Thoughts on my Yachtmaster (Offshore) assessment

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Last night was my last on a boat this week in Falmouth.  I wandered up to Falmouth Lodge Backpackers Hostel and fly back to Dublin from Newquay tomorrow.  Why am I here?


I first thought about doing my “Yachtmaster” assessment over 30 years ago.  I had sailed with Heather and Marshall King, their mum and family friend Tess Tinkler many times on “Desiderata”, their bilge keel Leisure 27. We had sailed from Bray (in Co Wicklow) to the Channel Islands and explored the coast of SW England many times, from the Scilly Islands as far as Salcombe.  Every year we blew away the cobwebs on an early season weekend trip to Port St Mary on the Isle of Man.  I had attended the theory course in Greyatones Sailing Club, delivered by John Roy and sailed on his wonderful 1950s wooden sloop, “Pegeen”, from Cork Harbour.  I subsequently spent many happy days on Seareign, the Kings Nicholson 35. I had the mileage, I had the experience,  I thought about it, but never did it.

In recent years, I have owned my own boats and decided I should do the assessment. I am involved in various training and assessment schemes in different adventure sports, through work, but this would be different – completely non work related.  I had the experience and wanted it validated.  I organised and completed a theory course for EDYC members with Dave Comer over the winter in Belfast. I looked around for an assessment and found a date that suited at the end of August, in Falmouth.  I would fly into Newquay, get a bus to Falmouth and spend a few days practicing, getting used to the area and refreshing my lights, signals and buoyage. I didn’t know what to expect.  There is very little information around about the actual assessment process.  The forecast for the week was good with wind and sun.

After a few days I was feeling reasonably confident and ready for the Friday assessment. I knew the estuary well, I had practiced “blind navigation”, been into Restronguet in the dark, up the Percuil and Truro Rivers and felt happy entering and leaving pontoons.  All I had left was refreshing the stuff I didn’t like – buoys, shapes, lights and sound signals.  I could do all of that on the evening before the examiner arrived. The assessment was due to start at midday on Friday, so I had Friday morning free too.

However, on Thursday morning, an instructor from Cornish Cruising (who I had booked the assessment through) told us that because the forecast for the next day was for no wind, the examiner was suggesting to move it forward and start at 11 that morning. Arin Ongun, from London, was also due to take the assessment.  He has been on the Cornish Cruising Development Programme for the past 16 weeks and was keen to get it over. He agreed, I agreed, so we were left with less than two hours to get ready.  So much for refreshing my background knowledge!

We would be on Lilly-Anne, a new Bavaria 34, with our Examiner, Tony Wiffin.  The boat was new this year and in great condition.  Everything seemed to work (except the plotter) but like most new boats that are built for the charter / sailing school market, there was no chart table.  The assessment would start at 11 and run to midnight, or shortly after.  We would have to demonstrate a range of skills, under sail and power, rescue a “man overboard”, navigate by day and night, manoeuvre in pretty tight spaces (in a marina), navigate blind (navigating down below, using the chart, speed, direction and depth) to simulate fog and answer lots of questions.

We had three great crew:

Martin was over from Germany, he owns a lovely sounding 1970s Hallberg Rassey.  He lives in the south of Germany, but keeps his boat on the coast, near Bremerhaven, 700 km from home.  His sailing area is mostly between the Netherlands and Denmark, on the German Bight. He is doing a weekend course then his Yachtmaster Assessment next week.

Julie lives near Falmouth. She has a Bowman 40 and had done all of of the RYA sailing qualifications up to Coastal Shipper. She is planning to do her offshore assessment at some stage in the future. She makes great rolls for lunch and is am amazing person, keeping everyone smiling.

Tom is from Leicester and had also been on the Development Programme.  He is going to take the assessment next week.  Three weeks ago he went to Southampton with his partner, Hannah, and took delivery of his boat, a steel Van de Stadt 36. In a few weeks they will be sailing south to Spain for the winter then on to Brazil, Patagonia and the Falklands the following year.

