|He smiled and told me we were in 10.1m of water. Relief surged through me. I was actually starting to enjoy myself.|
Passing the Yachtmaster in Skye
The train trip up the West Highland Line never fails to take my breath away, It must surely be one of the most breathtaking rail journeys in the world. I was not getting very far with the novel I had brought with me because the scenery was to beautiful to miss. The other reason I was not making much progress with the book was the friendly gentleman that was sitting beside me on the train. It turned out that we were travelling to the same yacht charter company which was based a short ferry hop from the end of the train line over to Skye. It also became apparent that he had made this trip many times before. Infact he said that the friends he would be sailing with had chartered from Isle of Skye Yachts every year for the last 15 years. This was good to hear because it confirmed that I had probably chosen the right company to help me prepare for what would certainly be one of the more nerve racking days of my life. The astute amongst you will have deduced from the title of this article that I was not going up to Skye to charter a yacht for a holiday, I was going there to prepare for my Yachtmaster Offshore practical assessment. I would be joining two other couples who had traveled up from England for the course aboard Sleat Queen, a Beneteau Oceanis 381. One of the couples would be taking the Day Skipper practical course whilst the husband of the other couple was also doing a Yachtmaster prep course (albeit without taking the exam at the end of the course). This worked out to be a good mixture of abilities and was particularly useful for the other Yachtmaster student who could crew for me in the exam and see what it entails.
Although Isle of Skye Yachts is primarily a family run yacht charter company they also run courses on their boats using local instructors. Our Yachtmaster Instructor could not be much more local. Jamie lives in an isolated home on Knoydart just the other side of the Sound of Sleat where amongst other things he builds classic boats and grows his own produce (much of which we experienced). He is a friendly, down to earth fellow with a great manner which makes it very easy to ask questions. Once the course was over he asked me very humbly if there was anything he could have done better. I could not think of anything at the time and still cannot fault either his knowledge or his teaching style. Just as importantly for me he knew the waters around Skye intimately. During the course he took us to all the anchorages and harbours that were likely to come up in the exam and made sure I was happy piloting the boat to them. I found this very useful because I had chosen to take my exam in a location I had not sailed before.
The Cruising Ground
For those that would like to get away from it all Skye has to be one of the top sailing destinations. The scenery is second to none and there are very few other yachts out on the water. Unfortunately many sailors don't experience this because they are put off from sailing in Scotland by the perceived problems of midges, rain and long distances. During the course I experienced none of these. A welcome bonus of sitting the Yachtmaster exam in the sheltered waters of Skye is that compared to other areas such as the Solent there are relatively few ships. This is a welcome relief as it allows you to concentrate on other aspects during the exam such as navigation.
On the day of the exam the examiner joined myself and the three crew at the pontoon at Kyle of Lochalsh. After going through a little of the paperwork and reviewing a passage plan that I had been asked to prepare my first task was to leave the pontoon and reberth on the tighter inside berth. When asked to back out of the berth I did a less tidy job than I would have wished. Although there were no major dramas it immediately made me more nervous. We motored across to Kyleakin where I was asked to pick up a mooring. This was a good opportunity to keep things simple and put into practice one of the labour saving tricks that Jamie had shown us during the week. The yacht has a large bathing platform so I happily reversed into the current up to the buoy so it was within easy reach of crew on the starboard quarter to pass the mooring line through. Again, I could have done a tidier job of this manouver if I had continued past the buoy a little, making the crew's job easier. I started to feel even more nervous. I was then asked to plan to sail to an anchorage to the north. We then sailed off the mooring buoy and made our way to pass beneath the Skye Bridge. I could see a minesweeper approaching the bridge quickly from the other side. Under normal circumstances I would have sailed under the bridge and out of the Navy's way given that we had ample time. This being my exam though I was way more cautious. I gave the command to go about so that we could kill some time by running for a short while until the ship had passed. We should only need to do one short run then we could come onto the wind again and pass safely behind the ship. What I had not forseen however was that the ship slowed as she approached the bridge and I then had no choice but to hold to my plan as we sailed in circles waiting for her to pass. I felt rather embarrassed about this and a bit more nervous. I had heard it said that it can be a good thing to make a few mistakes early on because it freed you up a bit. I could see the reasoning in that but certainly did not want to make any more mistakes. We continued on our way and had a lovely beat up to the anchorage where we dropped the hook. Whilst at anchor I was asked to calculate the depth at a spot of water to the south and sail us to it. We sailed off the anchor and I set about finding the spot of 10m water by using only clearing lines. I had to take a moment to clear my head so we could get to the correct position. When I was at my target position I let the examiner know that I thought we were there. He smiled and told me we were in 10.1m of water. Relief surged through me. I was actually starting to enjoy myself. The next challenge was one of my favourites. After doing an EP I was asked to go below and bring us into Plockton harbour blind. I have done blind nav before but was slightly taken aback by the myriad of contours outside the harbour. This was not a problem though. I had the confidence to make it work. I asked the helm to let me know the depth every cable and I plotted this on the chart using our true course. In return I gave him a few course alterations. after about a mile of course changes the examiner asked me where the red buoy should be. I answered that it should be about a cable to starboard. When invited to come and take a look I popped out of the companionway with anticipation and shouted "yes!" when I saw that it was indeed there. This was turning out to be rather good fun. We sailed onto a mooring and sat down to a rather nice meal. By the time we sailed off the mooring it was starting to get dark. Once out of the harbour I put together a pilot plan down below and returned to the cockpit with my notes on a piece of paper and set about taking some bearings. As I did so the examiner tossed the fender overboard into the near-darkness. I lept up, grabbed the helm, hove to and put on the engine. We furled away the genoa as we motored downwind and came onto a beat to pick up our hapless fender. I really enjoyed that too but I did have to redo my pilotage calculations which had blown away in my haste to save the fender. From then on all that was left was to answer some theory questions, do an example course to steer and then bring us back into Kyle where we motored alongside the pontoon. With the boat alongside the examiner called me into the cockpit for the moment of truth. He stuck out his hand for me to shake and I let out a gasp of relief. I'd passed. The debrief was short and contained no surprises. The main issue was that I had most likely confused the minesweeper by my actions when I had plenty time to cross under the bridge into shallow water out of her way. The exam had turned out to be an amazing experience but one that I am glad I will not have to undertake again.
A Few Tips
If like me you gained the necessary qualifications and mileage ages ago but have been procrastinating sitting the practical assessment then I would encourage you to go for it. There are a few things that helped me in the exam:
- Buy a set of navigation lights flash cards.
- If you are prone to forgetting to display the anchor ball then you may wish to stow it in the anchor locker as a reminder.
- Sail as you would normally. Don't over-navigate or make things more complex than they need to be during the exam.
Haste Me Back
I have nothing but good things to say about the service provided by the friendly staff at Isle of Skye Yachts and the way that Jamie had set me up for success. I am also particularly taken with Skye. In my view it is well worth travelling that bit further for such beautiful and sheltered cruising grounds. I certainly hope to return to Skye someday soon to show my wife and friends the beautiful sights. I already have the stops for a leisurely one-way sail around Skye planned.