Having brushed up on their theory, racing turned cruising sailors Liz Rushall and her husband Mark now put it into practice and tell you how to pass your Yachtmaster Practical exam

Having got through her Yachtmaster Theory, Liz Rushall shares her tips and hints for the Yachtmaster Practical 

It’s not often I wish to not be aboard a boat, writes Liz Rushall.

Liz Rushall has won national dinghy and keelboat titles, but currently cruises a 28ft classic called Ragdoll

Liz Rushall has won national dinghy and keelboat titles, but currently cruises a 28ft classic called Ragdoll

But in the dead of night, stressing about to what extent should I be using the instruments, when the examiner hasn’t said you can or can’t, and not being able to ‘chat’ with my crew as I would normally, and I was well out of my comfort zone.

This was after making myself feel a complete idiot from being unable to articulate the type of diesel engine, it’s cooling system and the location of the heat exchanger on an unfamiliar boat, and getting my words impossibly muddled up about flares and liferafts.

I was a bag of nerves.

Whilst I hadn’t committed any of the instant fail sins (running aground, involuntary gybes and hitting anything), I certainly spent the first night feeling broken.

Luckily, James Pearson, our extremely patient examiner asked many ‘helpful questions’ and allowed us to correct some of our verbal gaffs over the two-day exam.

Why do a Yachtmaster exam?

Having completed, and passed the Yachtmaster exam with my husband and brother, we are still justifying to curious friends the ‘why on earth, with all your experience’ we did it.

Mark, an Olympic coach, and I have raced successfully all our lives, and more recently cruised Ragdoll, our little 28ft long-keeled classic boat some respectable distances.

However, whatever our friends kindly say, we knew that following a few cruising errors in previous seasons, it was time to hit the refresh button and fill in some knowledge gaps.

The adage that you never stop learning in sailing could not be more true.

During our training, and more so during the exam itself, we certainly discovered our fourth Johari window – the stuff ‘we didn’t know we didn’t know’.

A crew and skipper sitting in a cockpit of a Dufour

Liz and Mark did their Yachtmaster Practical and subsequent Yachtmaster Offshore exam with Universal Yachting in Hamble. Credit: David Harding

Before starting the Yachtmaster process, we knew we were coming at the exam via a slightly unusual route.

We’d never done the conventional pathway of practical Day Skipper or Coastal Skipper exams.

In fact, despite winning a number of championships, we didn’t have a sailing qualification to our name.

Due to hectic work schedules, and our perhaps ‘assumed’ experience, we were steered towards doing a three-day ‘crash’ course ahead of the exam, with Hamble- based sea school Universal Yachting.

Our three-day Yachtmaster Practical training was probably as taxing for us as for our senior instructor, Clive Vaughan.

With acres of knowledge, Clive patiently drilled us through multiple boat-handling techniques.

Universal Yachting supplied us with a brand new Dufour 412 for our Yachtmaster Practical course and exam – a completely different experience to our wooden classic, with few electronics.

Leadership style

One of the immediate ‘culture shock’ challenges we all experienced was the expected leadership style.

When we race, whether as skipper, helm or crew, it is always a collaborative set-up. Barking orders rarely wins races.

Discussing situations, sharing thinking and playing to your team’s strength does.

However, to get us ready for the exam, Clive had to actively encourage us to direct each other.

Being so used to sailing together, it felt odd having to issue instructions and to ‘tell’ rather than share thinking.

A female skipper briefing her crew

Liz is used to a more collaborative approach to sailing, so needed to adapt to a different leadership style. Credit: David Harding

The exam leads you to a scenario where individual leadership is highly valued.

However, it felt very unnatural, and not how any of us would typically operate either in racing or in business.

In my case, it definitely began to affect my decision-making capabilities and confidence in myself.

I found it best to consider the role of skipper for Yachtmaster as a more managerial position.

For this to work, planning ahead was crucial so I was prepared to give my crew specific instructions when situations arose.

Clearly, being ahead of those situations was a key as was coming up with a step-by-step plan for my crew in a variety of situations.

Berthing skills

In a short space of time Clive taught us new techniques for berthing a modern, high-sided, 40ft yacht.

