4 months of camping on the water

Where to begin? It’s been a long time it seems since completing my Yacht Master assessment in early June. I’ve been trying to get some time to sit and reflect on the whole thing and today sat on a train to Dartmouth to jump on a very lovely 60 foot Cutter for a week seems like the perfect time.

There are so many factors involved in the whole intensive Yacht Master course, physical, a need for strength, stamina and restraint, emotional control and patience, intellectual, technical and practical skills and finally an ability to live in very confined conditions with relative strangers. It’s very hard to know where to start when summarizing the experience. I’m sure many would say it’s just a jolly on a boat for four months with like-minded folk, which to some extent is true, however the serious (for me) investment of time and money, separation from a very comfortable home life and wife with a goal of developing a career as a professional skipper kept me very focused throughout. This focus helped and hindered me in many respects. Not everyone on the course shared common goals as was to be expected, or enthusiasm, which did come as a surprise since the course isn’t compulsory!! The diversity of characters and abilities really did provide a great learning experience.Rich, with welded on Americano

I’ll break this thread down into sections based on the different aspects of the course, not a chronological summary (I did post some info as we went along, not as much as I would have liked, but time, energy and access to the internet did dictate this).


The overriding thing I’d say is that the PST course at Hamble is not there to teach you how to sail a boat. I know that sounds strange, but really its there to develop an ability to skipper (with all that entails). I am not saying that basic sailing skills are ignored, but if you want to learn about the finer points of sail trim and making a boat go fast, look elsewhere. What is absolutely drilled in the course is an ability to safely navigate anywhere and handle a boat in close quarters under sail and power and to develop an ability to work as a team in doing so. They don’t sell this as a ‘sailing’ course in my view, so they are consistent in what they are offering and delivering. I think it’s truly excellent way to instil key skills to the point they become second nature.

There are really three things going on with the PST course. Whilst the end result is of course consistent with the syllabus, the differing elements sometimes conflict along the way.

Firstly, to the absolute credit of Hamble School of Yachting (HSY). Their ‘way’ of doing things and their attention to making sure you can handle the day to day things a boat and crew can throw at you is utterly excellent. There are a million different ways to do things on a boat, HSY’s is one, BUT it works and it works very well whether you are a seasoned sailor or a total newbie. This single solution approach is often the criticism thrown at schools offering ‘fast track’ courses, but I argue that the principles instilled at HSY are a starting point for your journey as a sailor. If you never sail any other way, with any other people it will work, but you WILL learn as you sail with others who do things differently, but equally (I can attest to this already) you might just teach an old dog a new trick along the way!

Secondly, there is the need to complete certain ‘tickets’ along the way. Naturally, the point of doing a course is to obtain a certification. Whether for personal reasons, or like me to enter an industry, the only national body in the UK that is recognised is the RYA. In my view there is a void here between the excellent quality of training HSY offer and the under developed and pretty poor courses the RYA offer.

I have thought long and hard about this over the past months and don’t say this lightly. I think, unless you are naturally very gifted, to be presented with RYA theory courses without reading a long way round the subjects (like navigation, weather, collision regulations) almost ignoring the course materials supplied you’d come out a very poorly prepared skipper indeed. This is doubly frustrating if you intend to enter the industry and want reference materials to build a library. The RYA course materials are laughable. To build a library around the course requires substantial additional investment. Be prepared.

Simply understanding what it is you are being asked to learn, or in the case of practice questions answer is an exercise in translation. The materials present inconsistently and are often without clear learning objective. All that said and again to recommend HSY, the theory teachers on staff are excellent, well experienced genuine sailors who can fill in the gaps in the RYA trail.

I was lucky enough to have some spare time prior to beginning the PST course and spent a lot of time reading and writing notes on the key areas of study. For anyone considering an intensive course, if you want to take the theoretical side of things seriously and really understand them, I suggest you do the same. Ironically, the theory texts the RYA publish on weather and navigation are in fact very good. Why they cannot incorporate their obvious knowledge and ability into producing a structured syllabus and course materials is beyond me.

