How I passed my Yachtmaster Exam

In late October 2018 I took my Yachtmaster Coastal examination. I read a number of helpful blogs on the subject beforehand, and so I thought I would contribute my own experiences in case it is helpful to any other candidates. For example I enjoyed Sarah Shepherd’s report, and especially this brutally honest account “How I failed my Yachtmaster”.  My exam seems to be different to most other reports as it took place entirely at night and did not involve any significant passage, except for a last-minute one before the exam started!

A short passage to the start

I was taking the exam in an old 32ft Westerly called Karic. Karic is owned by The Sail Boat Project, and I had taken my RYA Coastal Skipper Practical course with them a few months before. I did not take a YM prep course, but spent some time getting comfortable with the boat before the day of the exam. Since we knew from the timing of the exam that it would take place entirely at night, we spent the two days mostly practicing pilotage in the dark.

On exam day, after spending the day getting the boat ready for the exam (fan belt changed, cockpit sole epoxied, ensign hoisted, danbuoy repaired) we were waiting in Chichester Harbour for the examiner. Just a few hours before he was supposed to come, he called up to say that the weather forecast had changed.

There were strong southerlies and the examiner was concerned that, if these continued, we might not be able to get out of Chichester at the time of the exam. If we could not get ‘out to sea’ the exam would not be valid. He suggested we sail to Portsmouth and do the exam there. This was a tricky proposition on a number of levels – we still had a crew member on their way to Chichester, and there were logistical issues with getting the boat back after the exam.

Although it was forecast to drop, a good force six was blowing in the harbour as we mulled this decision. It seemed wise to start out doing what the examiner suggested and he’d always seemed rather reluctant to travel over to Chichester anyway. So in the end we had a nice 3-hour sail over to Portsmouth before the exam started. As we left the wind dropped, so we were motoring out of the harbour in a flat calm, cursing the examiner’s cautiousness. It was pretty bumpy over the bar, however, and could have got rather exciting on the ebb if the wind had not moderated. A solid breeze took us across to Portsmouth with a bit of help from the engine. Haslar Marina gave us a hammerhead berth near the entrance because I told them it was for an exam, bless them.

The examiner is on board

So we started the exam, already quite tired, at about 7pm, and it ran until after 3am. Entirely in the dark. As the examiner arrived, I was cooking up some dinner, which my first mate, Ed, noted was the first time I’d cooked dinner all trip. Usually I had had my nose in a pilot book or tide table. We ate some food and then started by going through my ‘homework’ which was a passage plan to Poole from Bembridge. Because I had done this plan at home, I had not marked the route out on the ship’s chart, and was advised that I ought to have done so. All other aspects of my plan were considered OK, though.

Then we had an hour or so going through all the safety equipment and finding out if I knew how to use it. he got me to take out and demonstrate the use of all the flares, and even the fire blanket. How do you hold a fire blanket? Do you launch a parachute flare into the wind or downwind? What end cap do you remove? How do you light it? He wanted me to explain mayday procedures, demonstrate how to use the VHF radio. ‘What would the options be when you press the distress button?’. He asked me about all the electronics, what they did, how they were configured on that particular boat – AIS/GPS/Radar/Chart Plotter/Log/Depth. What would you take in a grab bag? How does an EPIRB work? He asked me the location of all the seacocks, bilge pumps, fire extinguishers.

I was asked to do engine checks, the fan belt (which we’d bought and replaced earlier that day) had worked loose and he asked me to tighten it. “How many cylinders does this engine have?” – I didn’t know (it’s 3). He also asked me how I would change gear if the gear shift cable broke – wanting me to locate this cable, which was pretty tricky – I had no idea where it was, but peering around while getting someone to shift the throttle I eventually identified it right at the back of the engine block.

Conscientious Pilot

Then we went out to do a pilotage up to Port Solent, which I had been warned about a little earlier in the day, and already had a written plan for.

On the way he asked me to identify lights, flags and sound signals, or quizzed me on anything else which came to mind. This sort of questioning is quite wearing, especially at that time of night. If my curious crew mates asked the examiner follow-up questions, he would immediately spring them on me instead. So in the end they decided that as much as they’d like to know the answer to some of these questions, I’d probably appreciate them keeping their mouths shut!

On the pilotage exercise up through Portchester Lake, towards Port Solent, we identified bearings, light characteristics and the distance between lights. As we passed unlit poles we used a torch to read off the number. All of this was conducted without GPS/Chartplotter and under sail in a moderate and forgiving breeze. The examiner stopped the exercise after a fairly short time because, he later said, ‘your pilotage was outstanding’.