With its high topsides, shallow forefoot, deep fin keel and spade rudder, it naturally seeks the wind when going astern.

Reversing up-tide and upwind into a berth is amazingly easy, and is a skill suited to this boat.

However, this manoeuvre is simply not an option in our long-keeled Ragdoll, as she exhibits very limited manouverabiility when going astern, while in the more modern, fin-keeled Dufour it was a dream.

As such, using just a stern line we could then motor forward with the engine to bring the bow in, rather than a spring.

A yacht being reversed into a berth during a Yachtmaster Practical

Liz and her husband Mark were not used to reversing into a berth but it proved a very useful technique and would be especially handy when sailing short handed. Credit: David Harding

It’s a brilliant technique if you are sailing shorthanded, but not one we had ever used before.

We practiced a lot of going astern and parking scenarios, which left me puzzling why I’d spent so much of my sailing career using springs as a sure way of getting our little boat on and off the dock.

What is obvious, however is that, once we are back onboard Ragdoll reversing onto a pontoon berth may be that much harder.

Going astern is always going to be tricky on a long-keeled yacht where prop walk has a much larger influence but there are conditions in which it will work for us and the ease of using the engine to pull the bow in will certainly make it worth the practice time.

A yacht being berthed during a Yachtmaster Practical assesment

It is easier, when shorthanded, to make off the aft mooring line and then use power ahead to hold the boat in to the berth. Credit: David Harding

As ever, we need to spend a little more time finding what works best and when.

The key is to try different options on our boat in a variety of scenarios to better understand what she will and won’t do, and how she differs to other boats.

Inevitably, you cannot simulate every scenario, and switching from training mode to exam mode was tricky too.

During the Yachtmaster Practical, one of us had to park the boat on a crowded outer hammerhead pontoon with a strong crosswind.

We’d been so drilled into our new mooring techniques, it took two failed attempts before the realisation that it was OK to do it the way we’d normally do, with a spring line!

Close-quarter manoeuvres

We’d all been advised in an exercise not to turn this boat on the spot using just small amounts of forward and astern, something we always do to turn our long-keeled boat in a tight space.

Faced with a tight turn in a marina, with cross tide, my decision making fell apart.

On a long-keeled boat that carries her way for ages, there needs to be much more momentum and water flowing over the rudder to generate the turning moment, whereas on this boat, a combination of prop wash over the rudder and lack of full keel could turn her around smartly.

Manoeuvring astern, focus will be on where you are aiming, but don't forget to check what the wind and tide are doing to your bow.

Manoeuvring astern, focus will be on where you are aiming, but don’t forget to check what the wind and tide are doing to your bow. Credit: David Harding

It was an alien experience to be relying on engine and fenders to come into a berth and stop.

I was still not used to how much quicker a light, fin keeled boat could be made to turn on the spot by putting the helm hard over and giving the engine some revs, and we tended to be too tentative applying engine power.

In hindsight, taking a break between our Yachtmaster Practical course and the exam could have given time to let new knowledge sink in, and to practise it in different scenarios.

Night passages

Both the Yachtmaster Practical training course and the exam were a brilliant way to challenge our sailing skills.

Lacking an autohelm, we don’t do many night passages.

When we do it tends to be into harbours we know.

We are very familiar with sailing racing dinghies out of strange harbours all over the world, racing in fog and some very extreme conditions.

However, it’s a very different experience when cruising.

Sailors looking at a chartplotter on board a yacht

Ahead of our night passage, looking at sources of likely light pollution was helpful for situational awareness. Credit: David Harding

Completing a number of night passages and pilotage exercises during the Yachtmaster Practical was so useful.

It’s much easier to recognise lights on vessels and buoys for real, rather than pictures on a page, but to have brushed up on the lights for fishing vessels, and commercial vessels other than the most basic – restricted in ability to manoeuvre, constrained by draught and towing – really paid dividends in making sense of what we saw on the water.

We also spotted some very curious light combinations, including sailing yachts impersonating a fishing vessel by displaying both masthead tricolour and steaming light and it was helpful to decipher what was what.

One of the biggest obstacles on a close-in night passage is light pollution.

Close to shore there were many other uncharted lights to contend with.

