I woke up at 5:30 and showered. It was exam day. The other guys got up and I bumped into Brian on my way back from the bathroom later on. “Take the boat around to the fuel pontoon.” he said to me and walked off. After crashing before, it was nerve racking but I got us over there okay. After we were topped up, he said “Right, take the boat back into the pontoon – let’s get rid of those demons.”
We came around just fine and then I managed to mess up the angle and we drifted across without steerage – he had to take over – and we were tied up. “Right, take her out and then try it again.” he said. “Do you mind if I don’t?” I said, “if I can’t do it again then I am finished, but if I can do it then that won’t make me think I can do it – I have nothing to gain.” “Okay,” he said.
The other guys had a go and then he said we were going to go out and do some practice under sail on the river. I asked him if I could go back to bed – I’d barely had any sleep and was in a really bad mood. He said that was okay and so I lay down in the starboard aft cabin and listened to my mp3 player and didn’t sleep, but was able to relax for a bit.
I woke up just as we were sailing back to the marina. Stan managed to drop a winch handle into the water and Max tacked around and sailed back to it and Stan picked it up in a bucket. It was amazing.
Back inside the marina, Brian left the boat and told us to get it ready and so T, Max and I went to the Co-op to get some snacks for that evening. We would be examined out sailing for twenty four hours, from 5pm that day through to 5pm Saturday. When we got back they went and showered and I revised some of the diesel engine course. Stan and Barry had tidied up the boat and when Max and T came back I scrubbed the decks. Our crew member for the day showed up and he managed to end the first thing he said with “do you know what I mean?” which was a poor omen, surely? We had a complete stranger crewing for us and so, as we knew nothing about him, we had decided that we weren’t going to actually let him do anything. It would be worse for Stan and Barry the next day as they had two strangers sailing with them. The guy we had was a bit odd.
The examiner arrived all too soon and he went through our log books and checked our various certificates. He asked for one of us to volunteer to be first skipper and so I said I would do it. T also said he would do it, and we all just kind of looked at each other and the examiner said “Well, come on, make a decision,” and so I said “I’ll do it,” and looked at T and said “if that’s alright?” I was asked to sail us to a buoy on the opposite side of the estuary. He said to motor around to Gillingham and then raise the sails. I gave a safety briefing and didn’t include my “Have you ever been in a fire!?” line. I also forgot to mention where the first aid kit was.
The school’s other boat was berthed next to us and Sam was on deck watching me take the boat out. If I screwed up taking the boat out, I would fail. I had the stern and bow slipped and drifted forward into the forward spring which turned the stern out and I motored back slowly. The bow was being blown across to the other boat and so I had to reverse out the entire way past all of the other boats. We were drifting ever so slowly towards to the line of boats, I could see Max and T tensing up, but I ended up clearly all of them. We came into the lock and I stopped the boat and we tied up. I went down below and downed a couple of glasses of water because my throat was so dry. We came out of the lock without incident and I motored us around the corner. Max and T were looking at me as if to say “why are you not raising the sails?” and so I explained that he had told me not to. We had been drilled so many times that you need to raise the sails as soon as possible.
At Gillingham Reach we raised sails and pottered along down the river, gybing, and it was all at a painfully slow pace. No one was speaking, everyone was tense, and I was the most nervous I think I have ever been. I asked T to take the helm and went below to check the chart. I was told off for having someone else on the helm. “You need to be at the helm for every tack and gybe, if you are skippering,” the examiner said. This was contrary to all of our practicing and was another worry.
It was hours until we got out into the estuary and I just felt worse and worse. As there wasn’t really anything to do, you just felt like everything you did do was being analysed and dissected by the examiner. He asked me what my plan was and so I showed him and he suggested that I go down the channel instead of tacking across the estuary.
I changed my instructions to the helm and the examiner asked me for a course to steer for the buoy. I went below and my mind went totally blank. When you learn chart work, a course to steer is the third thing they teach you and I couldn’t remember how to do it. When you have tide, you can’t just point at what you want to sail to, you have to come up with a heading which takes into account how and by how much the tidal stream will affect your boat’s track over the water. I just kind of drew a triangle on the chart and the examiner was not happy. “I know how to do this stuff,” I said to him, “I am just really nervous!” He left me alone again and I just stood there and was so close to asking him if I could end the exam right there and then. This was the worst I had felt during the last three months. I was so used to not worrying about anything when I was skippering the boat, and I had nothing in me to deal with the nerves. I was close to tears and, T told me later, “visibly shaking”.