So…….what about the assessment?  Well, this was my experience of it.  It may be different in process and style to everyone else’s but hopefully it’s at “the standard”!  I imagine that my experience was different to Arin’s, who was on the same assessment and also passed.  It’s a funny old world.

The assessment began at 11. Below, I have outlined what happened and what I was asked to do.  I have listed as many of the questions that I was asked, that I can remember.  I have also given some of my thoughts on the day, which may or may not be justified or fair!  Comments by other Yachtmasters are welcome!

Shortly after 11, Tony gave Arin and I a quick brief, outlining the process and that as far as he was concerned, we were both Yachtmasters and today was simply a chance for us to show what we could do.  Over the course of the day we would both have to complete our passage plans – mine was to sail from Falmouth to L’Aber Wrac’h, nearly 100 miles away in Brittany.  Tony then asked Arin to get the boat ready for leaving the dock and I went below to sort out the assessment paperwork and hand over my logbook and certificates (first aid, VHF). I was asked about safety briefs, personal safety and quizzed on life jackets (types, checks, examining for faults) and flares (types, visibility, ranges etc).  Arin then took us out and back in between the pontoons to the next section of the marina.  As soon as he had done this, I took over and was asked to motor into the space between two rows of boats on the marina, turn the boat and motor back out.  The light crosswind and ebbing tide helped spin Lilly-Anne.  It’s all pretty straightforward in a fin keel modern boat like the Bavaria – I wouldn’t fancy it in Koala, 44 feet long with massive turning circle and a mind of her own when going astern!

I was asked to head down the channel from the marina to somewhere where I could put up some sail. We left the marina, got out into the channel and headed towards the space between the moorings and the docks.  Falmouth is a busy place with ferries going back and forward across the river, commercial docks, boatyards, sailing clubs and boats everywhere. The wind was light and with the ebbing tide, I headed for the open water between the docks and the moorings on the south side of the estuary.  At this stage, Tony and Arin were down below (more paperwork) and they reappeared as we headed into wind and hoisted the main a pretty patchy wind. Tony pointed to two mooring buoys and asked me to sail around them in a figure of 8. I tacked towards the shore (to get out of the worst of the tide), headed towards a moored boat and tacked a lot closer to it than the examiner expected before turning back out into the tide towards the next mark (racing experience helping here).  Another tack and soon we were bearing away towards our starting point.  I figured that if I could impress with sailing abilities early on, it would take the pressure off later.  Staying in control of the boat in tight situations was always going to help!  Once we were back to our starting mark, Arin took over and sailed around the same marks.  We headed out into Carrick Roads but the wind dropped so it was back to motoring.  Tony and Arin went below and I took us north.  We were looking for wind!

Pretty quickly, a few puffs started to appear and we were sailing again and we did a few “man-overboard” drills.  Tony then gave Arin a place to sail to and called me down below. Pretty soon, I was trying to remember all sorts of combinations of red, white and green lights (with the odd yellow thrown in for good measure). Then it was onto cones, balls, diamonds and flags before chatting about horns, bells and whistles.  I couldn’t remember them all – I was going to go over them the night before the assessment but that idea went out the hatch at 9 in the morning!  When I sail, I keep a laminated sheet n the chart table, with the common signals on it. If I see an unfamiliar combination, I look it up to be sure. At least I know where to find the information pretty quickly, if needed.