A big lesson was to look beyond the chart markings and having a sensible check of what is on the shore near where you are going to be sailing before you set off so you have a good chance to anticipate potential confusion.

Blind passages

The exercise I’d been most dreading was the blind passage making.

You are navigating from down below, relying on your crew to tell you depths, speed and log readings.

My biggest issue is doing the maths on the hoof. The contours give you one number, the depth sounder another, and the height of tide another.

Under pressure, figuring out which subtracts from which promptly turns me into a gibbering wreck.

As it happens, during Yachtmaster Practical training, I managed to navigate pretty much exactly to the desired point using a bit of dead reckoning and some bad maths, so that was a huge confidence boost.

However, this is where I do take issue with a number of the Yachtmaster course books. The authors all assume a level of maths capability.

There’s no scope for those of us who have a touch of dyscalculia, a learning difficulty associated with numeracy.

Distance may well equal speed multiplied by time.

But I also soon realised that it makes things much easier if the time segments you are working to also need to be a percentage of the hour.

So, calculating positions every six minutes in fog allows you to divide your speed neatly by 10 to give you how far you will travel in 6, 12 or 18 minutes.

Having spent hours close to tears of frustration trying to figure out these calculations, I devised my own crib sheets that meant I could read off a percentage to use against each minute of an hour.

Fifteen minutes is therefore clearly 25% of an hour, 14 minutes is 23.3% and 13 minutes is 21.7, for example.

This crib sheet and others are something I will be using on my own boat to avoid future frustrations.

Mooring under sail

Other exercises included sailing onto anchor or mooring buoys.

Doing this downwind and uptide was something we’ve never had occasion to do in a race.

It’s more normally been a case of there’s no wind so fling the kedge out.

Dropping the mainsail well out from the buoy and using the headsail to steer in offered a great deal of control.

It was also very useful making a practice approach to give a good idea of how hard the current is running and from how far out we need to start scrubbing speed.

It was also particularly useful to set up a variety of clear transits so we had a good idea of actual boat speed on the approach as the log becomes essentially useless in tide.

You may decide to moor under motor most of the time, but I found the exercise trained us to have real control of how to place and stop the boat exactly where we want it and not rely on the engine.

Man overboard

Doing hours of man overboard exercises under engine and sail during our Yachtmaster Practical was brilliant, as evidently, we all needed some practice

Since the drill involves doing three or four things instantly, we were keen to work through techniques for short-handed MOB.

It was fascinating to quick stop the Dufour.

Rather than the conventional ‘figure of eight’, we learned to throw the boat into a tack, heaving to with the wheel hard over.

A sailor lifting up a fender from a Dufour yacht

The Dufour was easy to control under sail using the fill and spill method during our Yachtmaster Practical. Credit: David Harding

She happily turned on the spot, giving you time to sort yourself out.

We’re still not sure how Ragdoll will behave, although we’ve come away with new ideas to try.

It was certainly eye-opening how quickly our recovery times came down after only a few short attempts.

Getting hove to quickly was a key so that we could remain in sight of the ‘casualty’ and it also helps slow everything down when you have a number of tasks to complete under stress.

As with manoeuvring in a marina, we also found under sail the Dufour easier to scrub speed off using the ‘fill and spill’ method than we suspect Ragdoll will be, as she both carries more way, and requires more way to maintain steerage, but we will certainly be doing some practice on her to improve our skills.

Exam time

Switching between Yachtmaster Practical training and starting the exam, with just a couple of hours, was harder than I’d realised.

Suddenly, three days of Clive’s expert advice was switched off.

James explained the exam format, and how he would set us tasks, not give any feedback, just take notes. He also said we would make a lot of mistakes. And we did!

Within minutes we were on deck talking safety gear.

Despite hours successfully collecting our MOB bucket, now we weren’t just discussing recovery techniques, but demonstrating them with the examiner as our body on the dock.

It literally was in at the deep end and it continued relentlessly.

‘Question time’ highlighted that whilst I’d attended diesel maintenance and sea survival courses, clearly my memory hadn’t.

We were then into the sailing elements of the exam.

Liz Rushall on the deck of a yacht

Liz found the Yachtmaster Practical and subsequent exam stressful. Credit: David Harding

It’s a good test of practical scenarios both ashore and afloat, testing your knowledge and skills in a variety of difficult situations.