The final element (intrinsically linked with the second) is the need to build up candidates mileage to allow them to take the assessments along the way. The experiences learned in actually planning and making passages through the course are essential. Weeks of bashing about the Solent on twenty-mile trips are great for skill development, but there is nothing like a twenty-four hour sail away from land to make you realise what is important in running a boat. I referred to these week-long ‘distance sailing’ trips as work hardening experiences. Whilst never in a position of danger, using planning, navigational, sailing and living skills aboard at all times of day and night really do settle them into the core.


To plagiarise slightly,

Things you need to do to be a skipper:

Keep the water out of the boat

Keep the people in the boat

Don’t crash into anything

Get to your chosen destination (ninja level)

Get there on time (yoda level)

What else is there really?

Ok, so what do you actually learn? I should explain I joined the course with little yachting experience. I sailed for a time on dinghies inland some years ago, so my wind/sailing knowledge is OK, but I had no idea about displacement yachts or water that moved about, changed heights and wasn’t smooth. I had done one yacht trip across Biscay some years previously as a last minute crew, so I had some clue about being on a boat but not much as it was a pretty big catamaran. On that I’d lived on my wits, my ability to learn fast and remain calm in pretty awful conditions!

The course is run in modules, starting at ground zero mod 1 takes you to RYA day skipper, mod 2 up to coastal skipper and the final module prepares you for the Yacht Master coastal assessment.

The modules loosely follow the requirements of the RYA to complete the stages of comp crew etc, but go way beyond that in practical application. From the first day, you are out on the water for a week sailing mostly round the Solent getting to grips with all that entails. Loading and stowing the boat, preparing for sea, slipping lines, pilotage, passages, mooring up is all immediately brought to your attention. In our case the whole crew was essentially on the same experience level, some more practiced, some more confident, but it was all down to the crew of five to make it happen with the instructor there is guide and assist, not really to lecture. We were straight into night sailing, night pilotage and close quarters handling. The bar was pretty high, in fact I know we did things in week one that qualified coastal skippers shy away from unless forced. Night pilotage under sail up to Bucklers hard on a misty frozen night is not for some at all, yet we did this on our first evening on the boat. As I say, the bar seemed pretty high!

Starting in February, you meet the challenges of cold and damp immediately and learn pretty quickly to look after your living space. It’s notable as we prepared each boat from week to week our ability to create a working living space became second nature, but so did our disbelief at how badly others had treated the boats before we took them over. The discipline of knowing this is your home for four months, not just a few nights really helped and it’s something I’ve taken forward in all subsequent boats…it’s a great lesson.

Navigation and pilotage skills are developed throughout the course, starting simple, with small steps, you quickly develop a method that works and first principles get built on progressively throughout the weeks aboard. By the end of our time our teams ability to navigate and pilot the boat in the dark, or in ‘blind’ situations still fills me with great pride.

An area of great focus on the course is close quarters boat handling, especially under power. Like flying, the biggest risks in sailing are the take offs and landings. Moving 10 tonnes of flighty wind driven boat around a marina full of floating bank balances focuses the attention! The course really drills into you the influencing factors on the boat and how they affect how to approach and safely complete what for some are nerve wracking maneuvers in close quarters. This is another area where the systematic approach of HSY with a ‘system’ of evaluating the conditions allows you to plan an exit or entry to your best advantage to keep you safe. You may make a mistake, it may not go to plan, but you’ll know what factors are trying to force a problem and how to turn them to your advantage. Being able to safely move your boat around, with minimal fuss acting a team of helm and crew really is a great feeling. Especially when you have an audience of other crew around and they come over to say how well you moored up, or look in envy as you smoothly step off the jetty with a crew still smiling!

Safety is naturally a big area of concern for all on board. An on going process of drilling procedures both for active and passive safety on board makes looking after the boat, the crew and oneself second nature. Delivering and receiving boat briefings and making safety checks along with a huge focus on deck safety and man over board procedures are almost a daily occurrence. Watching other crews ignore basic lifesaving skills in and around the ports in the Solent really make me shiver now! Practical skills are backed up with a great one day safety survival skills day run on land (and in a pool). The guys that deliver this course have been there and done that in military environments and don’t pull punches on the seriousness of a sinking boat or man in the water. Practical skills in the pool bring home the need to be fit healthy and prepared for the worst. The biggest lesson? DON’T END UP IN THE WATER!