After what seemed like ages, we went up on deck and I took over the helm. We were at the mouth of the Fal Estuary, just west of St Anthony Head. Tony asked me to anchor, so we headed in under sail and anchored in about 4 metres off Little Molunan, close to the beach and sheltered in the light breeze.  It was well after lunch time! Arin and I went below and got our passage plans sorted.  We were on a flooding tide and Tony asked me what time we could get up the Percuil River, to the pool beyond Percuil Boatyard.   According to the chart, it would be after 4.30, however Tony told me to push it a bit – there was more depth than what is indicated on the chart, apparently.  Tony then chatted to both Arin and I about weather, asking about sources of information, forecasts and weather in general. We were given a scenario and asked about it.  I am pretty clued in with weather so was happy enough.  Eventually, 3 o’clock arrived, so we spent a while doing some more man-overboard scenarios until we had enough water to head up the river. I took over for this stretch, navigating while someone else helmed.

The Percuil is beautiful – up past St Mawes with its tiny harbour and narrow streets, past some pretty impressive houses through the moored boats to where the channel narrows. Eventually, the river winds past the boatyard and around to the last of the deeper keeled yachts on moorings. This was as far as we we going in Lilly-Anne. We turned in the flow and headed back down the river. Once we were clear of the moorings we did a few more exercises – sailing up to and away from moorings.

Arin then took us north, towards the Truro River, I went back down below with Tony and chatted through the passage plan, which was pretty straightforward. We went way up the river, past Malpas, all the way to the Quay below the sill at Truro. What a river – wooded banks, old ferryman houses and a chain ferry across the river. Julie, living locally, knew all the stories and filled us in on the area.  Lord Falmouth, the ferryman and and his family and the well known alternative to the AZAB (Azores and back) Race – the TAB (Tesco and back), from Malpas!

We headed back down the river, anchoring just off the main channel to wait for darkness.  A quick dinner and it was my turn to navigate down the river. Tom helmed whilst I checked the course. The river isn’t lit too well, with a few pontoons and moored boats as well as some huge ships, layed up. Eventually, we reached the Tunnaware Mark.  Tony asked Tom to keep us near the mark while we went below – it was blind navigation time.  I was given a mark to head towards so for the next while, I was down below, I was asked to navigate us to the Messack Channel mark.  I could tell Tom what course to steer, they could give me speed and depth information if I asked for it. We were on the edge of the main channel, the Messack Mark was on the 10 metre depth contour further down the Roads. I gave a course to steer and waited until the depth rose to over 15 metres, I changed course and waited e depth dropped below 5 metres.  this continued, past Pill Mark, with the channel changing from a roughly south westerly direction through south and eventually south eastern direction. As the course changed, I narrowed the depth range until we were as close to a constant 13 metres of water.  The Messack Mark sits in 10 metres, but we had a tide of 3 metres so I wanted to keep on that depth.  Tony stuck his head down below and asked where we were – I told him we should be approaching the Mark and he asked me to come up.  There is was, flashing green once every 15 seconds. Relief!

Arin then took over and had to navigate to a mark – I was on deck at this point, looking at the exercise from a different perspective.  Pretty soon, Arin had found the mark and we were heading back up the river towards the marina. My last task was to bring Lilly-Anne back in alongside.  It was after midnight.  It was done.  We hopped of the boat and Tony asked me to go for a walk up the pontoon for a debrief.

I was curious as to how this would go.

“So how do you think that went?”  Classic (if a little old school) opening.  I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity.

Of course I told him I thought that it was clear that it had gone really well, I had thought out loud for the duration of the assessment, I knew where I was and where I was going, I understood what was going on and although I may not have instantly recognised all of the lights and sounds I was asked, I could quickly find out.  If saw unusual navigation lights or heard sound signals that I didn’t recognise, I had a sheet that I could refer to, I knew what the crew were doing, I had asked them to do all of the helming (except for close quarters manoeuvring) when I was in charge and asked them to do all of the sail hoisting and control.

Then it came, confirmation of what I expected and relief all round.

My thoughts………well, it’s weird being assessed for a offshore qualification and never going much further than a few hundred metres from shore, heading up estuaries, approaching and leaving marks and pontoons, anchoring and finding bends in contours in the dark.  Buy I understand why.

