Racing turned cruising sailors Liz Rushall and her husband Mark go back to school to brush up on their Yachtmaster theory

Liz Rushall shares tips and hints for passing your Yachtmaster theory course

‘Why on earth are you guys doing your Yachtmaster?’ was the question our friends repeatedly asked. ‘Surely, you know all that stuff?’

We’ve both sailed since childhood, competitively racing dinghies, then keelboats. Sailing is our work and life.

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 Honeybee called Ragdoll

Mark is a British Sailing Team coach, we’ve both won championships together and with others, and raced keelboats offshore.

In between times, since 2000, we’ve cruised Ragdoll our 28ft classic Honeybee, from Emsworth, having slow adventures around Brittany, Normandy, and the West Country.

Generally, we’ve arrived on the day we had planned, if not quite always at our estimated time.

Although I did my Yachtmaster theory some 20 years ago, it’s just like I have a Maths O-Level. It’s still a mystery to me.

Sitting the course at night-school, during an intensely busy job, with a bunch of powerboaters talking jargon knowingly, it was as if I was reliving the horror of maths at school.

Needless to say, as with my maths, I battled through the exam and unfortunately not much of it stuck.

Meanwhile, Mark learned his navigation on the hoof, cruising on friends’ boats during his student days and he is self-taught.

Good at all things involving science and numbers, he was always a bit dismissive of things like compass deviation.

We had a little hand-held GPS, a Walker trailing log, and more recently a very small detachable Garmin chartplotter and Simrad AIS. It all seemed to work – we were fine.

What could possibly go wrong?

You never stop learning

The real answer to the question ‘why do our Yachtmaster’ was a wake-up call that came last summer.

We’d had a hectic few months, working late and trying to fit in our summer cruise around Mark’s Olympic coaching commitments.

We were both tired and needed a break.

Mark plotted our Channel crossing.

Normally I try to get involved and have a crack at the passage plan too, but it takes me ages.

Making sense of passage planning, including tidal heights and gates, is much easier once you've had a Yachtmaster theory refresher

Making sense of passage planning, including tidal heights and gates, is much easier once you’ve had a refresher. Credit: Liz Rushall

I helped a bit with the tidal streams (which I thought I was good at) and had a quick, over-the-shoulder look.

We decided to head for Cherbourg, to have options.

We dismissed the idea of heading straight to Saint-Vaast, as we’d anticipated a four-hour wait for the lock gates – tedious after a long crossing.

We left Chichester Harbour early, although I wanted to go even earlier.

As soon as we had popped out of the harbour, the wind clearly was not as forecast. It was more WSW than west, so not the reach we had hoped for.

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We were keen to get to France, however, so we pressed on.

It was a big spring tide, so we expected to get swept hard eastwards and then back westwards.

We reefed early, anticipating the wind against tide effect as we got towards France.

But it was a horrible sea. Our little boat was sailing beautifully but struggled to keep to our estimated speed.

We were consistently too far east of our course, even after the tide had turned, and the tide didn’t push us as hard west to Cherbourg as had been expected.

Still behind schedule, the water didn’t flatten out when the tide turned east again.

A man plotting a course on. chart during a Yachtmaster Theory course

How to calculate position, estimate time of arrival and course to steer is all easily forgotten in a digital age. Knowing how to extract this information from your chartplotter is also crucial

Now very tired from hand steering, less than two hours from Cherbourg we had to concede that we simply could not punch upwind, with or without the engine.

The whole day had been a domino effect of one little thing after another.

So, as the sun faded, a quick change of plan.

We altered course for St Vaast, rocketing down on the tide, arriving just as the lock gates opened at 2300.

In the end, it was a good result, landing in our favourite spot, although it had been a very long day on a little boat with no self-steering.

After two days’ sleeping, having a sailing coach on board and racing in our blood meant, of course, a thorough debrief.

Naturally, over some lovely seafood and French wine.

We realised that our brains were not getting younger, and clearly there had been some ‘gaps’ in our navigational planning.

For a long time, I’ve felt aware that I didn’t have a complete handle on chartwork, despite owning a certificate that says I do.

The decision was made. Let’s have a crack at our RYA Yachtmaster and find out what we do and don’t know.

A course in ‘Johart’s Window’

Stage one of our plan was enrolling on an Intensive RYA Yachtmaster Theory course with the Emsworth School of Navigation – six days completed over two weekends.

Yachtmaster Theory tip: Using dividers to transfer a position line from a scale is easier on a small boat than lining up a plotter or parallel rules

Using dividers to transfer a position line from a scale is easier on a small boat than lining up a plotter or parallel rules. Credit: David Harding

Compared to my memories of scary night-school, the experience was a refreshing change.

