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Yachtmaster™ Offshore – A circuitous passage⚓️

Why after 20 years of bareboat charters around the world do you need a sailing qualification, Nikki asked? A very good question with a convoluted answer.

In many parts of the world, a sailing qualification is not required to charter – sailing ability and resumé are much more important. European countries are getting more sticky, though, some requiring a qualification from a recognised body. So far, I have managed to charter by sending my resumé and my meaningless Day Skipper certificate. 

Meaningless because firstly it was issued by the defunct Cruising Association of South Africa and secondly because I found out years later that it is a Course Completion Certificate and SA Sailing (SAS) – our official  sailing body – don’t consider it a qualification.

Concerned that one of these days I would arrive at a base to collect our charter and be asked by the charter company or more likely the port authority to provide a proper qualification, I decided that I needed to do something about it. That’s when the fun began.

So many options

The qualification that seems acceptable for sailing in all countries is Day Skipper, although some countries like Greece sometimes ask for an International Certificate of Competency (ICC) which is equivalent. Countries that are signees of UN40 can issue an ICC to their citizens and do so once they have qualified with at least a Day Skipper licence. 

The simplest thing for me to do would be to sit a theoretical and practical exam covering collision regulations, lights and general boat handling. No formal course is required, but knowing how to sail and passing an exam are two different things and the accepted wisdom is to attend a week theory course followed by a week practical course at a recognised sailing school before the Day Skipper exam.

Coastal Skipper, the next level up, also entails a week of theory and a week of practical followed by an exam admittedly all at a higher level together with higher prerequisites of miles and night hours. So with just a little more effort, the same amount of time and almost the same amount of money, I could end up with the higher qualification.

In fact I had 3370 Nm, 106 days and 112 night hours which was more than enough for the next level – Yachtmaster Offshore…. So why not obtain that qualification?

Now it started getting a little more complicated. South African Sailing (SAS) stipulates that Coastal Skipper needs to be obtained before Yachtmaster Offshore, while the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) does not, other than the miles have to have been completed within the last 10 years and a substantial portion of mine were about to expire. The RYA would also be more expensive and more complicated with tidal calculations. RYA require the exam to be conducted in tidal waters and the only place in South Africa approved by the RYA to provide sufficient tidal stream is in Langebaan, on the west coast.

My heart wanted the RYA qualification for the prestige and international recognition, but my head said to do the easier, quicker and cheaper SAS Coastal Skipper especially as my original requirement was get a piece of paper that I could wave at anybody who needed it, secure in the knowledge that it would be accepted.

SA Sailing Scheme

QualificationPrerequisitesRecommended CoursePrerequisite course
Day Skipper200 Miles, 2 Night Hours1 week Day Skipper theory
1 week practical
Exam
None
Local Waters Skipper400 Miles,8 Night Hours1 week theory
Exam
Day Skipper
Coastal Skipper800 Miles, 24 Night Hours1 week Coastal theory
1 week practical
Exam
None
Yachtmaster Offshore2500 Miles, 48 Night Hours1 week theory
Exam
Coastal Skipper

Royal Yachting Association Scheme

QualificationPrerequisitesRecommended CoursePrerequisite Qualification
Day Skipper100 Miles, 5 days, 4 Night Hours1 week Day Skipper theory
1 week practical
None
Coastal Skipper300 Miles, 15 days, 8 Night HoursCoastal Skipper/Yachtmaster Offshore theory
1 week practical
None
Yachtmaster™ Coastal800 Miles, 30 days, 12 Night Hours1 week exam prepNone
Yachtmaster™ Offshore2500 Miles, 50 days,
5 passages > 60nm
2 overnight and 3 as skipper
1 week exam prepNone
Yachtmaster™ OceanOcean passage greater than 600 Miles1 week theory and practicalYachtmaster™ Offshore

The disappointing State of the Nation

I signed up for a 2-day weekend course for a VHF licence through one of the approved providers. The course was well run, with excellent theory and practical instruction and it was easy to pass. Enter Monty Python. Licences are issued by SAMSA and it seems they have a 9 month backlog. No problem, they will issue you with a temporary licence which takes 3-4 weeks. So that is a bit of a bother but the wheels of bureaucracy run slowly.

They not only run slowly, they run strangely. 6 weeks later I received my temporary licence. Valid for 6 months! 

A year later I have renewed my temporary licence twice and the backlog for the permanent licence is now a ridiculous 12 months. 

[The RYA VHF licence takes 21 days to issue and if you pay an expediting fee, you can have it in 2 days.]

