Being the soft sailor I am and it being November / December time I eventually decided to book my Yachtmaster Offshore examination. I wanted to complete it by Summer 2016 so I opted for the sunny shores of Gibraltar and skipped the Yachtmaster Coastal practical as I had already built up enough miles to go to the next level.

Many have said to me the better place to take your exam would be the Solent but with timescales and my love for the sun I decided Gibraltar was as good as any for myself.

I opted for a double prep week giving me enough time to get back into the swing of things as I had not been on a boat in over 2 months due to other commitments. I didn’t, to be honest, find many places offering double prep weeks and found it to be beneficial to myself.

I arrived late on a Sunday night and headed for the boat and to meet the crew – last one there and the rest of the crew had already dispersed to various bars but I met my tutor for the week and one of the other crew that night randomly walking out of the marina to the bar. Not wanting to make a bad impression of myself I stuck with the shandies knowing we would probably be out on the water early the next day.

I arrived on 22nd November and my exam was due to take place on the 5th December.

The yacht was a Bavaria 37 i believe 2008 model. Comfortable interior with 3 double cabins and room for 3 in the main saloon if you wanted to get that close.

Turning up late after everyone else meant I ended up with a single berth in the saloon but even at 6ft 1” it was actually rather comfortable. All bedding provided albeit not great made a good impression for a comfortable stay.

The first week started with myself + 3 other chaps of all ages going for their Yachtmaster offshore qualification also, 1 German who had a watersports business in Greece, a lad who had sailed a lot with his family in the Philippines and done a lot of race sailing around the world and the 3rd who owned a yacht on the west coast and sailed regularly in the Irish sea on regattas with his sailing club and of course our Instructor who teaches around several sailing schools in the Solent and also Navy cadets.

Day 1 started with Safety procedures.

The Tutors role in the whole course was mainly guidance, so he took a back seat and got us to talk each other through different areas of the safety briefs which in full made the whole safety brief for the boat we were on and it was very in depth.

We were told to go through every nook and cranny on the boat “KNOW THE BOAT YOUR ON”

Everything from where are the sea cocks, water tanks and fuel tanks positioned and how can you isolate them to where is the emergency water kept, bolt croppers, tools, sea boots and batteries.

Go through every compartment.

The safety brief was to be aimed at Comp crew & Novice level so you needed to be in depth with it and also you needed to informative but also make sure that things like life jackets once checked by yourself, if they were checked by the crew member who was to wear them, will also be checked off with the captain again making sure gas bottles were screwed in correctly it’s very easy to miss out on the little things.

A rough list of the safety brief items of which we needed to be 100% on were as follows:

Spare Halyard locations, boat spares locations, tools available on the boat and where everything was stored, Tanks, how many sea cocks and where, battery chargers, batteries and what the battery layup was domestic and engine etc.. where the main control was to select between the two, gas safety and how to get rid of gas if there was a leak, fire prevention and fire control how to use a fire blanket properly, wet weather gear, lifejackets and the differences between them and buoyancy aids, hatches & latches, fire extinguishers and the types on board and what types are available.

GPS systems (how to use it MOB buttons and checking you have the correct charts selected for your trip), VHF and how to use it and what to ask for (know where the handy help cards are for the crew) EPIRBS (what frequency there on and how they work) know how PLB’s work, Sea buckets storage, Boat paper locations, where is the grab bag and what else do you need to grab with the grab bag what’s in the current grab bag, in depth about the engine differences between sail drive and other types of engine and how to tell the difference, know what each part of the engine does and how to rectify problems with the engine like air in the fuel system, bags being sucked into the water strainer, looking at leaks and belts a lot more in-depth than the basic WOBBLE phrase how even the toilet works and what not to put down it etc.. most of that was all below deck.. (or downstairs as I kept saying!! which the examiner didn’t take too kindly too).

On deck: was all about the radar reflectors, more tool positions and bolt croppers, in depth about the life raft and how to deploy it and how it works, what we can do in man over board situations if they are unconscious and a bit about the rigging and what to look out for, starting the engine and what to check for when the engine has started to make sure its running smoothly a lot of this is covered in Day skipper they just want more in depth knowledge on it I found.

The safety brief on the first day probably took half a day to go through and it was good we did. Over the next 10 days we all took turns to examine the electrics, the engine and areas of the boat that we may not have looked at ourselves during the safety brief. We were all told to write up our own safety brief in preparation for the morning of the Exam however we were allowed to have notes handy so as not to miss any points but the examiner did prefer us to seem like we knew it than just reading from our notes..