Taking a deep breath, pulling myself together, and carrying on was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, but I did it. I plotted the course, gave the heading to the helm and we were able to sail it with the wind direction. There was a huge boat at anchor and we were creeping closer and closer to it. I thought the buoy was behind the boat. There was a buoy over to our starboard side and so I took a bearing of 035 degrees to it. I went below and drew a line at 035 degrees from the buoy to our CTS and saw that it met. I went back on deck and said to the examiner, “I think that’s the buoy.” “Well, is it or not? It’s no use thinking it is!” “That was a figure of speech,” I said, “that is the buoy.” “How did you get that?” he asked, “If you take a back bearing from that buoy behind us, you would know that was the buoy.” I explained what I had done and then said “It’s called a rolling fix.” “Very good.” He said. When I had done my theory with Nomad Sailing School, the instructor had taught us rolling fixes – how to plot your position just using one thing and matching it to your ground track – he had said to us “It’s not something you need to know, but I think it’s quite fun.” I should have used the bearing from the buoy behind, but I couldn’t think straight and by using that one thing I managed to save that exercise and seem a little bit like I knew what I was doing.
Next he asked Max to take us back to a mooring buoy in Queenborough for the night. I was so relieved not to be skippering and kept on muttering to the others about how I had f**ked it and I had definitely failed. Max had to take us back in the dark and the wind picked up and we had to reef the mainsail. This was done in an ugly way but the examiner was down below and missed the whole thing. There was another tense moment when the examiner called Max up on deck and asked him what was ahead of us. “It’s the power station?” said Max. “No, what’s that over there?” he asked. “The VTS building?” said Max. “No, in front of that.” He asked. There was a huge ship at anchor ahead of us. I could see it under the head sail because I was sat on the port side of the cockpit. “Oh, a ship coming out that’s just been announced on the VTS?” asked Max. The examiner kind of mutter a bit and went down below and we tacked around it. Max was destroyed after that and he was convinced he’d failed as well. I later learnt that he had just made up his course to steer and he hadn’t actually had time to do it. We weren’t in danger at any time as we would have realised it was a boat at anchor before we hit it, and it wasn’t moving and so wouldn’t have hit us. It just looked really, really bad and didn’t help Max’s nerves at all. “Oh well, we’ve f**ked it now,” we said, “so maybe now we can relax?”
The examiner wasn’t fussed about seeing Max sail up to a buoy and so he just motored. It was past midnight and so we didn’t bother eating anything. T was given a buoy to sail to on the other side of the estuary in the morning and then to sail to anchor in Stangate Creek. He stayed up late doing his pilotage and Max and I stood on deck at the bow dissecting just how bad things had gone. T never got up in the mornings and slept all of the time and I didn’t fancy his chances in the morning. To confirm this, when he went to bed, he asked me to wake him up. It was past 1am when we went to sleep and I fell asleep immediately because I was mentally and emotionally exhausted.
I was up early and woke T up at 6:30am like he had asked. He sat chewing cereal and asked me to do an engine check. I panicked that the examiner would look over my shoulder and ask me questions about the motor which I would be able to answer but he didn’t seem to care. I had worked out that Max and I had both skipper and T’s passage was probably twice what we had done and so we probably only had another turn each and that would be it.
We sailed off the mooring and across the estuary and found the buoy and then back to Stangate. All through the passage the examiner was having us down below doing theory papers, one at a time. I screwed another CTS, smashed an EP, smashed a secondary port calculation (for only the second time ever), and this carried on with each of us, our faces becoming darker and darker with each time we returned. T smashed his man overboard, but the examiner didn’t seem impressed or unhappy.
I was then asked to sail off the anchor and take us around to Half Acre Creek. This was a very narrow channel with a buoy at the end, it shallows to only just over a metre at the sides. I remembered Stan doing this during the prep-week, but had paid no attention to how he had done it. I worked out the bearings but wasn’t all that clear. There was a man overboard during this passage and I turned the wrong way, like I always do, gybed (which you should never do) – but T saved me by hauling in the mainsheet so it looked like that was what I had meant to do. An accidental gybe is an automatic fail.