Right, as a pretty settled early forties married Yorkshire man, it doesn’t need over stating that I have opinions and don’t mind expressing them. I also listen however and react to social situations that are uncomfortable. Over the length of the course we had many very diverse characters on board with very different goals. All of us squeezed into 36 foot French yoghurt pots that were designed for expedience not comfort or living for weeks at a time. Often wet, always cold and tired, having or learning to muck in and allow rough edges to get knocked off was essential. For most of the duration of the course, we got on. Naturally there were moments for us all. Sharing living spaces, sharing cramped sleeping spaces often didn’t allow for much if any personal space. There was an overriding assumption that we were always a group, we ate, drank and did things together. To break out was sometimes hard, but usually essential for sanities sake.

You think you know yourself pretty well until you are placed in an environment like this. Character traits rise, other things fall away. What you think was important isn’t and other things become essential. It’s all valuable experience to anyone planning to do any long distance or regular sailing however. Holiday makers? Don’t put your selves through this, there is little point.

In summary.

From my point of view, the HSY PST course gave me the keys to a new career and a driving license. You won’t walk out of a course like this into a paid job of any worth, anyone who suggests otherwise is selling you something!! The industry (especially the delivery industry) will view you with skepticism and you are an unknown quantity. You need mileage and experience, not to mention contacts to get credible work. I chose to get involved with a very reputable Yacht delivery company. I am spending a number of months working for them as an unpaid first mate. Primarily to prove myself and start skipping for them, but also to build mileage and experience should I need to look elsewhere at the end of this time.

Its been a great learning experience all around, I’ve met some great people and developed a select number of very good new friends. Its changed me professionally in my outlook to managing people but equally something in me has changed too. Somehow, the stresses imposed on us all in modern Britain are less acceptable. That said, where I used to rant against this, I have learned to work around most of it and laugh at the rest with resignation. A small boat is no place for outbursts and self imposed stresses. So maybe it turned out to be a jolly in a boat afterall?

Finally, a huge thanks to:

Isabelle for putting up with six months of me away and a year of not earning

All the staff and especially the core of instructors at Hamble School of Yachting that work with the PST crews.  You’ve all become good friends and your efforts go way beyond whats required.

My cousin Stu and his understanding other half Jo, for a room and a washing machine on occasion. Not to mention a place to escape to when reality fixes were required.

Dennis, for being such a fun guy to be around. (Congratulations on your marriage and relocation) and Jack for being a bit nuts and making life a great laugh. I hope to see, drink and sail with you both again sooner rather than later.


Dartmouth to Largs on a Mystic 60.

10pm 25-07-12

Arriving in Dartmouth on Monday after a pretty relaxing train journey down country landed me on the wrong side of the river, with no phone signal at completely the wrong marina. Not a good start!! A kindly chap gave me a lift to the ferry (as the water taxi was out of action) and I was back on track.

I knew the boat was a potentially lovely ride, but walking down the pontoon, the view of the bow, it multitude of stainless steel and teak basking in the afternoon sun was enough to offset the inconveniences of the previous hour.

An evening in the pub getting to know the skip and deck hand was fun, both great people with lots of stories from on and off the water passed very quickly after a good feed. We awoke and began the job of inspecting and prepping the boat for the journey north. Some administrative issues held us off getting really into the job, but by 6pm, we were all but ready to go. So a trip for fish and chips, a couple of pints and we were set for a morning departure.

This morning, Dartmouth in summer is almost pretty enough to make me want to remain in the UK, almost. It certainly reminded me how stunning some of this country is! However, after a dash to the co-op for food for the trip we slipped lines and were off onto a glassy ebb tide that shot us west at nearly 10 knots for most of the day.