At the end of week 1 one of the lads was booked in to do his Exam (as he had only opted for the 1 week prep aspect, unlike the other 3 of us) so luckily we got to meet the examiner 7 days before our actual exam was due to take place.

Training was basically equally split between the 4 of us and followed a similar kind of feel throughout the first week:

Leaving the berth, mooring at the berth, setting springs.

Various manoeuvres, stern to, coming alongside, twisting a boat, berthing with wind blowing you off stern too and bows to, a lot of our manoeuvres were done in small finger berths in a Spanish marina which was a lot smaller than the boat we were mooring which sometimes made it a bit more challenging,

Constantly grilling us about wind awareness, all points of sail. Sail positioning and car effectiveness, types of sail for best sailing performance and what to do in a storm.

Hove too techniques, close quarter boat manoeuvres, being aware of the prop walk on the boat and how it affected manoeuvres. we all tried out some man overboard procedures the easiest we all agreed being once the man is overboard was to go into an immediate broad reach for about 4 boat lengths, tack and if enough wind for just the main sail roll away the jib and come up to the MOB spilling and filling. This technique was simple and a fast method to carry out and the examiner seemed happy with its results. Albeit in the training week we practised MOB under power and sail in the exam it was all under sail that was required by the examiner.

Anchoring under sail was completed reasonably easily as the winds were not to strong and sailing off the anchor was done again reasonably easily. Jjust make sure that you work out a system with the crew for the easiest way to communicate from the bow to the helm as screaming isn’t always the easiest answer – use fingers on the bow to count down 5m to 1m for berthing etc., looks a little more professional and the examiner will notice at night that you are caring for the others in the marina who may be asleep.

Blind Nav was done on my occasion from the end of a mole over too an Aero Buoy. I actually did a direct route from the mole to the aero buoy taking into account the tides and current in Gibraltar bay at the time and then worked from contour lines and headed along them to the aero buoy I was actually aiming for. What the instructor did point out was that I may have been better going to the fairway buoy that was closer and then going on from that.. but in my eyes at the time I felt that was just going to confuse things even more and was going to give me a second object to potentially miss but I did take his point however I was dead on for the Aero buoy the way I did it.

I was advised to use contour lines and if your heading for a light at the end of a mole… if the depth permits head for the wall on the mole and then feel your way along it rather than just heading for the light and missing it… aim for the bigger thing!!

Night navigation was also a hot topic and the lights in Gibraltar bay are ridiculous. It’s like looking at a xmas tree and very hard to decipher which lights are land and which are buoys and even at times which are the many ships coming and going in the area at all times. Know your lights get the cards and study them, try not to have any big life changes between booking and exams like me as it doesn’t help a lot.

We luckily had quite a relaxed tutor who not only was a good laugh and seemed to make things a lot more relaxed. He also didn’t scratch his head and make any of us nervous if things went slightly wrong in the tuition week. His experience had taught him don’t waste time rigging springs if there not needed, if the examiner wants to see you using springs he will ask. If the boat just needs a gentle push off a dock then get the crew member on safely and off you go, don’t waste time as the exam will just take longer than it should and the examiner seemed happy more than happy with this.

Don’t gybe in the exam unless it’s controlled and the crew know about it. I threw in a controlled gybe as one of my first manoeuvres with the examiner and he seemed perfectly happy with it. I felt a little cheeky but it seemed such a fart tacking all the way round for no reason getting the crew dizzy.

During the prep week we carried out a lot of engine failure drills where the tutor basically just turned off the engine and told us to sort ourselves out, get a feel for the boat and what will happen when you have an engine failure start to think where will the boat end up. Don’t forget about the anchor, don’t always sail out into the sea, it’s often just as easy to sail to a pontoon if that’s where the wind is blowing you.

Our examiner asked us to sail into a marina he also told us where he wanted us to moor but then gave us an engine failure on the way into the marina and told us to get to where he wanted.

My examiner was a 6ft 5” Ex-Navy guy who was obviously quite high up when he retired, he made a point of telling us that he only did the examinations for fun, he had some strong views on sail related, that myself and one of the other lads was only too happy to disagree with him about. I believe I was even called a soft lefty at one point, but looking back he may have been just trying to see if we would stand up for what we believe.