Karen Dorontic, the principal, turned out to be an amazing teacher, with astounding levels of patience and a gift for not making you feel stupid, despite most of us coming up with some bizarre calculations and answers.

Her empathy with our learning process, the pitfalls and the mistakes we would make as we progressed through the topics and papers, was clearly based on her own experiences.

We had an interesting, mixed group on the course; a couple refurbishing their yacht to cruise around the world, two people who take people sailing on club-owned yachts, a Solent based cruiser, and my brothers.

One who, like me, did his Yachtmaster theory exam many years ago, the other a confirmed dinghy sailor now doing a bit more yacht racing.

Straight into the first session, and many of us were picking up some great tips.

Frequently things that sounded obvious, although only once you had been told.

For us, it was time-saving things, such as using the dividers to transfer positions from the side of the chart rather than struggling with parallel rules, and unlocking the delights of a Portland plotter.

Both were far more useful for our tiny navigation table. Then, there were the really useful ways of remembering things.

Who knew the cones on cardinal marks point to the black section? Easy.

Bizarrely, one of the most entertaining sessions was learning the Colregs (collision regulations).

We were in hoots visualising all those bells and gongs going off in poor visibility.

Yet once again, Karen gave us really helpful tips for working out lights, especially for towing vessels, which initially felt like a sea of colour we’d never remember.

The intensive nature of the course means there is a vast amount of information to process but without the luxury of a few days to absorb and reread what you are learning.

Almost inevitably, that meant some of us ‘hitting the wall’.

By day two of plotting estimated positions and courses to steer, I could no longer figure out Variation and Deviation.

The phrase ‘Error East Compass Least’ rapidly became another maths maze. Plus or minus?

The more I tried to think about it, the more it went wrong.

One candidate put his dividers down saying: ‘I’ve completely forgotten what it is I’m trying to achieve’.

I began to wonder how we’d ever got our boats anywhere around the Solent, let alone to St Malo, Chausey, and Tréguier.

Homework humiliations

With a lot of exercises to practise before the second weekend, it was hard to cram our homework into a busy fortnight.

Somehow we did, although mealtime conversation got down to the level of ‘what do two red lights mean?’ Riveting stuff!

The family WhatsApp was busy that week with shrieks of frustration as we all made chartwork errors.

Back in the classroom, we all compared notes. Everyone had struggled with their homework.

Mark didn’t get a single question right first time.

Liz Rushall studying for her Yachtmaster theory

Liz found it useful to identify areas of weakness ahead of her Yachtmaster Theory course. Credit: David Harding

Number blindness set in as we all plotted the wrong information, dates and data and tried to use the tidal height tables to calculate tidal stream rates. We’d done it all.

One man owned up to plotting the date as a position on his chart.

At least we were all suffering in the same boat.

Undoubtedly, it was a painful process to go through, as we all fell into the pitfalls and traps deliberately set in the exercise questions.

However, it was true that practice makes perfect.

Through comparing our random attempts with the answers, we were all learning from our errors.

The fog is clearing

With homework horrors behind us, our practice paid off as we went through our exam papers.

Everyone passing the Colregs paper was a confidence boost. Bang the gong!

While we waited to hear our results, the bemused conversation went along the lines of, ‘Were those yellow and red lights a Hovercraft that was fishing?

Or an air-cushioned, displacement fishing vessel?

Details of the RYA Yachtmaster Theory course

Officially speaking, the RYA Yachtmaster Theory course builds on that which is taught in the shore-based Day skipper course.

However, for most people who have sailed regularly, then jumping straight to Yachtmaster theory is unlikely to be a major problem.

The course covers advanced navigation techniques including: position fixing; course shaping and plotting; tidal knowledge including secondary port calculations; navigation in restricted visibility; Admiralty publications and electronic position-finding equipment.

Much of this will be familiar to even the most casual cruiser, but as Liz discovered, some of the specifics might well need a bit of study.

The meteorology tuition includes the taking and interpretation of forecasts, plotting of weather systems as well as weather prediction.

Further courses

Many people who jump straight into Yachtmaster Theory may find that it turns up a weakness or gap in their knowledge.

It can often be helpful to identify areas of weakness and consider a training course that might help raise your level ahead of a Yachtmaster practical exam.

Several schools offer courses on many of the subjects in a Yachtmaster exam and they can help you to improve your knowledge.

On the other hand, it might just be an area you devote more time to in the lead up to Yachtmaster Practical.

Know your COLREGS

The one area where there are no shortcuts are Colregs; you just need to know your stuff – and finding the time to learn isn’t difficult.

So far as the MCA is concerned, this is the crunch.

Examiners are encouraged to demand high standards in this subject, and there’s no reason for a candidate, knowing full well they are going to be grilled extensively on this, not to have the regulations solidly in their mind.