This boat is a dream! Although most of the day was spent under power on very slight seas, the lines and weight just make the motion so comfortable. Whilst the fit and instrumentation are dated, the quality of build shines through, the more time I spend aboard the more I like this Frer 60, built on the lines of a Mystic 60, but semi-custom. My experience of yachts to date isn’t exactly huge, but I can really see why this boat would have been the thick end of a million twelve years ago. Days like today make me think the move this new career is the right one and all those months in cold, wet, unstable French yoghurt pots was worthwhile.

Rounding The Lizzard this evening, the wind veered and picked up a little and we are now under main and engine in a northerly breeze well on our way to Lands end about on schedule at this point. I short warm front and sector passed over dropping visibility dramatically but only for an hour and watching the sun go down under the low stratus was a spectacle worth the damp atmosphere! Shame the camera couldn’t pull the light out.

Off to bed now for as much sleep as I can get before a 3am watch. This is my worst watch. A 2am or a 4am start I can reconcile, but 3am is just the middle of the night and it really hurts to get up! More probably grumpy writing to come in the morning.

Bit of a gap here as the opportunity to update didn’t happen on the boat. We had a very uneventful trip up the Irish sea with a light beamy wind ghosting us along very nicely. Heading north passed the IOM, the swell picked up thanks to the low pressure shoving about near Iceland, but that soon settled down as we headed up the coast towards Arran.

Overnight the wind picked up somewhat and came round to put us on a very swift broad reach. Reefed down in a F4/5 we shot up towards the Clyde, arriving at the mouth about 3 am as I came off watch. By the time I woke again at 6am to bring the sail down, Matt had pushed us up the river to the marina, so I woke to a lovely morning, cool but dry and we prepared the boat to moor up at Rhu, a small marina north of the Clyde near Helensburgh.

A thorough clean down followed breakfast and we were off the boat heading for the train by lunch time.

All told a quick and enjoyable trip on a boat that is capable of any crossing you’d care to throw at it. It would have ben great to take this on a much longer journey as it would be a pleasure all the way.

There are always more boats, destinations and opportunities out there!

Day Skipper, Been there….Done that!

It seems like some time ago already since we began our Day-Skipper theory course week.  This course is often run as ‘night school’ in the deep dark mid-winter, however in our case; it was a full time five day classroom session.

Prior to starting the whole PST course, I’d done a fair amount of reading around the navigation and weather subjects, as I was expecting a pretty high level of understanding to be required.  In retrospect, as this is the first level of classroom training the RYA offer, I think my expectations were way too high.  The purpose of this theory course is in my view to introduce the student to concepts, implement basic methods and lay the ground work for a longer term study of sailing.  As such, methods are somewhat simplified and the teaching is kept to a pretty simple level.

All things considered however, there is still a lot of information to take on, with a variety of disciplines, skills and a whole cross section of topics, so it’s far from a dull or slow experience.

A couple of days off over weekend and we were back aboard Sunday night for our seven day Day-Skipper practical training.  Normally, this is at best a five day course, but HSY (Hamble School of Yachting) extend this for the PST crews in order to really get the basics ‘home’.

The week covered all aspects of the subjects covered in the classroom.  Navigation, Pilotage and Passage Planning being foremost through the week, with a lot of time night sailing.  All passages were kept within the Solent for this week in order to maximise take-offs and landings (close quarters handling, pilotage, tidal calculations etc) which constitute the most essential elements of sailing

It soon became apparent that as a team we worked very well together, helping each other out and catching each other’s falls.  Despite the very close quarters living (more on this later) we all got on very well and the boat was always alive with chat and laughs.

The biggest challenge for me in the week was undertaking a night pilotage up the Beaulieu river to Bucklers hard.  We’d been up there previously, but this was the first time one of us had planned and undertaken the trip!  GULP!  Once again an exercise for me in managing my own expectations!  Overall it went well, with a couple of slight screw ups ably avoided by Rich our Instructor. We arrived in time for last orders at the Master Builder Hotel and a welcome nights sleep. (sorry, no night shot….way too  busy!)