The examiner wanted us to “BE THE CAPTAIN” when we were under examination, he wanted the rest of the crew to be “Competent Crew” and were not allowed to tell or help out the captain or even ask too many questions.

Breakdown of the day

Start time 11am

1, Safety Briefing (In Depth)

Questions on sailing

2, Log book entry and Short Passage plan 20 mins

More questions on sailing

3, Leaving the Marina berth into 20kn wind

More questions on sailing

4, I was told which marina he wanted me to go and also via what point, so I had to do a quick passage plan to get us there and what was required in the new marina (in 20 mins)

5, Once outside the marina entrance channel I was given a Man Overboard drill and whilst I performed it correctly we were then told the MOB was unconscious and I had to instruct how to get him back onboard, the Health and safety procedures and resuscitation procedures that were required and we also mocked up a VHF call to sort it all out and was made whether to ask for doctors etc. and if it was easier to head to the marina or if there life boat should come out etc.. quickest response and safety for the MOB.

6, Sails went up in a safe area once leaving first marina, fenders in lines cleared up etc..

Even more questions on sailing as we sailed along..

7, Motor sailed out to a buoy, gybed and headed into marina 2, don’t forget the motoring cone!! if you’re motoring.

8, VHF call to the marina was mocked up as he didn’t want to actually radio them.

More sailing questions..

9, Some close quarter manoeuvres in new marina mainly just control and turning with confidence in confined spaces.

10, Then was told a new destination marina and asked to make another quick passage plan (20mins)

More questions – A lot about rules of the road, know what say rule 9 is etc.. not just the basics

11, Once inside marina 3 we had an engine failure and he wanted us to moor under sail.

12, We then left Marina 3 put the sails up with 1 reef in them headed out past the channel, tacked round along a mole and then the blind navigation started for me another 45 mins or so it took.

Then got a short break and one of the other lads had to take us back into Marina 1 and then out again and onto Marina 4. By now it was dark and we were in Marina 4 still gusting about 20 – 25 knots. Still having theory questions fired at us, he checked out knots while also asking us questions about types of rope and what they do and what there used for.

Questions started up again – more on lights now and he sent me downstairs at one point to disorientate me and then asked me to point out where we were from using the lights.

13, Back at the Helm I was asked to do 4 mooring manoeuvres, one on a short finger berth being blown off bows to

14, One going stern too on a small finger berth being blown off.

15, One on a small finger berth being blown on and then I was asked to rig springs to get us off it

16, Finally coming alongside on an end pontoon at a certain point being blown off again.

More rules of the road questions being fired at me.

I took another break and one of the other lads was then asked to do some springs and mooring whilst being blown on but bows to on a short finger berth. On this occasion it was easier to put springs to the far side of the finger pontoon as we didn’t have the length to carry it out due to the size of the fingers.

Again more questions were fired at me about everything under the sun know your rules of the road as they did hammer us on them.

Time now was about midnight.

17, I was then asked to plot some positions on the GPS and instruct the crew to sail to them, (the week before he actually changed the charts used to Bogota – so be careful if you have a sneaky examiner) make sure the Waypoint alarm was set an appropriate distance. He then came down and grilled me on Radar (know what the radar is doing even if its rubbish on the boat you’re on, explain what it should do at least including the clutter settings) and also the GPS and the VHF again.

18, I then had to take us back to our home Ocean village (Marina 1).

19, We arrived back at about 1am and I was given a couple more paper work and chart tasks to complete 1 was a passage plan over the Gibraltar straights taking into account the TSS the tides and currents and then also a couple of entry time workings from the Almanac which I had to present them to him. I was given 40 mins to complete them all. He asked me some further questions about the boat and then started the de-brief which took about an hour.

Luckily I passed but to be honest at times I wasn’t sure if he was happy or not. But in the brief he did compliment me on my sailing and docking abilities, my blind nav he said was very good although did point out I should have done more EP’s every 6 mins 1/10th of a minute everything he said was more constructive criticism if anything. Some of my safety brief was a little jumbled but I think that was more nerves than anything at the beginning he was quite an overpowering examiner and he did drill us with question after question but he did also know his subject very in depth.

All I can say is make sure you know your theory, I did my YM courses 3 years before I took the practical and I really had to brush up a lot on it again and in some ways I would even suggest re-taking the YM theory course or having a prep as it will refresh everything. I’d recommend doing an Engine course and for my examiner a radar course would have been beneficial too, or at least read a book on it so you can hold a meaningful conversation on it.