Having successfully managed to navigate our night passages, day two started early.

Whilst it was a relief to go sailing, it promptly turned into your metaphorical ‘worst ever day in the office’.

After a few straightforward exercises sailing on and off moorings, I was set the first passage from Portsmouth Harbour to Wootton Creek.

On route, the instruments ‘went down’, the MOB bucket went overboard whilst I was down below chart-plotting, then the steering cable ‘broke’.

Of course, the engine had ‘failed’ too.

It seemed endless, and hard not to wonder ‘am I doing the right thing?’

Fortunately, we sailed in with emergency tiller fitted without running aground or doing circles in front of the Wightlink ferry!

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The day continued and each one of us went through our practical exercises with yet more scenarios thrown at us on the way.

Just as you think about breathing freely, it’s time to be hauled below for more questions. Result!

My lights knowledge was better than my crewmates. But, we were all stumped by the exercise to interpret a radar chart.

We’d never used radar as we use AIS on Ragdoll instead.

In desperation, I even checked the Yachtmaster books I’d borrowed, but no joy.

At this point I was ready to volunteer to be the next MOB.

By the afternoon the breeze was pumping a good Force 6 off Cowes and my brother got his MOB exercise.

Despite being over- canvassed for the brisk conditions, the Dufour handled brilliantly, our bucket was safely retrieved with a bit of engine assistance.

But it really hit home that simply getting back to your MOB is only half the problem, and just how difficult full recovery onboard is in these conditions.

It was a huge relief to get back to Universal Yachting’s dock, and thankfully I parked the boat first time.

Looking in the mirror

We each had a really useful one-on-one feedback session with James, leaving us with a clear picture of our strengths and areas to work on.

We were seeking our knowledge gaps, and we certainly found them. Evidently for me, even having done courses like shore- based engine maintenance, how to do basic engine trouble shooting was something

I was weak on. I also found that my maths was an area that needed attention.

The experience highlighted what stress and tiredness can do to your ability to function ‘normally’.

Adapting to the pre-requisite to tell your crew what to do, and not discuss things, made if feel a bit surreal, but it does mean you can’t hide behind the knowledge of others, and is realistic if you are sailing with beginners.


Am I glad I did the Yachtmaster? Absolutely. Did it achieve my goal? Yes, it did, but not in the way I expected.

Having felt complete failures at the time, however, it was amazing to pass and come away with a clear idea of our weaknesses, and ones I hadn’t been aware of before.

There’s much we want to try on Ragdoll, and have already discovered that our ‘highly recommended’ MOB ladder is impossible to use, even in a flat clam.

The learning curve continues…

4 Takeaways from the Yachtmaster Practical

  1. Understand the engine: Don’t rely on having had a look at the engine manual and your notes from your diesel engine course. Make sure you know the location of the fuel dipstick and the coolant header tank, know how to tighten the alternator fan belt, where the fuel and oil filters are, how to bleed air out the fuel system and have a plan to troubleshoot if the engine stops or overheats.
  2. Understand the boat: Try to do challenges regularly onboard, such as taking away instruments and engine; it’s surprising how quickly knowledge escapes you in times of stress. Take your boat out and get to know her characteristics. Find an empty marina and spend some time pontoon bashing – try coming in forward and astern. You need to know whether you
    have enough steerage astern and other boat-specific characteristics such as prop walk one way or another.
  3. Leadership roles: Although we don’t usually sail with one person solely in charge it was interesting to have the exam take place under these conditions. It did highlight how little official pre-emptive trouble shooting we tend to do. It’s well worth having a variety of ‘what if’ scenarios pre-planned ranging from safety critical MOB drills through to more off the cuff situations. ‘What if’ plans will also be useful for night sailing where what you are faced with might look quite different to what you think you will see from your planning at the chart table.
  4. Cheat sheets: Struggling through much of the maths for blind navigation forced me to create a number of cheat sheets. Even for those who do not struggle with such things, I’d strongly recommend writing some out anyway. The basic maths for tide and depth calculations might not seem that hard but when you are tired and stressed there is nothing better than having something that allows you do a quick common sense check.