Being in the Solent and not executing long distance passages meant we were all up and about at the same time.  There was little need for a watch system, with the exception of the ‘next skipper up’ below planning the next leg of the trip; we were all either on deck or below.  This leads to a pretty busy space.  The following week offshore on 12-14 hour passages, the logic of hot bunking and watches soon improved personal space and meant we were active some of the time, with genuine down time in between.  This went a long was to improving all our mind sets, even if it was a very tiring experience by the end of day three with no solid sleep.

The distance sail with Matt followed back to back with Rich’s Day skipper week in the Solent.  We were immediately launched into multiple cross channel passages from the Solent-Alderney-Wemouth-Guernsey-Cherbourg-Hamble.

We battled the elements for much of the week, but mainly the lack of wind!  Sadly the diesel got a right bashing, but it did provide the opportunity to ensure our planning and navigation was spot on.

Wind or diesel, the challenge of the traffic schemes in the channel were the same.  I know it’s a cliché, but the sheer size of the container and tanker ships we encountered was and will remain staggering.  However, with careful thought and a good application of balls, we eventually ‘froggered’ our way passed many and noticeably as the week went on, our comfort zone for getting near these things reduced hugely.

Fog stopped play for us in Cherbourg for 48 hours, which was initially a welcome break, but did slowly begin to take its toll on us.  Sleep catch up turned into a party atmosphere, followed by a bit of cabin fever, but we eventually got away and out sailing again.

The return trip to the Solent provided us with at least some decent wind, which we’d been lacking for much of the week.  Having been so windless however, the sea state was very calm throughout…although those that had been out the night before and polished off a bottle of gin seemed to struggle!

Looking back on the three weeks of day skipper overall, I fail to see how anyone can truly understand and absorb the requirements and put them into use on a ‘part time’ basis.  The quality of experience to be had from a week in ‘school’ followed by a week putting into practice cannot be over stated.  For me it goes a long way to justifying the PST course, not only to myself, but to those that may claim fast track sailing courses don’t work.  I firmly believe all five of us are better qualified now to plan and execute a passage (cross channel or coastal) than we would have been doing this piece meal over winter followed by a holiday somewhere weeks, maybe months later.

One thing I would say in closing, read!  The time I spent before the course reading the texts about weather and navigation and subsequently about sail trim and boat handling (all RYA publications) proved invaluable.  If you are planning to undertake the Day Skipper theory, don’t rely on the ‘course notes’ they are next to non existent, I can’t believe they come from the same organisation that produces the great core texts on each subject.

But most of all, go and do it!

Some edited shots of the course and people

I’ve finally got round to editing some of the pics taken over the past few weeks of Module one.  The sources are from myself, John Bruce and Dennis Ross (I’ve yet to figure out how to credit them in PB), naturally I’ll claim any that you like?!

There are a LOT of shots that need filtering and then a bit of attention, so this will continue to grow.

PST Album here

The Reading Continues

I’ve spent this week mostly reading and making notes.

With the exception of a couple of very practical hands on open university modules over the passed two years, Its been a very long time since I had to read, learn and make notes on anything fact or theory based that needs remembering as a fact, not a process.

The process of marine navigation is pretty logical and involves a lot of common sense, geometry and vector maths.  All very applicable once I can get a chart & boat and start practicing.  Even coastal pilotage is nicely systematic.  There are some funny applications and abstract concepts involved in how navigation is derived, but they have little bearing (see what I did there?) on the processes.

Weather theory involves a lot of facts and events that whilst obvious in isolation, take a lot of what I consider abstract thinking.  Lots of terminology needs remembering, not something I’m great with until I get familiar with the reality.  Reading forecasts and applying real world weather is ok and that’s the main application at this point.  Taking a synopsis and creating my own weather picture and considering global patterns to create real weather is another matter..and something I think best left to computers to get wrong, they seem svery good at that in the UK!

By far the biggest tomb I’m yet to dust off is the “International Rules for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea”.  Says it all really!  391 pages of highway code for anything that bobs about on the briny.  Something to be nibbled at in bites, not chunks!  That’s next weeks task.

I hope, with a little review next week prior to heading south, I’ll be confident to get stuck in and spend the course lectures applying and refining this, rather than rushing to pick things up as I go along.

Now, All that’s left is to point the bath tub in the right direction and go somewhere!