This space reserved for my VHF Licence

🙄

How not to run a business 101

Perhaps I was looking for an excuse, but this laughable, bureaucratic, ineptitude was all I needed to abandon the SA option and get a real qualification from RYA. It would mean that I would not be allowed to sail in SA, but as we never do, that would not be a problem.

I scoured the internet looking at different sail training companies – both locally and abroad. Prices, durations and requirements varied, sometimes quite drastically and it was impossible to choose.

Eventually I selected four local companies whose web sites seemed to show the best options and sent emails requesting their suggestions on how to obtain the highest RYA qualification based on my resumé in the least amount of time.

Overwhelmed Co. phoned breathlessly 2 days later, apologising for taking so long to get back to me, they were very busy with a course, you know, but they were so very excited about my enquiry, and they were looking forward to putting something together for me, and they would talk about it internally that evening, and they would phone the next day to discuss my needs and then they could look at timing and costs. The excitement must have been too much, as that was the last I heard from them.

Blowing Smoke Co. were the epitome of professionalism. A well structured email covering timings, costs, and deliverables along the way. A remarkable piece of marketing, made more enticing with their extraordinary offer:  “With all your mileage and no qualifications, it is an RYA requirement that you follow their schedule which runs from a RYA Competent Crew Practical course to Yachtmaster Offshore. However, with your experience and mileage, we will remove the RYA Competent Crew Practical and you can start with the RYA Day Skipper Theory.” Such a generous offer if the RYA website did not specifically state “Unlike other courses in the cruising programme, there is no formal training to complete in order to become a Yachtmaster™. Instead, provided that you have sufficient experience and seatime, you can put yourself forward for an exam to test your skills and knowledge.” So perhaps not such a kind offer then. Also it was substantially more expensive than others and the structure was like a recipe not at all adaptable and would require a number of trips to the coast over several months to get qualified.

Mute Co. were very considerate . They said nothing at all – not raising my expectations or otherwise.

It would appear that business is booming in the sail training industry with a steady stream of well-heeled candidates, and these companies don’t need to try too hard. The good news is that, should they fail, they are perfectly qualified to work for SAMSA.

My faith in capitalism was restored when Juanita from Atlantic Yachting contacted me. Very knowledgable and keen to find a solution that suited me, she very quickly established that with my miles I should go for Yachtmaster Offshore and although It wasn’t a requirement, the best chance of success would be to do Yachtmaster Theory, Coastal Skipper Practical, Yachtmaster Prep week and then the exam – all conveniently over successive weeks.

First Aid Course

Another prerequisite for Yachtmaster is a level 1 First Aid course. 

I spent 2 days learning the  basics of:
The principles of First Aid and Safety; Emergency Scene Management; Artificial Respiration; One-man CPR; Airway Obstruction/ choking; Wounds and Bleeding; Shock, Unconsciousness and Fainting; Fractures; Burns; Head Injuries; Spinal Injuries; Medical Emergencies: diabetes, seizures, asthma, cardiac arrest, strokes.

The knowledge gained is invaluable and a first aid course should be a life skill that we all get exposed to at an early age.

A practice in theory

I decided to do Yachtmaster Theory online so I would only have to spend two and half weeks in Langebaan, and chose Navathome, based in the UK, which came highly recommended.

I registered, paid online and 2 days later a package arrived at the door. Charts, manuals, chart plotter, dividers and a password to activate the software. It took about 40 hours to work through the material.

The actual exam consisted of 3 parts – Collision regulations (Colregs), Chartwork and a Passage plan. The first was despatched within 30 minutes. The chartwork, however, took hours and the Passage plan even longer. The format of the exam is to complete sections before moving onto the next. Unbelievably, including the passage plan prep, it eventually took 18 hours to complete the entire exam. I have written many exams in my life and am in fact rather good at them. This was rather a different experience and I seriously questioned whether my brain had not deteriorated. [I asked the other candidates who had done the classroom exam about their experience. Apparently they had written the exam over two separate days and the chart work and passage plan were not nearly to the level of tolerance required by Navathome]

The course is well laid out, builds on previous knowledge with lots of exercises, most assessment done electronically with immediate feedback, and the opportunity to redo an exercise a few times to improve your result.  The process and the tight tolerances force you to work methodically. I did find though that some exercises took a long time as I was not sure if I had it wrong because I was making a complete blunder or just not measuring accurately enough. My one criticism is that exercises are marked electronically and key words are required and highly accurate answers are required. The support at Navathome was excellent and my queries were answered within minutes at night and over weekends.

