmasters Steve & James. It was actually really easy to look good as a skipper when you’ve got such talented crew to carry out any orders so swiftly and confidently. You guys are awesome and I am sure we will catch up again for more adventures.
So if you are keen to get qualified too, what is an Offshore Yachtmaster expected to know? Well quite a bit actually! You’re expected to know everything from very basic beginner fundamental sailing skills, right through to your advanced navigation techniques (without GPS).
For me I guess it is one thing to think you know what you are doing, but it is quite reassuring to have someone qualified to put you through your paces to actually confirm that you do!
There are two levels of Yachtmaster: Coastal and Offshore. While the exam is the same, the difference is that Offshore candidates are required to have more experience and a higher skill level than is required for Coastal. The decision as to which level of exam you wish to be assessed for must however be made prior to commencement of the exam. A Yachtmaster Offshore candidate cannot be awarded the Coastal certificate if they don’t quite make the Offshore grade. (No pressure!!)
- Sea time – lots of logged experience as skipper on a variety of different vessels in different tidal areas, including overnight and on longer coastal or offshore passages.
- First Aid Certificate
- VHF GMDSS qualification
- An advanced knowledge of all the navigation, passage planning, meteorology & COLREGS. I can highly recommend Sistership Training for a fabulous online course to cover off these topics.
Additional Requirements for Commercial Endorsement
- The Offshore Yachtmaster certificate can be used as a foundation for driving much larger vessels, you just need to add on the extra certificates as you go along.
- Ocean Yachtmaster is a theory exam about celestial navigation.
- Parts of a boat and hull
- General nautical terminology
- Spars, rigging
- Types of sails
- Parts of the sail and sail controls
- Choice of sails
- Trimming sails
- Use of halyards, cleats and winches
- Rigging the boat for the conditions
Sailing Techniques & Manoeuvres
- Types of keel
- Wind awareness
- Sailing upwind
- Controlling speed
- Sailing downwind
- Crew communications
- Heaving to
- Coming alongside a dock
- Use of fenders
- Throwing a mooring line
- Attaching a line to a cleat
- Leaving a dock
- Using springs to leave a dock
- Picking up a mooring – under motor or sail
- Sailing in close proximity to other vessels
- Lee shore dangers
- Sailing using transits
- Setting & trimming sails
- Boat trim
- Velocity or Course Made Good
- Balance, stability, centre of gravity
- Anchoring – see below
- Turning in a confined space
- Sailing around a course
- Race starts and racing rules
- Steering, and using a compass to steer a course
- Crew positions
- Heavy weather techniques
- Latitude and longitude
- True bearings and courses
- Use of compass
- Use of chart & knowledge of symbols
- Use of Radar
- Lighthouses and beacons and light characteristics
- Ranges of lights, visual, luminous and nominal
- Raising and dipping distances
- Use of plotting instruments
- Application of variation and deviation
- Use of hand bearing compass
- Techniques of visual fixing – transits, leading lines and clearing lines
- Use of sailing directions
- Pilotage plans and harbour entry
- Use of AIS
- Use of GPS
- Raster and vector charts
- Chart datum
- Use of speed log
- Knowledge of IALA buoyage
- Use of lead line
- Use of depth sounder
- Plotting a fix
- Plotting a course
- Dead Reckoning and Estimated Position
- Steering a course allowing for set, drift & leeway
- Take and plot a visual fix
- Use of waypoints and routes
- Estimate tidal heights and streams
- Passage planning
- Publications required
- Navigational hazards
- Maintaining navigational records, layout of log, hourly and occasional entries
- The importance of obtaining a secondary means of position fixing
- Precautions to be taken in fog – including blind navigation
- Navigation techniques in poor visibility
- Safe handling of lines
- Coiling a line
- Round turn and two & a half hitches
- Clove hitch
- Reef knot
- Rolling hitch
- Single & double sheet bend
- Securing a fender
- Securing a line to a cleat
- Throwing a line
- Properties of different kinds of ropes & their care and uses
- Caring for ropes
- Emergency equipment required to be on board – Yachting NZ Cat 1 Regulations
- Safety briefings
- Actions in event of emergency – sinking, running aground, capsize, abandoning ship,
- Raising the alarm, emergency communications
- Man overboard, recovery techniques & cold water shock
- First aid
- Hazards of fuel & gas
- Location of safety equipment and how it is used
- Maintenance of safety gear
- Personal safety, clothing, harnesses and buoyancy including use of life jackets, crotch straps
- Use of VHF radio for sending distress message
- Use of EPIRB
- Launching and boarding a life raft
- Contents of your Grab Bag
- Use of flares & other distress signals
- Fire precautions & prevention
- Types and use of fire extinguishers
- Helicopter rescue procedure
- Towing and being towed
- Heavy weather at sea
- Heavy weather in port
- Improvisation of jury rigs following gear failure
- Advanced Sea Survival
Rules of the Road
- Obtaining a weather forecast
- Terms used
- Beaufort wind scale
- Interpreting forecasts & synoptic charts
- Highs, lows and fronts
- Air masses
- Cloud types
- Weather patterns
- Use of barometer for forecasting
- Land and sea breezes
- Sea fog
- Understanding waves
- Ocean currents
- Engine starting, stopping and running procedures
- Propeller configurations
- Steering and controlling speed
- Engine monitoring
- Fault diagnosis
- Pre start checks
- Fuel cut offs
- Close down procedure
- Different drive systems
- Use of fuel
- Maintenance, & checks of engines and electrical
- Tool kit
- Location of filters and bleed points for fuel
- Water filters & impellors
- Fuel and fuel consumption, calculating fuel required & reserves
- Tidal sequence of springs and neaps, ebb and flow
- Speed over ground with or against tidal flow
- Effect of wind direction and tidal flow
- Accessing local information
- Use of admiralty method of determining tidal height at a standard port
- Awareness of corrections for secondary ports
- Use of tidal diamonds and tidal stream atlases for chart work
- Tidal anomolies
- Sources of tidal information
- Tide rips, overfalls and races
- Legal obligations of skipper
- Stowing items before going to sea
- Use of burgees & ensigns
- Prevention of unnecessary noise & courtesy in harbour
- Protection of the environment
- General duties on deck and below deck
- Use of protective equipment and safe procedures for maintenance.
- Food hygiene
- Standing orders
- Domestic duties
- Watch roster
- Crew management & communication
- Customs & Immigration
- Yacht registration
- Navigating in restricted visibility
- Heavy weather preparation and tactics
- Types of anchor
- Depth of water
- Holding ground
- Scope required
- Stowage and attachment to boat
- Preparation of anchor chain & warp
- Use of windlass
- Weighing anchor
- Checking holding
- Crew communication
Use of Tender
- Loading, launching & recovery
- Use and importance of kill cord
- Safety equipment
- Reducing the effects of seasickness
- Taking care of crew who are sick
And that is about it…! No pressure. Just have fun 😉