The best way to be exam-proof is to invest in A Seaman’s Guide to the Rule of the Road (Morgans Technical Books Limited (£12.50), available for modest money online or in any chandlery.

Place it prominently in the heads some months before the exam and devote five minutes of each day to digesting its contents.

The book makes it easy and should leave you with no excuse for not having a thorough working knowledge.

Aside from the certificate, we both got a lot out of the course. Mark felt that it reminded him what he did know and reinforced what he didn’t.

A woman skipper helming a boat during her Yachtmaster exam

Liz found she had forgotten some useful shortcuts during her Yachtmaster Theory course and put these into practice during her Yachtmaster Practical assessment. Credit: David Harding

Learning the processes and the ways to remember them, was so helpful.

For me, cracking the tidal stream rates was a revelation, and fears of secondary ports and tidal height calculations are mostly gone.

It will definitely help us explore places we never felt confident to visit because we have a long keel.

Karen’s many wise tips such as not trusting the electronics unquestioningly, and rapid plotting techniques will be invaluable.

Pilotage plans for new ports will now be a joy rather than a scrabble around through the pilot books.

We love our little boat, we sail her well, yet she will never be anything like the quickest boat on the water.

She needs all the help we can give her, which includes accurate navigation to arrive on time.

Having returned to the Yachtmaster theory I now feel that my confidence is up.

Mark and I now can’t wait for our next big voyage, to see what we’ve really learned.

Now there’s the small matter of our practical exams on the horizon.

5 key points to take away from our Yachtmaster Theory course

  1. Quick Plotting Techniques: Karen’s quick plotting technique really helps if, like us, you have a very small chart table. Simply plot your latitude using your Portland plotter or ruler. Then measure off your longitude along the top line of the chart from the nearest major longitude line eg 002°. Move the dividers down to in-line with your latitude plot and draw an arc on your first line
  2. Deviation and Variation: In the end, I solved this by learning to literally translate ‘error east/compass least’ and ‘error west/compass best’ into plain English! In other words: Compass
    error West – compass will be bigger than True; Compass error East –compass will be less than True. Learning how to use a pencil mark on the error scale on the Portland plotter to avoid the mental arithmetic entirely was another gem.
  3. Extrapolating tidal streams: One particular ‘lightbulb moment’ was calculating tidal streams. We’d only ever interpolated the tidal streams, estimating the rate between the mean spring and neap rates shown in the tidal atlas. The exercises highlighted that a big spring tide will be higher than the mean rate, and extrapolating this accurately makes a big impact on your course to steer.
  4. Remembering lights: Learning the lights felt really complex, but Karen taught us to look for the patterns. Remember a clock face for the number of flashes of the N, E, S and West cardinals (E is three flashes, South six, West nine and North continuous) is a great tip. For remembering the lights for towing vessels, adding an extra masthead light to represent the vessel it is towing, plus another for boat length over 50m, and another for tow length.
  5. Templates for secondary port and tidal stream calcs: Rather than working it out from scratch each time, Karen encouraged us to develop our own, or use standard templates for calculating tidal information. It helps reduce errors, speeding up the planning process and saving brain cells for other tasks.

Key information on the Yachtmaster practical and theory courses

Why Yachtmaster?

Although a Yachtmaster qualification is required for anyone planning to become a professional, thanks to the continuing efforts of the RYA, Brits who sail for leisure still don’t have to carry any proof of competence in home waters.

The certificate certainly remains the logical target of many a self-motivated sailor, though.

It also represents the icing on the cake for those looking for the reassurance of an external assessment.

Theory and Practical

Yachtmaster training can take place on a boat or in a classroom.

A shore-based course, either at desks in a school or via the popular Internet distance learning programmes, ends with a theory exam.

Success in this will help a student in later qualification upgrades, but it is not officially recognised.

The only certificates accepted by the authorities are those issued after an at-sea examination. To become a fully-fledged Yachtmaster, this practical test is the one that counts.

Coastal or offshore

In recent years, the old Coastal Skipper has been superseded by the new Yachtmaster Coastal certificate.

The qualifying mileage for this MCA-recognised qualification is 800 miles, with passage and night-hour requirements being regarded as fairly relaxed in comparison with Yachtmaster Offshore, which keeps its 2,500-mile entry level.

Either will serve as a proper Yachtmaster qualification and can be described as such.

Only the often-dropped suffix distinguishes the two.

Apply for ‘coastal’ and the examiner, recognising that you have less sea-time, will be more inclined to cut you a bit of slack.

The RYA has noted that most candidates are really only making ‘coastal-status’ passages.

In real terms this includes an annual trip across the Irish Sea, the North Sea or the Channel in a calculated weather window.