Overall I was highly impressed with Navathome – their professionalism, rapid response and the course content itself. None of these people can work at SAMSA.

Coastal Skipper Practical and Yachtmaster Prep Week

Juanita kept me informed over the the months leading up to the course through a steady stream of emails preparing me for exactly what would be happening as well as building the excitement. I arrived at their base in Club Mykonos, early one crisp Monday morning to an effusive welcome. 

My fellow course attendees were on the Fast Track package from Competent Crew through to Yachtmaster Coastal and knew the area and the yacht (L34) very well. I was a sponge, absorbing everything from instructors and the other crew to learn the RYA way of doing things. Blind navigation (confined  below and sending instructions up to the helmsman, thereby simulating zero visibility); night sailing; Man-over-board, mooring and docking under sail; and taking turns to cook delicious meals. All in all, I had an excellent week.

I also skippered a passage out to Dassen Island as I needed an extra 60nm passage as skipper.

The prep week was just as good. We could choose to practice any aspects of the syllabus as many times as we wanted. We were also bombarded with pop quizzes on the theory. 

Atlantic Yachting was like a well oiled machine from the Front Office with Juanita to the instructors and maintenance men who repaired anything that needed attention. Hayley and Adrian have a well deserved reputation of the best sail training company in SA.

Finally the Exam

On the day of the exam, we had a late 3pm start and I volunteered to be examined first. The examiner was an old salt who emphasised that we should skipper as if he was not on board. (Ha Ha. Easier said than done). The first exercise was to plot a course to Langebaan avoiding “RYA” reefs that he had drawn on the chart. It was misty as we left. I got the crew haul all the sails up, without thinking. It was quite wild out of the harbour and the  yacht was completely overpowered – I quickly had  two reefs put in.  Suitably under control – we set off. It was not long before something about the route felt wrong. The courses that I was setting for the helmsman did not correspond to the geographic layout of the bay. I could not work work out was wrong. Luckily, the chart plotter was in play and I used that to modify my course.

[Much later it struck me that I had used a deviation of 6°W that was set for the passage plan that I had spent the weekend completing, instead of the actual 24°W in Langebaan. 18° difference! No wonder I was pointing the wrong way.]

Managing to miss all the “reefs”, we arrived at the narrow channel leading up to Langebaan. With the wind on our nose we had to make a series of short tacks.  On one of the tacks, I left it late and just as I spun the wheel we hit the sand. For a heart stopping moment, I saw my Yachtmaster going down the tube, but the boat was already pointing in the right direction and, with a lurch, pulled free.

It had taken a while to get to Langebaan for the exercise to pick up a mooring buoy under sail with wind and tide. By the time we arrived it was difficult to find them in the gathering gloom. Luckily one of the crew had excellent eyesight and eventually spotted one. I felt quite chuffed to ferry glide up to the buoy and gently pick up the mooring in the dark

A close shave during blind navigation

Rougher conditions on the day of my exam

The next exercise was night sailing in Saldanha Bay. The objective was to plot a route to sail the boat over a point on the chart using bearings and transits on various lights in the bay. The chart plotter was not in play. It was still a touch misty and visibility was moderate. Some lights, like the “candle” (indicating the main entrance to the port) were ablaze, while others were hard to make out against the shore. With a slight wobble (initially mis-identifying one of my marker buoys) I successfully came close enough to the point.

It was after 24:00 when we docked back at base, made a late supper and collapsed into our bunks. The examiner was poker-faced, so I had no idea how my slipups were being assessed. 

The next morning I had the oral exam on my passage plan as well questions fired at me on general theory. Then we set off to do man-over-board by motor and sail – which went very smoothly. The final exercise was blind navigation back to Club Mykonos which was on the nose when I was allowed up from below. A perfect mooring and then sitting with the examiner for feedback……

I passed! A wave of emotions – relief, pride, joy, exhaustion.

Final thoughts

I had been confident to charter and sail anywhere in the world and had learnt most of what I knew “on the job” and through trial and error and some luck we have been fine. This experience provided some new and better ways of doing things, some of which I learnt during the exam!

I would not have passed the exam without the 3 elements:

The Yachtmaster Theory provided information on secondary ports, meteorology, and safety. Yes I could have read this in books and watched YouTube videos, but I wouldn’t have necessarily have focused on all the the aspects that I needed.

The Coastal Skipper week introduced things that I had been doing incorrectly; or had not done for years such as MOB; or never done, such as blind navigation.

The Prep week was essential to practice techniques in different circumstances of tidal streams and winds.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I am glad I finally resolved to do it.

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