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If At First You Don't Succeed…

Over my sailing career I’ve concluded that I’m something of a Jonah when it comes to training. The first time I did the Coastal Skipper course was on Firebird in 2010 with Peter Clare and we had to abandon the course because of weather and reconvene a few weeks later. In 2016 I did the Yachtmaster Prep week and attempted the Yachtmaster Coastal exam – but we had to abandon it when we lost drive in Langstone Harbour in the dark at the end of the first day. The gearbox coupling was slipping on the prop shaft, so we had to spend the night on a buoy and limp back to Haslar on the Sunday morning. Fortunately the bosuns were able to complete a hasty repair and I was able to successfully complete the exam a few days later.

So it was with some trepidation that I signed up for the Yachtmaster Prep Week scheduled for the end of October last year. This time I had my sights set on the Yachtmaster Offshore exam. I did a lot of sailing throughout 2019 and also benefitted from some informal tuition from Tony Riley and Laurent Morlet in the course of normal club sails and races, so I was hoping that I would be reasonably practiced but I also suspected I had learned some bad habits that Trevor Nicholls would need to shake out during the week. In particular becoming too used to RelaX having a plotter at the helm and me having the Navionics navigation software on my phone.

Trevor had given the four of us on the prep week (Szymon Dworski. Rafal Stanczyk, Ray Beadell and myself) a passage plan to prepare in advance. Mine was Beaulieu River to St Vaast, so I got out the almanac, Reeve-Foulkes tidal atlas, various charts and cruising guides and reminded myself how to work out courses to steer, Secondary Ports and tidal heights the traditional way.

The prep week itself was hard work but great fun. Trevor had warned us that there would be no time to revise theory and that it would all be about practical skills and it was. We practiced Man Overboard and picking up buoys under motor and sail, working out course to steer to find obscure buoys (some of which weren’t even there!) and once we had got the hang of doing it in good visibility did similar exercises “blind” as though we were in fog. We also clocked up a lot of night hours doing these exercises in the dark – easing our way cautiously up the channel to Port Solent with a spotter in the bows trying to identify the unlit buoys with a torch was particularly challenging!

We also became very diligent about checking the inshore forecast and writing it on the white board each day so were aware that a big low was heading towards us. By the time we got to the end of the week we were experiencing Force 7 winds (which made boathandling tricky!) and it was clear that worse weather was on the way over the weekend. The Met Office predicted 70-80MPH winds along with heavy rain and issued a yellow warning.

Synoptic Chart on Friday 2nd November
Yellow wind warning on Friday 2nd November

Reluctantly we decided we would have to postpone the exam. This turned out to be the right decision because winds over 100 Knotts were recorded at Hurst Castle on the Saturday.

We then had the problem of finding a new date for the exam. The examiner had no availability for a few weeks, I was away on holiday for much of December and then it was Christmas. We identified one day that Ray and I could do, as well as the examiner, so booked him for Saturday 30th November. Unfortunately Szymon and Rafal were unable to do make that date, but Trevor kindly offered to provide a recap of the training on Friday 29nd and David and Christine Freemantle offered to crew for the practice day and exam.

The practice day went fine and we were soon back up to speed with the skills and drills. We were back to our berth by 1700 and Trevor wished us luck and jumped ship and the rest of us went to the pub for dinner.

The next morning we were up bright and early and by 0900 we were fully kitted up and had Quartette walked back along the pontoon, with a Dutch spring rigged and ready to slip. The weather forecast was SE 5 or 6, becomming E then NE 5 to 7, but we weren’t about to let a bit of strong wind stop us!

The examiner arrived and stood the crew down and suggested a cup of tea while he checked our paperwork. Those formalities completed he asked me to do a safety briefing and Ray to do an engine check and we slipped mid morning. Ray had the first task to take us around to Stoke’s Bay, finding a buoy en-route, and to anchor up at a point the examiner had marked on the chart. By then the seas were moderate and winds certainly F5-6 but the spot chosen was well sheltered and we were able to anchor and have lunch, while I prepared a passage plan to take us into the Hamble.

I had noticed the Examiner had been receiving a few phone calls during the morning, but over lunch he mentioned that his daughter had sprained her ankle. A couple more phone calls later it became clear the sprain was actually a nasty break, the daughter was now in A&E and her Dad really needed to be with her. We decided the best thing was to suspend the exam, get him back to Haslar as quickly as possible and continue the following morning. So I checked that we had enough water to get through the Inner Swashway and got us to Haslar with a lot more speed than finesse. As Dave, Chrissie and Ray all live locally they went home for the night and I enjoyed fish and chips on the boat.

On waking on Sunday I picked up a text saying that the Examiner had been at the hospital all night and wouldn’t be able to complete the exam. By this time the crew were on their way back to the boat so when they arrived we cleaned up the boat and went home. That was the end of the second attempt at the exam.

With my holiday, everyone else’s commitments and Christmas we weren’t able to schedule a third attempt until mid January. Several PYC members kindly offered to crew and, in the end, Keith Oliver joined us for a practice day on Friday 17th January, with Robert Lewcock joining us in the evening for a repeat of the night time passage up to Port Solent. We had arranged to take the exam on the Sunday so that we could have another practice day on the Saturday. Friday was wet and windy, while Saturday was clear and sunny – but with very little wind. We took the opportunity for a cockpit picnic as we motored around and speculated about whether there would be enough wind for the exam the next day.

A cockpit picnic while underway

As it turned out we needn’t have worried and we managed to complete the exam on our third attempt. As the main image above shows, after completing some berthing manouvres in the marina, Ray’s task was to take us out around the Fort and into Langstone Harbour and pick up a buoy for lunch, which was also his opportunity to talk through the Coastal passage plan he had to prepare for the exam. I then had to take us out of Langstone and anchor in a particular spot west of Selsey Bill, where we had a cup of tea and a slice of cake and waited for the sun to set On each of these legs we had to complete a MOB under sail.

Ray talks through his passage plan while moored in Langstone Harbour

Ray then had to bring us back into Chichester Harbour in the dark, while I was quizzed on theory. Note – make sure you are on top of shapes, lights, sounds, weather … and RADAR! No one had told us that RADAR is now on the syllabus, but apparently it was introduced at the start of last year. So if, like me, you did your Yachtmaster theory course 14 years ago it is probably a good idea to repeat it before taking the practical exam!

I picked up a buoy in Chichester by torchlight and then we had dinner while I worked out a passage back to Haslar through the submarine barrier. It was Ray’s turn to be quizzed as we motored back and the passage went well, other than me relying on taking a bearing on a South Cardinal for one of the navigation marks and not noticing it is unlit. There’s no point in choosing a buoy with a distinctive light pattern if it doesn’t have a light!

We arrived back on our berth at 2230 after a very long day, but were pleased to learn that we had both passed. Third time lucky! Or maybe it wasn’t luck but the excellent tuition we have received from Trevor, Laurent and Tony and the support from our crew Dave, Chrissie, Keith and Robert.

The next Yachtmaster Prep Week is in March, so if you are inspired to have a go please speak to Laurent Morlet. It is fantastic experience and hopefully you will only need one attempt at the exam! You can also be sure that you will get a completely different set of passages to complete so don’t rely on our experience.

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