Tony asked a lot of questions and quizzed us on various scenarios over the course of the day, these are the ones I remember and are what I felt I should have known about (you may or may not be asked any of this.

  1.  Tony asked me to give a personal and boat safety brief to him.  He wanted to know a lot of details about life jackets, how they work, how they inflate and how to check that they are in-date and working.  He also asked a bit about harnesses and life jacket lights.
  2. Fire extinguishers – their locations type and how to use them. He specifically asked me about automatic extinguishers in the engine compartment and how they are activated.
  3. Safety brief.  It is Tony’s feeling that we should always work from a written brief to make sure we cover everything.
  4. Flares – what types are on board, when and how are they used and what is their range.
  5. Sea-cocks, location, purpose and instruction to crew (never turn them unless instructed).
  6. Engine checks, specifically belts and water.  I was asked about the cooling system, how it works and the sequence of checks to do if there is no water coming out of the exhaust.  I was also asked about the various belts and how to check whether they were too tight or loose.
  7. First aid kits and what they contain.  I was asked what thought was the most important item in a kit, I said plasters and he was happy.
  8. prop walk and prop wash, pivot points going ahead and astern and the effect of wind and tide on the boat whilst manoeuvring
  9. What are the three most important Collision Regulations that relate to sailing vessels?
  10. I was asked a range of sound signals – one, two, three and four short blasts, one and two long blasts.
  11. I was asked a range of lights and shapes combinations – for a vessel not under command, making way, for a vessel trawling, a vessel constrained by draft, a vessel at anchor, a vessel aground and a vessel engaged I pilotage duty.  I was also asked the flag signal for a vessel engaged pilotage duty.
  12. Sources of weather information, times of issue by the met office and how to find details of inshore forecasts on the VHF. Different classes of weather forecasts, including the information that a Class A forecast contains compared to others.  I was given the following scenario – you plan on leaving Falmouth at 5 pm to sail to L’Aber Wrac’h (this was my passage plan) but on the evening before there was a SW gale, which dropped off by 4 am. What weather and sea conditions would I expect and what are my options.
  13. Passage Plan. Tony asked me to run through my plan.  I spoke about standard and secondary ports (Brest / L’Aber Wrac’h), distance, speed, planned arrival time (I worked back from this to get my tidal offset), arrival on the French coast, prominent lights and buoys, entering the estuary, pilotage plan for leaving Falmouth and from the Libenter mark up the estuary, ports of refuge on either side, watch system, channel traffic and weather forecasts.  I was about to go into detail about food, fuel and safety on board but was asked to stop as “it was clear I had done this a few times before”.
  14. I was asked about depth at various places quite a few times during the day, not just up the Percuil and Truro Rivers but also at various places around Carrick Roads.  This was straightforward enough as we were at a standard port on springs. Julie did a really super job of producing a tidal curve with depths every half hour  the entire day. I had a notepad with the tidal rise for every hour through the day.
  15. i would recommend writing down some sort of pilotage plan for any leg of the journey you are given and stick it in your pocket.  I did this for the Truro River and didn’t need to refer to the chart for the different lights and bearings.
  16. Although it is a “Yachtmaster” assessment, there is very little emphasis on how to get the best from your crew, noting about communication, or passing on knowledge. I was surprised.

Final bits of advice – make sure that you have well over the minimum amount of experience asked by the RYA, really understand the environment (wind, waves, weather, tides), know how boats work and for the duration of the assessment, think out load. The examiner and crew will know what’s going on in your head and what you expect to do and happen. I like people doing this when I assess them, so I do it too.

……..and that, as they say, is that!

It maybe 30 years after I thought about it but I’m glad I did it!

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on my Yachtmaster (Offshore) assessment

    1. Its a place in France thatch avenger visited,but I hear it’s great. Maybe someday!
      I hope that you had a great trip. MegB still in the club, sailing regularly (although not in my ownership)
      Keep well!

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