Man overboard in the dark

Then there was a man overboard drill. The examiner had brought a glow stick which he tied to the usual fender and coil of rope as the ‘casualty’ and tossed it overboard. We were under sail, and I was not at the helm. It was not a great success.

The main issue was that I took the boat some distance from the casualty to give myself a nice close reach back towards it. This would have been sensible if recovering under sail, but since I was using the engine, was unnecessary. Going further from the casualty than I needed to increased the risk of losing sight of them. I should have crash tacked immediately, especially since the boat I was on hoves-to very well.

There was also delay while I send someone below to pretend to send a mayday on the VHF (I’m not sure if the exercise requires this), and some confusion as I tried to take over the helm while also instructing the helmsman to start the engine (which meant they were blocking me from the wheel). We got a torch and gave it to the person pointing at the casualty, which was seen as a nice touch, but also caused further delay.

We started the engine and motor-sailed back the the casualty, rolling up the genoa as we reached the spot, and picking the up on the leeward side.

So I got the boat back to the casualty, but taking much more time than the examiner thought I should have. The atmosphere on the boat, which had been convivial, became rather dark. “What should you have done?” the examiner asked sullenly. I gave my by now rather nervous answer. “Then why didn’t you?” he rejoined.

This, apparently, might have been curtains for an ‘Offshore’ ticket, but as I was doing a ‘Coastal’ exam I was allowed another attempt at it later.

Sailing onto a buoy, badly

We then went to pick up a mooring buoy for a ‘rest’. I was instructed to sail onto one which, peering in the dark, I could just about make out. Out of season, there were not many boats, and it being dark, they were not easy to see. One nearby boat I identified as a possible hazard, but I didn’t take note of the way the boats were lying, and therefore missed vital tidal information which would have been more obvious in the light. I was also still rather stressed out from the MOB exercise. So I was not really taking account of the tide, instead sailing the boat as if she were a dinghy on a lake. The winds were light and the boat quickly lost way when tacking, and she would bear away and slide to leeward/downtide, and only after gathering some speed on a beam reach would she would bear up again.

Because of this, at one point I had to start the engine to avoid hitting a moored boat. My first approach was not very good and, having lost ground, I tried to pick the buoy up on the windward side which did not work (and was never going to!). The second time, my line was good, but I eased the sails slightly too early and so ended up short. On my third approach I picked up the buoy perfectly at the lee shroud. Again, the examiner felt I should have performed better than this if I had been going for an ‘Offshore’ ticket.

Off the charts

The next exercise was a ‘chart’ exercise. The examiner wanted me to take the boat to an exact and arbitrary location on the chart, and drop anchor. In fact there was a misunderstanding where the examiner had stipulated a particular point (a letter in the wording on the chart) whereas the crew and I had understood I could choose any point on the sandbank. In this case I think the examiner was not clear enough, and since I had marked the exact spot on the chart I intended to take the boat, he accepted my location as being the target.

Using a combination of transits and bearings, backed up by depth soundings with tidal height adjustments, we found my ‘spot’, and dropped the hook on the correct amount of chain.

However when we checked with the GPS we were slightly out. Fortunately, the examiner remembered that one of the charted objects I had used for my position had been moved very recently. The local Gosport youth had been given to smashing the light, so they moved it slightly out to sea. Therefore my methods were considered sound and this was a good pass.

Motoring back to Haslar, the man overboard was thrown in once more, and the examiner said “I want you back next to that in 20 seconds”. Already at the wheel and with no sails up, I swung the boat around and stopped sweetly besides the glowstick.

Going backwards

Then it was back to the marina, where I was asked to berth the boat in the more awkward direction, requiring a short turn and then berthing starboard side-to when this boat kicks strongly to port in reverse. I slightly overstood the berth, so was about to turn around laboriously and try again when the examiner asked if the boat would reverse in a straight line. “I don’t think so, she kicks heavily to port” I replied. “Try it,” he suggested. At slow speeds Karic will turn very sharply to port when in reverse. But once making some decent way in reverse, she started to track straight and I was able to actually steer. After a burst of this I was able to slide gently into the berth.

Finally I had an iPad test on colregs, lights, shapes and sounds, and was asked to evaluate some recent meteorological charts.

A debrief with the examiner, and the two less-than-perfect manoeuvres were flagged up, but otherwise it was considered a very solid pass. Now it was 3.30am and I stayed up for a quick drink with my crew, and then turned in for a well-earned kip.