I took over the helm and the wind died and I saw the depth falling off and called for a tack – just as we started tacking, the depth alarm went off, but I had turned us around just in time. I went below and said to the examiner that I wasn’t happy with what he was asking me to do as the wind had died and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get us out, if I needed to. He came up, looked around, and said “Just sail it, the tide will carry us in.” I carried on, feeling out the depth, at about a knot. After a few minutes he came up and said “Can you see the buoy?” I said “Yes, to the right of that barge.” He said, “Don’t you mean the left side?” I looked around the sail and saw the buoy – I had been looking at the bow of a motor boat that was anchored. I carried on, intending to leave the barge on my starboard side, but he said that he was happy for me to anchor anywhere around where we were. I tacked, dropped the headsail, waited for us to come to a stop and then dropped the anchor. Later, when I looked at the chart, I saw that if I had left the barge to starboard I would have run aground. Brian had told us that if you set the depth alarm off then it is an automatic fail. I was well and truly screwed.
Max then had to sail us and anchor just around the corner. He had a man overboard and then the examiner asked him to pick up an object under sail. He managed to run over the fender but, because the examiner wasn’t paying attention, I was able to pick it up when it popped up out of the water beside me. After that, I stayed below and did theory papers. He then asked us to motor to Gillingham Reach and do some more work with buoys. I got caught down below again with theory papers and so didn’t do this either. Before we knew it we were on our way back to the marina.
I was given one last Collision Regulations paper but I had nothing left to answer it with. I was thoroughly exhausted. I managed to answer all of the stand on and give way questions but couldn’t remember the night lights. The paper was in black and white and so the lights just had an “r” or “w” to denote their colour and this just threw me. I couldn’t remember the sound signals either.
He had T ferry glide us on to the waiting pontoon and then said that, as I had got us out of the marina, one of them would take us through the lock and the other would berth the boat. Even though I had already failed, I was so relieved. We tried to keep each other’s spirits up and just made a joke of the fact that we had all sailed so badly. It was probably the worst we had ever been.
T forgot to raise the fenders for the lock but we blagged this. While we were tied up waiting for the lock to empty, I said to Max, “How I failed my Yachtmaster.” “What?” he said. “I have the title now, if I do decide to turn the blog into a book.”
Max then took us back on to the berth. There was no wind and he pulled it off. This was the most difficult manoeuvre of the day.
As we tidied up the boat, he asked us to go and speak to him one at a time. I went first. He said that he was happy with my sailing, skippering and sail trim, but I had failed the Col Regs paper and he couldn’t, in good conscience, pass me for that. He said that he would give me a “partial re-exam” which meant that I would just have to re-sit a Col Regs paper in the next 30 days and then he was happy. I was in shock. I wouldn’t have to sail again!
Max passed, T passed and then we passed the boat over to Barry and Stan and their crew for their exam. We showered and shouted and laughed at each other over the cubicle walls. Max had said I could stay at his brother’s that evening as I had been planning to stay at the marina and wait for Barry and Stan to come back but Brian wasn’t around and the sailing school was locked up. We decided to go for one last beer at the “Ship and Trade” before we left.
In the pub, Max said, “What about our f**king passage plans? He didn’t even ask to look at them?” “I know! And I reminded him as well!” said T. “He told me not to worry about it!” We all felt thoroughly deflated. For all three of us, it was the worst we had sailed and yet we had all passed (we all agreed mine was actually a pass). It was a hollow victory. We had a pint each in disbelief.
I confessed to them that I had no idea what the different points of sail were. They just both looked at me. “When we were sailing up to the buoys on the first week and Brian kept saying – just sail up to the mooring buoy on a close reach, filling and spilling as you go – I had no idea what he was talking about and that was why I couldn’t do it.” “Dude, there’s like four things,” said Max, “Close-hauled, close reach, beam reach and broad reach. That’s it!” “Oh,” I said, “that makes sense – I thought there was about seven…”
We went out in Canterbury that evening and got “pirate drunk”.